Police in the District of Columbia responded to a staged suicide bombing shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday, on the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center site in Northwest Washington.
“Where’s everybody going? Can you help us?” a woman shrieked from a curb near the scene of the explosion.
The actress whimpered, putting on a dramatic display for observers from the FBI and other government agencies watching one act in the District’s full-scale overnight emergency preparedness drill from a nearby hilltop.
The cop who rescued the actress rushed back up to the doorstep of the brick building, avoiding the body of another faux victim who did not survive the blast. Within minutes, a firetruck pulled up and firefighters unrolled a hose, preparing to decontaminate the area in case the improvised explosive device turned out to be a chemical bomb.
“Anybody who can walk comes this way,” instructed one of the first responders near the fire truck, after getting a rundown on casualties and injuries from an officer. So far, police had found at least seven victims in the staged terror activity, including some amputees.
The dramatic exercise was staged to test the District’s public safety capabilities. The emergency responders and actors from this scene would be followed in the next few hours by the hazardous materials team, bomb squad and other specialized teams who would be reacting to multiple terrorists attacks for the training event.
The officer briefing the firefighters at Walter Reed broke character only once during the 30-minute portion of the 12-hour exercise that members of the media were invited to observe. ”I know I was supposed to have the mask on, but it’s fucked up,” he said looking at the helmet in his hands.
Organizers had warned this would be a long, chaotic night for all the players involved. Soon after the suicide bombing, central command would radio news of an active shooter in Southwest D.C. at Washington Navy Yard. Hours later, a hostage situation would unfold. By morning the players would be stressed, exhausted and covered in fake blood from the grizzly wounds of the actors they would transport to Georgetown University Hospital.
Like cities around the nation, District officials are betting the exertion will be worth it if terror strikes.
“Lessons learned through training like this saved lives during the Boston Marathon bombing,” said former Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey, the man who oversaw that response in April 2013. Linskey, now a private security consultant, was on site at Walter Reed to explain how investing time and money into such trainings paid off when ”citizens were laying on the ground all around me.”
Boston officials happened to be in the middle of an emergency response exercise that included a slew of federal, state and city agencies when bombs exploded near the finish line of the race.
D.C.’s event was designed to put into practice some of the recommendations made in an after-action report on the Sept. 16, 2013, shooting at Navy Yard. The city wanted to test new procedures and validate current plans, according to organizers with the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Many layers of response were built into the scenario. Metropolitan Police Department officers provided on-scene security, controlling entry to the designated venues to prevent confusion or interruption. They welcomed dozens of police cruisers, including K-9 units and undercover vehicles, at the gates of the vacant Walter Reed campus Sunday evening in advance of the drill.
“We wanted to stress the system,” said Paul A. Quander Jr., D.C.’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “We wanted to see where we were vulnerable. We wanted to make sure that there are no gaps, there are no weak links in our chain.”
Commanders were stationed at the city’s emergency operations center in Southeast D.C. and the MPD’s joint operations center in Northwest. They practiced intelligence and information sharing, coordination and communications. Paramedics practiced patient transport, and the chief medical examiner rehearsed how to respond to mass casualties. Federal agencies, including Department of Defense Police for the Naval District, also participated.
Though the Capitol Police weren’t part of the exercise, HSEMA Director Chris Geldart explained the terrorism drill would practice techniques needed to responded to an attack on the Hill.
“The chief will tell you that we work in unified command,” Geldart told CQ Roll Call. “Even when we had the Navy Yard, we had Capitol Police in unified command with us. Even though it wasn’t their area, we didn’t know if we were going to need their support or not, so we all worked really closely together.”
In the end, the one unit of highly trained Capitol Police officers who responded was recalled from Navy Yard to focus on the Capitol.
Geldard said if a terror attack occurs on the Capitol grounds, Capitol Police would be first on the scene, but D.C. and other federal agencies also would respond.
“You guys don’t have any ambulances, or any firemen or anything like that,” Geldart said. “You have a Capitol Police force, but they only have a certain role within that, right? So, executing the crime scene and all of that would be an FBI joint lead with homicide detectives and all of that, so it’s a big unified command.”
The Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center and the D.C. National Guard also participated in the terror drill. As the scenario unfolded, pieces of information were shared with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and the agencies worked together to figure out who should take the lead in the investigation.
“This exercise really is about how we handle multiple scenes,” Geldart said. “As those two scenes are going on — bombing, shooting — how do we respond to that from multiple scenes?”
Geldart said the police, paramedics and investigators would be taking down active shooters, saving the lives of the people there that can be saved, and piecing together the information to figure out, “What does it mean? . . . Is there another shoe that’s going to drop?”
Mayor Vincent Gray said D.C. wanted to build on the lessons learned from the Navy Yard tragedy and increase its expertise.
“We have an enormous role, probably larger than any other jurisdiction in America,” Gray said. “We worked very closely with our federal partners in law enforcement, and they’re very involved in this situation as well, but we have 13 agencies that are participating in this. Not only is it important that they individually know what to do, but that they work in a coordinated effort.”