Terrorism prep

Published 11:16 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Members of the Suffolk SWAT team gather under a tree Wednesday on the old Tidewater Community College campus in North Suffolk to plan their part of the assault on a building in which “terrorists” were holding hostages and engaging law enforcement officers in a gun battle. The assault was part of a three-day exercise in which 400 emergency responders sharpened their skills and their communications with the help of actors portraying the bad guys and their victims.

Tactical teams prepare for pressure situations

Gunfire and the sound of an exploding improvised explosive device shattered the quiet surrounding the math and science building on the former Tidewater Community College campus in North Suffolk on Wednesday.

“They’re killing him! They’re killing him!” a woman screamed from inside, as a police special operations team from Portsmouth sprang into action, running for one of the building’s entrances.

Bloody preparation: Damian Fontaine of Fieldale waits for the “blood” to dry on the gash in his forehead, while Rachel Hitt of Danville gets a bloody nose from one of the makeup artists with Military Moulage Combat Injury Simulation prior to the hostage rescue training exercise conducted Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Fieldale and Hitt were part of a National Guard group brought to the event to provide both victims and triage training.

A terrorist had taken the building, and hostages were being held inside, officials confirmed, and from the sound of things, the situation had deteriorated from the beginning of the scenario.

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The gunshots, the explosion, the assembled police, fire and rescue teams, the National Guard waiting on the other side of the building for potential casualties and even the guardsmen who were being transformed into “victims” through the application of Hollywood-like makeup effects were all part of an elaborate training exercise that began on Tuesday and continues today.

The Hampton Roads Full-Scale Exercise is intended to simulate conditions during and after multiple terrorist events and to test local, state and federal response to such events in three different, but related, scenarios, officials said.

“We do a lot of regional exercises, but this one is probably a lot more than we normally would do,” said Bob Spieldenner, director of public affairs for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which organized the three-day training session, which ultimately was expected to involve more than 400 participants and actors.

Tuesday’s exercise simulated a terrorist threat on a ship. Actors took “control” of one of the ships in the James River Reserve Fleet, and law enforcement and other emergency responders then practiced their response to the threat, storming the ship, neutralizing the terrorists and then donning suits designed to protect them from chemical or biological threats before exploring the ship for those threats.

Under the scenario that was put forward, Spieldenner said, the terrorists had threatened widespread attacks in the area, and Wednesday’s exercise on the old TCC campus was intended to portray one of those attacks. Another exercise on Thursday, at Harbor Park in Norfolk, would portray an attack with mass casualties.

The school facility was to have represented a hotel in Norfolk that gunmen had entered violently, taking hostages in the process. A 911 call was to have alerted emergency officials, and special police units then responded from cities all over Hampton Roads as they were notified of their need.

“At some point, something will happen that will cause injuries,” Spieldenner said of the scenario, explaining that a unit of National Guard troops waiting nearby would then have a chance to train in triage techniques.

The popping sound of gunshots in the building also would draw a quick response, police said.

“If it were this type of scenario and if there’s active shooting, a policeman’s going to go inside (immediately),” Norfolk Police Department public information officer Chris Amos said. “He’s not even going to wait for a special operations team.”

That response is different from what police were trained to do in the days before the Columbine school massacre, where police followed training and waited outside the school for backup while students were being shot inside.

But, he added, “If nobody’s life is in jeopardy, our guys are going to take their time.”

Those are the types of things that such an exercise is intended to iron out, he explained, along with lines of communication between different units from different municipalities.

On Wednesday, bomb squads from Norfolk and Virginia Beach worked with one from the Virginia State Police to identify and disable potential IEDs on the TCC property, while tactical units from Suffolk, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Newport News and even Old Dominion University worked to clear and secure the building from the “terrorists.”

As Amos talked to a reporter, a nearby radio crackled.

“We’re engaged right now,” an excited voice said over the tactical frequency. “Shots fired! Room 401! We’re engaged in a gun battle!”

Soon, the same voice could be heard talking about a hostage being recovered and sent outside to the waiting police and rescue units.

“That problem there (in Room 401) has been resolved,” the man’s voice reported.

Within minutes, though, Suffolk’s SWAT team was gearing up to enter the fray, as terrorists were still holding hostages in other parts of the building.

“Let’s go guys!” the SPD team leader said as he finished a pre-assault briefing. “Portsmouth is in a firefight in there. Let’s go!”