It's 6:30 on a Tuesday morning and the Calvert County Special Operations Team (SOT) is gathering in the lower level parking lot at its offices in Prince Frederick, Md. About 20 air miles away, the Search & Rescue helicopter crew at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station (PAX-SAR) is reporting for duty. And nearly 100 miles to the north, members of the Maryland State Police Special Tactical Assault Team Element (STATE) are also gearing up for a training day.
This particular Tuesday morning will see all three teams working together to plan and prepare for response to a terrorist incident at a nuclear power plant. This isn't really anything new for them. They've all done this before; usually once each year. What's different today is that the terrorist attacks of 9-11 are three months behind them and practicing to respond to such an attack has taken on a whole new meaning.
By 8:30, the SOT and PAX-SAR teams are sitting in a classified briefing at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. By 8:45, everyone is being briefed on helicopter safety and emergency procedures. At 9, the first team is onboard and in the air.
The helicopter circuit includes flying over the three primary pickup points for the Calvert County SOT followed by an aerial tour of the power plant, an examination of the alternate landing zone on the water side of the plant, and then landing. Upon landing, the team practices emergency egress from the helicopter under cover of M-60 machinegun fire provided by a member of the PAX-SAR crew.
In the past, this kind of training was "the fun stuff." Most police officers, whether assigned to special operations or not, would jump at the opportunity to go for a helicopter ride and tour half their jurisdiction from the air.
Not today. Sgt. Thomas, in command of the Calvert SOT, has a very serious and focused demeanor, realizing that this will be one of a few limited opportunities to perform aerial reconnaissance on a potential terrorist target. Perhaps more importantly, exercises that combine the operations of all three groups are rare and should be taken full advantage of. When a terrorist attack really happens, these men need to know how to work together, or people will get killed. This is not a game.
Even as early as 6:30, as the Calvert SOT guys gathered in their lot and joked with each other in a way that demonstrated their strong team camaraderie, they were thinking about the assignment. As they suited up at the power plant everyone was "getting their operations face on."
First Sgt. Runk, commander of the STATE team, and Sgt. Thomas huddle together talking strategy and shared responsibilities. Sgt. Thomas says, "Yeah; my guys can handle that, but we'll depend on your guys to handle this." The work is divided, responsibilities accepted, and two teams who have worked together before grow even closer and build their working relationship.
On a daily basis such cooperative arrangements are beneficial. In the post 9-11 world such work relationships are critical.
If the Calvert County SOT is called out for a hostage or barricade incident, the neighboring St. Mary's County Special Operations officers are also called. These two counties share the work and support each other freely.
And with good reason. With only 12 Special Operations officers on each sheriff's agency, they need both teams to adequately man a response to a hostage/barricade call. Both SOT groups have worked with the STATE team before and calling on assets from the military is not new to any of them. The only difference this morning is that a representative from the Army is on hand to observe and investigate the possibility of further training integration, involving the Army and civilian law enforcement units.
Cutting the Confusion
Joint training exercises, such as the one cited above, should be mandatory and should occur as frequently as possible in jurisdictions with high-risk targets. Further, they should include every unit that will play a role in the response to any attack on that target. Not doing so could mean miscommunication or counterproductive strategies between teams, which could lead to unnecessary officer casualities in the event of a real terrorist attack.
In this case, to eliminate such confusion, the one SOT group not on hand-the team from St. Mary's county-would most likely be tasked with other duties if there were an attack on the power plant. The participation of all teams in this exercise will ensure several things:
Those units most likely to be called in the event of a terrorist attack have all met each other. Even though they've worked together in the past, this allows for introduction of new team members and reinforces each team's awareness of the capabilities they share or that they carry primary responsibility for.
It puts all of the units together in the same room for the briefing that gives them necessary risk information about the target they are protecting, or responding to, and delineates what the power plant's security personnel expect from the responding units.
It presents the opportunity for potential planning flaws to be corrected. The Calvert SOT might see a challenge and assume that PAX-SAR can handle the perceived solution. However, if this solution is not played out in training, they might not realize until they are on scene in a true crisis situation that the solution is unworkable. If this occurred, the teams would have to improvise a different resolution.[PAGEBREAK]
Improvising is something every soldier and police officer can do, but every one of them will tell you it's important to minimize the need. Prior planning prevents poor performance. This exercise allows the teams to iron out every detail they can and train on it.
All involved learn something they didn't know before. You can never be sure what this will be, and it's often different for everyone attending, but each training exercise is a learning experience. The operators who attend this training will all walk away with some new tidbit that they've tucked away and will remember when they most need it.
If there is a negative aspect to this training, it's that the training doesn't occur often enough and that it is planned with common knowledge of the teams. Crisis response, most especially for the police special operations teams, is like anything else that police officers train on: the more often you perform the training in a realistic scenario, the more likely you are to perform properly in a real-life situation. "Training is bloodless battle and battle is bloody training."
If such training is to be of greatest value, then the only person who knows the exact date and time should be the team leaders. The rest of the participants should be put on alert for a general time frame. Then, on the morning of the training, the sheriff's office dispatch center should be paging, or calling, the team members to respond. The training should begin with that call-up.
Such a training concept may prove inconvenient, but it is more realistic. This wasn't a training exercise for a warrant service or raid where plenty of planning time is available. This more closely resembled a hostage or barricade situation that occurs without warning and requires immediate response from the teams.
By the same token, giving minimal notice to the teams is only practical if this exercise is done frequently enough to warrant it. If this is a once-a-year event that contains more classroom briefings than operational practice, then using it as training for response to a spontaneous event doesn't hold a lot of learning value.
It was heartening to listen to the team members talk about and with each other. While they obviously enjoyed poking fun at the guys on different teams, their other comments made it just as obvious that they shared a mutual respect. There is a Fraternal Order of Police, but the police special operations community shares its own fraternal bond and it's easily noticed when different teams interact.
Sgt. Thomas, prior to the beginning of the training exercises, had commented that the STATE guys were "pretty good guys," and "they know what they're doing." These comments are neither openly complimentary nor insulting. They are common everyday statements about some brother cops.
The less obvious but more meaningful compliments are paid in the course of the exercise itself. Calvert County SOT is the primary police spec-ops unit on scene and Sgt. Thomas has command. During the course of the helicopter flight, he invites the STATE team commander, F/SGT Runk, who theoretically outranks him, and depends on his input for evaluation of potential obstacles to the successful completion of their shared mission.
The fact that Sgt. Thomas asks, and listens, is a compliment to F/SGT Runk. It also sets an example to Sgt. Thomas' men that they should pay attention as well. The action, not the spoken word, sets a precedent that will carry forward into future combined operations or training exercise.
At the end of the training day, not only have all the teams benefited from the learning environment, but the citizens of the county have unknowingly benefited as well. The citizens are protected and served by capable men who know their jobs, but who never quit trying to learn more-the sign of a true professional.
Frank Borelli is a veteran police officer and a police instructor now working with the U.S. Army's testing and training communities to identify opportunities to share law enforcement and military resources. Frank enjoys comments and can be reached at [email protected]