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Alameda County’s Urban Shield

An earthquake, a flood, a major power outage, a hostage situation, a bombing, a terrorist threat. These are all possible scenarios for public safety agencies. But are we really ready for the human and nature-caused disasters and events? That is the question the Alameda County, CA Sheriff’s Office asked—and helped answer through its recent “Urban Shield” exercise.

Law enforcement must cope with major-scale disasters and incidents. Sound leadership during such crises is vital. Personnel must have the ability, training and skills to handle crises, but on-the-job, play-it-by-ear tactics will no longer work—if they ever did. Instead, every agency must learn how to use time, energy, talent and money wisely to respond to crises before an incident occurs. That is where Urban Shield fills the gap between theory and experience. This program is an outgrowth of the former “High Sierra SWAT Challenge.”

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said, “A primary responsibility of law enforcement agencies is to ensure key personnel are operationally competent and able to convert policy and training into effective practice.” Personnel must be trained, equipment managed, and plans made to handle “the most extreme circumstances,” he said. Urban Shield is a training event that does just that.

The operation not only provides scenarios in which skills are learned and practiced, but it also identifies areas in which improvement is needed. That means that, while in a training environment, personnel gain skill and experience that will translate to a real situation, if and when it occurs. Ahern said, “It is equally important that we train together and in regional collaboration to test our abilities to implement the National Incident Management System (NIMS), strengthen information sharing, test our interoperable communications capabilities, and improve emergency operations planning.”

The goal of Urban Shield was to challenge, train and strengthen team skills in preparation for urban emergencies. NIMS training was utilized and tested in full, with field exercises that presented opportunities to interact within the team and with supporting agencies in mutual aid crises. The teams’ abilities to perform a variety of intricate tactical operations were evaluated to give feedback and to point out where additional training was needed.

Bringing the elements of the National Response Plan “to life” was the goal of Urban Shield. In large-scale exercises at 23 training venues, participants had the opportunity to do actual or simulated Tier 1 critical infrastructure site training. An Incident Command System structure was established to make the exercise feel as “authentic” as possible.

Area commands helped manage the many training sites, all located in Alameda County. Among the training venues were: an airport, a bank, a bus station, a railroad yard, a shipping port, a large jail facility, a firing range, a laboratory, a nuclear power plant, a reservoir, a military post, a government facility, a university campus, a marina, a public arena and a wilderness setting.

The emphasis was on incidents that were fluid and dynamic and sometimes peppered with information that was not always accurate—just to keep everyone on his toes. After each exercise, there was an opportunity to debrief, then teams moved on to their next venue and its challenges.

In 2007, 75 agencies and more than 1,400 people participated in Urban Shield. Alameda County received funding for the exercise through the Department of Homeland Security. Each participating team was assigned to certain exercises over the 50-plus hours of work. There was little or no sleep as participants moved from scenario to scenario. It’s no surprise that the post-incident evaluations also included studies about fatigue and how sleep deprivation, exhaustion and anxiety affect performance.

A unified command was utilized so that multi-discipline responses could be planned, executed and evaluated. Interoperable communications were activated to evaluate the effectiveness of the communications and to determine if, in fact, they were truly interoperable.

IP Access International of San Juan Capistrano, CA, a business satellite Internet provider, provided satellite bandwidth for the exercises. This gave an opportunity to show what can work in a crisis situation and what is available for emergency response. Participants learned how to improve interoperability among multiple jurisdictions.

Partnering with IP Access International was Cobalt Equipment, based in Pleasanton, CA. Cobalt Equipment rents equipment for emergency response, special events and construction. Its resources include the full scope of satellite communication equipment and support.

Using “real world” emergencies and critical incidents, Urban Shield offered more than 50 hours of training exercises that involved problem solving and leadership effectiveness, thus evaluating both streams of managing an incident.

To keep everything even more realistic, the scenarios often built in high stress, physical exhaustion, and/or anxiety to test the participants’ mental awareness and their ability to cope with the incidents. Also, “real” was the opportunity to put individual abilities to the test as well as team preparedness and capabilities through exercises that required a variety of intricate tactical operations.

Designed specifically for tactical personnel who should have a high level of skill, physical conditioning, and mental ability, the regional exercises tested the tactical capabilities of teams and the teams’ ability to partner with others. Planning, coordination, management, command, and support were all covered in the scenarios.

Training opportunities included scenarios that involved weapons of mass destruction, linear assault, high-risk service of warrants, ascending, rappelling, leadership reaction techniques, maritime operations, domestic and international terrorism threats and incidents, navigation on land, maritime interdiction, water operations, explosive ordnance K9 detection, and hostage rescue.

Events required a multi-discipline response, using a variety of training and logistical elements in the exercises. Many involved sustained response to challenge the participants both physically and mentally.

Not only did the exercises implement National Response Plan elements, but they also involved operations planning, operations center management, incident management, teamwork, regional collaboration, information sharing, interoperable communications, response to chemical, biological, radiological, and high-yield explosive weapons detection, and tactical operations.

The organizers of Urban Shield recognize that first responders have to be trained to take charge of any situation to protect life and property. But there is always the underlying question of “Are we ready?” Urban Shield seeks to make the answer a “yes.” For information on setting up similar training, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department can be reached at (510) 272-6878.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, May 2008

Rating : 7.0

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