Simulated Terror Attack on Bay Tests Local Emergency Response
June 08--Firefighters, medics and FBI agents swarmed a normally quiet stretch of the Alameda waterfront next to the USS Hornet Museum on Wednesday morning, maneuvering around people lying on the ground as an ominous orange smoke filled the air and brightly colored emergency vehicles crowded the road.
The alarming scene was part of a two-day exercise called "Operation Seasick" -- six months in the making and organized by the FBI -- to practice how local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies and emergency responders would work together in the event of a complex terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction in an area like the Port of Oakland.
The simulation scenario was this: A terrorist deployed a chemical weapon using a dispersal device, shot several people from atop one of the ships at port, then barricaded himself inside the ship.
"Shooting victims" painted with red makeup to imitate blood and gore demanded attention from paramedics, but responders needed to deal with the chemical weapon before getting to them. A SWAT team contained the shooter to one area of the ship where he had barricaded himself.
The second day of the simulation will be held Friday and focus on the investigation stage of the incident, including recovering evidence from the water, FBI officials said.
Maritime environments like ports can add challenging variables for law-enforcement agents responding to a crisis, according to the FBI.
"The reason the bay is difficult is it's a fast-moving, ever-changing environment," said Katherine Zackel, an FBI spokeswoman.
"Everything is moving. It's more difficult to recover evidence in water, difficult to work underwater or on top of water," she continued. "Police are used to going in and clearing buildings, not ships. There's more wind. If chemicals get in the water, that's obviously a problem. The environment affects the scene significantly."
More than 15 agencies and organizations took part in the exercise, including the Oakland Police Department, U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Law-enforcement officers knew that the simulation involved weapons of mass destruction, but did not know the specifics going into the exercise.
These types of emergency-response simulations often involve surprises called "injects," according to Coast Guard Lt. Steven Dross, who added that he did not think the scenario being simulated was a totally unlikely one.
"It could happen," said Dross. "When you think about today's world, there are a lot of active-shooter cases, there are chemical weapons being used."
Responding to a complex terror attack requires cooperation from agencies that rarely work together on a daily basis, so practice is important, according to John Bennett, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco bureau.
"We do a lot of work with police departments, but in a chemical release, we start bringing in elements that we don't normally have relationships with -- the health department, say," said Bennett.
"All these elements and challenges start getting into play -- like, how do you get a tactical team into a hot zone that hasn't been cleared yet?" he added.
An attack on a shipping hub like the Port of Oakland could be economically disruptive in addition to the obvious threat to public safety, counterterrorism experts at the Rand Corp. and other think tanks have speculated.
Just as the effects of an attack wouldn't be limited to the immediate area, the exercise wasn't happening solely on the Alameda waterfront, either, according to Zackel.
Six miles away, at Highland Hospital in Oakland, paramedics and hospital staff were simulating how they would treat victims who had been exposed to the chemical-weapons attack, she said. Emergency operations were also set up at the FBI's Oakland outpost, and a command post was established at the Port of Oakland.
"We want to demonstrate if something of this magnitude were going to happen, we could come together as one team," said Bennett. "One team, one fight."
Filipa Ioannou is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @obioannoukenobi
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