Fairgrounds staged for anti-terrorism exercise

$350,000 federal grant pays for 16 months of preparation, training

Staff writerJune 18, 2014 

During the run of the 2014 Washington State Fair from Sept. 5-21, fairgoers can expect the area known as Sillyville to be bustling with kid-friendly rides.

As a stark contrast, last Thursday the scene of Sillyville was anything but.

Ominous, charcoal gray clouds hung over the fairgrounds in Puyallup and on the pavement near the platform of Sillyville was a Pierce Transit bus full of about 15 volunteers acting as hostages under the control of several “extremists” who demanded release of their leader, Mahinda Badulla — incarcerated at the Northwest Detention Center for shoplifting and awaiting extradition to Canada.

From a layman’s eyes, the scene could have been assumed to be a Hollywood set for the latest installment of the blockbuster, “Speed,” starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Instead, what occurred June 12 at the Washington State Fairgrounds and also Sprinker Recreation Center in Spanaway, was a joint anti-terrorism exercise put together by Pierce Transit, the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and more than 300 other first-responder participants from across the county.

“One of the values of these exercises is bringing everyone together for the planning process,” said Sheri Badger, spokesperson for the county Department of Emergency Management. “The culminating event came after 16 months of planning.”

It was Pierce Transit that approached the department about possibly collaborating on a joint anti-terrorism exercise.

“We received a Department of Homeland Security grant for $350,000, and that covered 16 months of activity, including table-top exercises, training for public safety, training for volunteers, observers and participants,” said Carol Mitchell, spokesperson for Pierce Transit.

At Sprinker Recreation Center, the emergency management department used grant dollars to purchase a surplus bus from Pierce Transit for the purpose of setting off a detonation device within the bus, as part of a mass-casualty exercise.

Mitchell said first responders, Metro SWAT and bomb-sniffing dogs were utilized in the Sprinker exercise to practice methods of how to best respond.

SWAT was informed of a second possible bomb on the bus. This was done to the team’s ability to defuse the situation, ensuring there would be no future injuries or casualties, Badger said.

Meanwhile at the fairgrounds, participating agencies included the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Tacoma Police and SWAT. The exercise began at about 10 minutes after 10 in the morning. Over the next hour or so, first-responders were under constant communication with the unified command center at the emergency management headquarters.

Over the course of the exercise, several hostages were released. One gave descriptions to police of the known “extremists” on board the bus. At 11:26 a.m. a hostage was released and shot. At that point, SWAT moved in. A flash bomb was ignited in front of the bus, which distracted the “extremists” and allowed the members of SWAT to charge in, rescue hostages and detain the “extremists.”

The overall objective of the exercise was to validate Pierce Transit’s ability to respond to an attack against the bus transportation system; validate the agency’s communication center protocols; establish and maintain a unified command to a terrorist attack, integrate Pierce Transit into a unified command; and respond to a hostage situation on a Pierce Transit bus.

Mitchell was part of Pierce Transit’s emergency operations center that moved to the county department of emergency management to form a unified command center.

“A unified command center is set up so there is integrated communication between all the agencies that might be impacted,” Mitchell said. “The purpose of the exercise was to show where our strengths and weaknesses are, especially in respect to communication across different agencies. That was the foundational learning that all of us were looking for. How do we have 15 different agencies all coordinated in a way that protects life, property and secures the area where such an incident might happen?”

Mitchell said perfect practice makes for perfect performance, and Thursday’s exercise wasn’t perfect.

“We keep perfecting,” she said. “So when it happens, we at least know what to do if it happens and how to organize our resources effectively.”

As a requirement of the grant, the county and Pierce Transit must submit an after-action report to the Department of Homeland Security within 30 days following the exercise.

At press time, there had not been a collective debrief, according to Mitchell.

Andrew Fickes: 253-552-7001 andrew.fickes @puyallupherald.com Twitter: @herald_andrew

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