There is an old saying that's famous in the music world: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." It is the same in the fire and emergency services. Unless you are well drilled in the talents of your trade, you stand a great chance of failing when the time comes to do your duty. With that in mind, emergency responders in northern New Jersey recently tested their skills and tool operations by conducting a large-scale exercise involving a simulated terrorist incident in a tunnel.
Urban search and rescue (USAR) teams have become one of the critical service delivery elements of the post 9/11 world. It is a given in the emergency services that New York City is a prime target for terrorists to attack. Northern New Jersey is within the operational radius of the area that terrorists see as a target to get the attention of the world.
After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, an analysis was performed of the region's state of preparedness with regard to man-made and natural disasters. This analysis uncovered a gap in preparedness, finding that the region needed more heavy rescue equipment and trained personnel that could arrive on the scene of an incident quickly.
A proposal to establish the New Jersey Metro Urban Search and Rescue Strike Team was submitted on Feb. 1, 2004, and through federal funding and local planning the team was established on July 31, 2006. The Metro USAR Strike Team (MUST) was put into operation to support the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) for the cities of Newark and Jersey City. In addition, it provides direct assistance to the counties of Essex, Hudson, Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Union and Middlesex, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
It was duly noted that the federal government realized the importance of creating an operational network of trained specialized rescue personnel to handle major emergencies within the region. To that end, the MUST was created to provide a specialized USAR capability in northern New Jersey. The mission of the MUST is to rapidly provide the highest-quality professional USAR response to structural collapse disasters and related events to save lives and reduce property loss. The MUST is trained as one team. Members work together under a defined mutual aid agreement.
It is important to note that all of the major Hudson River crossing points to New York City have one end of their facilities in New Jersey. The following have come together to provide a united capability to handle major emergencies:
- Jersey City
- North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue Department
Thanks to the funding provided by the federal government through its UASI program, one dozen specialized strike force rescue vehicles are available, all of which are equipped with exactly the same equipment tool load. This redundancy in equipment allows for a combination of resources that can be used at the scene of a major emergency.
Over the course of its nearly four years of service to the region, the MUST has conducted a series of major tactical emergency drills. In this way, the many different participants have honed their skills to a fine operational edge. It is critical to note that this development of "local" capabilities is in line with tenets of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) that was created by Presidential Executive Order in 2002.
The 2010 Emergency Response Drill was conducted in Newark April 26–29 to ensure the participation of each of the four working shifts for each fire department. It is also important to note that the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety was also invited to play a role in the command and control operations at this drill (the division is a non-voting member of the MUST). A scenario was created by the Newark Fire Department's Special Operations Division. It was decided that a simulated tunnel emergency would be an excellent mechanism to test the team's skills.
The Newark Fire Department Special Operations Division, under the command of Deputy Chief Richard Zieser, was charged with developing the exercise scenario. Firefighter Frank Bellina was assigned the task of creating the drill. It was decided that the exercise would take place during the morning rush hour in the fictional "Metro City Tunnel." The scenario stated that a terrorist group activated an improvised explosive device (IED) in the tunnel, causing an explosion, vehicle accidents and structural damage.
The scenario further stated that local fire, police and EMS personnel had arrived on the scene and were quickly overwhelmed by the complexity of the incident. According to the drill's playbook, the first-in responders will have begun removal of the surface and lightly trapped victims and called for assistance of the MUST. Staging the exercise in a tunnel allowed for a series of evolutions to be built into the drill to test skills that were previously taught to MUST members.
The drill plan called for at least four separate evolutions to test the knowledge of specific skill sets and tool operations. A team of controllers and safety officers were assigned to each evolution in order to ensure safety and consistency at every station. This scenario was designed to not only test the operations staff, but the command staff as well. The command staff had to expand the Incident Command System (ICS) to fill all positions to keep control of this operation.
During the course of the exercise, various message "injects" were periodically put into the scenario to test both the command and operational functions. This assisted the evaluation team in rating the overall team ability to adapt and overcome obstacles. This aspect allowed the drill to be as realistic as possible. To this end, an actual "tunnel" was constructed on the training grounds of the Newark Fire Department Fire Training Center.
The scenario involved the explosion of an over-the-road bus that "terrorists" had crammed full of an ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) explosive mixture. The "terrorists" chose this vehicle after studying the approaches to the "Metro City Tunnel." In the script, the "terrorists" noted that box vans such as the one used in the 1995 Oklahoma City incident were routinely stopped and searched, but that regular bus traffic was routinely waved right into the tunnel. Another benefit of the bus was that it had tinted windows, so that the police could not see inside to check its occupants.
Just prior to the drill, a briefing was conducted for all members of the operational force. Groups then were created and assigned. This was followed by a video clip that gave the conditions that arriving units might expect to encounter. To ensure that proper protection for the region would be maintained, a force of two task force units under the command of a battalion chief was held in reserve, ready to respond to any real incidents.
The initial reports fed to the groups indicated that "Metro City" police were in pursuit of a bus that had blown past tunnel security teams. All of a sudden, reports from the pursuit vehicle stopped. First-in units were met by a Metro City battalion chief who confirmed that an explosion had occurred in the tunnel and that all lightly injured people had been evacuated. Two USAR teams were assigned to perform a reconnaissance of the tunnel. Over a four-hour period, additional teams were assigned to perform various rescue operations within the tunnel area.
Eight separate rescue stations were set up for the exercise. Each required a great deal of heavy physical labor to get the job done. One realistic aspect of this drill involved the phased deployment of the necessary team resources. An added bit of realism involved the creation of a cut station outside the tunnel. This was the area where the various pieces of lumber needed for shoring operations were created based on the specifications supplied by various operational teams. In past drills, units were cutting lumber in close proximity to the areas of need. In a real tunnel scenario, the lumber would have to be cut and prepared at a remote location.
One by one, the various rescue evolutions were completed with much backbreaking, heavy-lifting work. An interesting additional aspect of this drill involved the use of an in-tunnel video system that gave the incident command team an eyes-on look at all of the operations in the tunnel.
As the drill played out, a number of problems were encountered. Thanks to the enhanced training level of the team members, solutions were identified and changes made as quickly as possible. Over the course of the four-day exercise, potential changes to the team's training and operational procedures were identified and will be addressed in the coming months.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and veteran of 46 years in the fire and emergency service. He is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Howell Township, NJ, Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Carter also has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township for 38 years, serving as chief in 1991. Carter is a member of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain, for which he formerly served as vice president and secretary. He also is president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts, a life member of the National Fire Protection Association and former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in business administration from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.