Officials urged Boston area residents not to worry if they see or hear gunfire and explosions today and Sunday—it’s likely simulated, a part of the second annual “Urban Shield: Boston” emergency training exercise.
Participants in the exercise include local police and fire departments, Boston’s Office of Emergency Management, the Coast Guard, the MBTA, area hospitals, and regional SWAT and HazMat teams, according to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office. The groups are working together to respond to simulated emergency scenarios at various locations, including Boston Harbor, the Bowdoin T station, and the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, along with others in Brookline and Cambridge. Urban Shield is funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Individual teams of emergency responders began exercises at 8 this morning.
An all-agency event at UMass Boston tonight will test the ability of the various teams to work together, to communicate and establish a clear command structure, while the clock is running. Other exercises will continue until 8 Sunday morning.
This afternoon at the former Circle Cinema in Cleveland Circle on the Boston-Brookline border, several area S.W.A.T. teams confronted a simulated bank robbery in which the robbers were trying to escape with hostages.
Details of the scenario were withheld from the S.W.A.T. teams: Each team is evaluated by trained observers on how well they adapt to unanticipated wrinkles. Afterward, the teams break down their performances and trade tips and tactics. The robbers, played by police officers armed with guns that fire nonlethal “simulated bullets,” are encouraged to try to “win”—in this case, by making it to a waiting getaway van.
During one run-through, robbers and hostages emerged from the “bank” crouched under a blanket that made it impossible to distinguish friend from foe. A waiting MBTA Transit Police Department S.W.A.T. team quickly encircled the group, snatched the blanket off their heads, and tackled each person—all without firing a shot.
It appeared to be a win for the good guys, and an improvement over a different team that observers said nearly failed to stop the robbers when they tried to hijack a police car instead of running for the van.
“You might sit in a classroom and learn something now and then, but this is real world pressure,” said Rene Fielding, director of the Boston Office of Emergency Management, which is helping oversee Urban Shield. “If they have to lose, you want them to lose here, not in real life.”
Circle Cinema was also the site of a second exercise, one that simulated a shooter in a movie theater.
That event was planned before the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting in July that killed 12 and injured dozens more, but has taken on renewed relevance in its wake. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said officials debated canceling the movie exercise after the Aurora incident, fearing it might salt raw wounds, but ultimately decided to go ahead with it in the interest of preparedness.
Meanwhile, at the Bowdoin Blue Line MBTA subway station, which is closed on weekends, firefighters and hazardous materials teams from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and other nearby communities practiced responding to a suspicious package on a train. Onlookers in the busy downtown area gawked at the dozens of firefighters and decontamination tents full of rubber suits and air tanks.
“It’s good to build relationships between the departments,” said Somerville Deputy Fire Chief Bill Hallinan. “When something really happens, it’s good to have met each other.”
Hallinan said one of the most valuable aspects of the training was learning about each department’s capabilities, so first responders can call officers in other towns or cities who may have specialized skills or equipment appropriate to the emergency.
“It makes sense: Why not be prepared?” said Jo Oltman, 31, who walked by the Bowdoin exercise. “If something major happens, you want to know that they can all get together and do their jobs.”