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Urban Shield: Preparedness at its Best

Written by PSIT Staff

Ensuring communication among first responders, especially during a crisis situation, is a major challenge for public safety agencies. Interoperability is critical for success. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) defines preparedness as “a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating, and taking corrective action in an effort to ensure effective coordination during incident response.” This ‘preparedness cycle’ is one element of a broader National Preparedness System to prevent, respond to, recover from, and mitigate natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters. Urban Shield is a national model, full-scale exercise, designed to assess and validate the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of capabilities, as well as test the adequacy of regional policies, plans, procedures and protocols.

Urban Shield incorporates regional critical infrastructure, emergency operation centers, regional communication systems, equipment and assets, as well as personnel representing all aspects of emergency response including intelligence, law enforcement, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Units, Fire, EMS, local, state and federal government agencies as well as related military personnel.

According to Jim Baker, President of Cytel Group and Ret. Asst. Chair of Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff, the Urban Shield exercise pulls in all first responders from Fire, EMS, Police, SWAT, Bomb Squad and integrates them together in various scenarios. “It is extremely realistic; multiple scenarios are happening at the same time,” he said. Cytel Group is the entity that brings Urban Shield to other regions. They also do training and high-end technical policy reviews.

The host agency has been Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay area with a 50-mile exercise radius in five counties with 3,500 people participating. However, Urban Shield locations move from year to year. The most recent was in the Boston area in May 2011 and Austin, Texas region is tentatively scheduled for early December 2012. The scope is international, as Jordan is sending three participating SWAT teams (12 generals) to Alameda County’s next exercise. Alameda is a unique Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) county in that it has 10 counties in 100 cities. Direct funding depends on how big the participating agency / agencies are, which limits mis-spending.

The Urban Shield Exercise is unique because of its focus on training during the exercise. This training provides first responders, homeland security officials, emergency management officials, private and non-governmental partners, and other personnel with the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform key tasks required in large-scale disasters. One of the benefits of Urban Shield is learning new technologies. They let teams use a certain product or technology, then they evaluate it and find out what’s good and what’s bad, current assets and potential future purchases. Participants solve real problems, not just pretend. One year, it rained and water was rushing under tents so they had to deal with wet equipment. It offers a lot of hands-on experience and training. Everything happens in real time, and obstacles such as flat tires, running out of gas, like in a real emergency. “It’s not a sterile training exercise,” Baker commented.

Urban Shield incorporates critical infrastructure into the exercise. This provides an opportunity for regional emergency managers and UASI representations to better prepare for the identified risks associated with each facility. In addition, first responders are provided an opportunity to familiarize themselves with facility specifics and become better prepared for an actual emergency response. Incorporating the security systems and personnel into the exercise not only trains and prepares private security personnel, it provides regions an opportunity to test and evaluate the emergency plans and systems of the involved facilities. In addition, this exercise helps to familiarize all related entities with one another and build positive public/private relationships.

The evaluation and improvement of mission and task performance is the final step of the DHS/FEMA Preparedness Cycle. During the Urban Shield Exercise, all critical components are evaluated to determine their current state of operational readiness. A comprehensive After Action Report (AAR) is completed and addresses regional risk assessments and related vulnerabilities. The AAR identifies gaps and provides a regional roadmap in the form of improvement plans. The AAR provides UASI Regions with critical information to assist in allocating future resources, assets, training, etc. In addition, The Urban Shield Exercise model provides UASI Regions a tool to measure their effectiveness from year to year in order to determine progress and ensure the grant funds utilized are spent wisely and result in the “buying down” of risk.

Logistics is one area Urban Shield prepares first responders in, including how to train people how to plan: How to feed 3,000 people? How much gas? Lights? Port-a-Pottys?

NERV: Cisco Network Emergency Response Vehicle

Cisco is directly involved with Urban Shield; their capabilities are used throughout the 48-hour scenario. The Cisco® Network Emergency Response Vehicle (NERV) is a mobile communication center, supported by a highly trained team that is designed to establish interoperable communications in emergency situations.

The Cisco NERV is a self-deployable command and communications resource for first responders, critical infrastructure, and other organizations that have been affected by a catastrophic event and require mission-critical networking to recover normal operations. It meets or exceeds the National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards for type II mobile communication centers.

The Cisco NERV, along with its NIMS certified team, helps organizations by: • Arriving for disaster response missions ready for up to 72 hours of continuous operations that allows for immediate action without impacting already challenged resources

• Operating seamlessly as one team with police, fire, emergency medical services, National Guard, and other responders within an incident command system or unified command structure

• Receiving 24-hour, proactive intelligence and logistical support from the Cisco Tactical Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. In a crisis situation it is imperative that field communications be highly mobile and rapidly deployable. The Cisco NERV meets these demands by being a self-contained vehicle in which all technology travels together as a preconfigured package.

Once on scene, the team can: • Be fully operational within 15 minutes • Shut down and redeploy in another location within 15 minutes • Power its onboard systems using its own generator or a shore power connection to an external power source.

The Cisco NERV uses an IP-based network foundation because large-scale disasters require a range of interoperable communications beyond traditional push-to-talk (PTT) radio.

IP-based communications can ensure that the team can: • Engage and employ all resources on-scene, regardless of where those resources geographically reside. • Interoperate with existing communications systems while providing a path to emerging network-centric communications systems.

Other companies such as Motorola, General Dynamics, Blauer, Avon, Taser, etc., use Urban Shield as a testing ground for their public safety products. Locations such as buildings continuously change even if it’s in the same region / area because emergencies can happen anywhere at anytime. Baker cited an example cell phones being down and the only way to communicate was by e-mail. One major communications center could not open any of the e-mails due to older software running on their computer system, so they bought new computers. Another scenario involved an iconic building in San Francisco. The wrong address showed up on the 9-1-1 call during the exercise. The emergency response went to a different building three blocks away. They realized their security was not perfect.

Urban Shield has an increasing emphasis on bringing in Fire and EMS more and not just law enforcement so it is “a true 100 percent first responder exercise,” Baker stated. The growth in popularity for Urban Shield reflects how everyone who participates gets so much out of it due to its realistic nature of the scenarios. Other regions are now asking Urban Shield to show them how to do it right. “It’s the whole package,” Bakker noted.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2012

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