Every year for the past five years, emergency responders in the San Francisco Bay Area have participated in a regionwide exercise that tests the region’s critical infrastructure, as well as the responders’ ability to work across jurisdictions in the event of a major emergency.
This year’s Urban Shield event was composed of 48 scenarios that were occurring during the course of 48 hours in October, said Project Coordinator James Baker, who is also president of Cytel, the company that oversees the event. The scenarios are designed to bring everything together, from infrastructure such as command centers, communications systems, data and fusion centers, to the first responders, including police, SWAT, fire and bomb squads. Every responder is tested at the level they’d be responding to if the circumstance were real.
“The boots on the ground are getting experience, while the experts are evaluating how they do,” Baker said.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed the National Incident Management System (NIMS) with a goal of making sure emergency personnel from multiple jurisdictions and disciplines can work together when responding to emergencies. 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.”
The event, Urban Shield, is the preparedness cycle put into action. The northern California region, spanning 10 counties, 100 cities and a population of 7.5 million, began planning the first exercise in 2007, and since then has continuously planned and executed the event each year. After the event, an after action report (AAR) is released that assesses the region’s strengths and weaknesses to be expanded on the following year.
Multiple exercises occur at the same time, and each one is designed to test all the layers of the response effort. As all the scenarios are integrated, no scenario focuses on an individual capability. With that in mind, the communications systems are tested heavily throughout the 48 hours.
In the beginning stages of the planning, Baker and his colleagues speak with representatives in the region to figure out what the area’s biggest concerns are and build the scenarios around them. This year’s focus was on an active shooter with mass casualties, incorporating a university in the region for the first time. Others voiced concerns about incidents occurring on a new bridge expansion in the area. The exercises put responders on the scene and some inside the bridge infrastructure for the first time. A transportation concern about explosive devices on trains led to three separate scenarios involving all three of the area’s train companies.
Within each of these exercises, the communications systems for all those responding to the scene were tested. When the first Urban Shield occurred in 2007, there wasn’t a regional communications system in the area or any set plans for one, Baker said.
Each year, Urban Shield has addressed the communications issues in the exercises, Baker said. At first some of the involved cities didn’t want to give up control of their systems, but finally after repeatedly witnessing the problem, everyone agreed to pursue something interoperable for the area.
Since then, the area started investing money, applied for grants and other federal money, and paired with Motorola Solutions to create a network that will be interoperable for seamless collaboration in times of emergencies, Baker said. “We’ve been investing a lot of money into the radio systems.”
Not only does Urban Shield provide the opportunity to test active systems, it also allows users to test potential new equipment before purchasing it with the help of corporate partnerships. For example, when officials were discussing building a new emergency communications center, a county teamed up with one of Urban Shield’s partners, Cisco Systems, to add the future technology to see how it would work during the mock events.
This year’s overarching communications tests spanned about 50 miles, incorporating six counties, and included implementing patch vehicles in certain locations while other areas tested new headsets.
“It gives us a very good opportunity to truly test cell site towers and system expansion,” Baker said. “We now have confirmed exactly where they say we are — with what needs patches and what doesn’t.”
“And we’re testing the ability to communicate with more than just radio,” Baker said. Video conferencing was used frequently throughout the region during the event.
After a year of planning, coordinating and organizing, the 48-hour event was a success this year, Baker said. Once the AAR is released, officials will begin looking at what to build on for next year.
Emergency responders have already benefitted from the partnerships. During the protests and riots in the aftermath of the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., officials worried about escalation. “The planning was amazing,” Baker said. “It was just like planning on a system; everyone knew it all. To have 100 agencies come together and be done with planning in an hour and a half is really amazing.”
Boston held an Urban Shield event this year for the first time, and one is scheduled for Austin, Texas, in 2012 as well. There are also plans for the Kingdom of Jordan to host an Urban Shield Middle East in 2012.