SEWARD, Alaska — The first week of the Alaska Shield/Northern Edge 07 exercise culminated here May 11 with a massive interagency effort to secure a ship with a simulated biological threat on board.
Hundreds of first responders, with uniforms ranging from the reflective jackets of local firefighters to military biohazard suits, were on hand at the Alaska Railroad dock to practice an integrated response to a simulated terrorist threat on a marine vessel.
In the scenario, the marine vessel was played by the USNS Henry J. Kaiser, a Military Sealift Command oiler stationed out of San Diego.
When Alaska law enforcement was notified of "suspicious people" on the ship, they responded with a combined boarding effort from the Seward Police Department, the FBI, and a Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team. When those teams found mock chemicals and materials to make an improvised explosive device on board, an Alaska National Guard civil support team was called in to identify and safely remove the items.
"Civil support teams assist law enforcement, test suspicious materials, determine how a material will affect the public, provide medical support, and have equipment that can facilitate communication all over the world," said Brig. Gen. Thomas Katkus, Alaska Army National Guard commander. "They provide everything an incident commander would need to help in the response to a nuclear, biological, chemical or explosive event."
The incident commander in the Seward event was Lt. Louis Tiner of the Seward Police Department. He was responsible, with the help of the Seward Emergency Operations Center, for coordinating the efforts of the agencies involved in the emergency response.
"This is the first time I've been involved in a live, working exercise like this - dealing with terrorism in a joint effort with all of these organizations," Tiner said. "It's been busy and hectic - there are a lot of questions to answer and information to disseminate.
"Normally, these [other agencies] wouldn't be here right away. The city would activate its emergency operations plan, which includes requesting assistance from the state troopers, the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Guard to get as much help as we could," Tiner said.
Although the overall objective was for all the agencies to work together at the request of the Seward authorities, they also each had training goals of their own.
This was evident as shots rang out from Coast Guard vessels in the Seward harbor during the boarding of the Kaiser. Four Coast Guard boats were practicing enforcing a security zone around the suspicious ship, according to Ens. Christine Young, a detachment team leader for the Coast Guard's Maritime Safety and Security Team Anchorage.
"They are practicing boat-on-boat use-of-force steps, up to and including disabling fire, in response to a security zone incursion," Young said.
The Coast Guard Cutter Maple also tried loading smaller boats to see if it were possible to transport them on a buoy tender. Finally, the MSST practiced working with the FBI to board the suspicious ship.
The Alaska Guard's 103rd Civil Support Team and the Idaho Guard's 101st CST practiced their ability to switch places in the middle of an event.
"All civil support teams have extensive equipment, communications, technology and training, but we have to make sure it all comes together and we can relieve each other in place," Katkus said. "We want to be able to make a seamless transition when one team needs a break."
Whether it was individual unit training objectives or the larger goal of practicing interagency coordination, the elaborate Seward scenario was a success for Team Alaska, and a good finale for the first week of Alaska Shield/Northern Edge 07, Tiner said.
"We're learning what works and what doesn't, as well as what to improve," Tiner said. He identified consolidating communications as one area for improvement, pointing to two different radios and a cell phone that he was using all at once.
"It really is all part of Team Alaska," said Rear Adm. Gene Brooks, U.S. Coast Guard District 17 commander. "We are pulling all these different elements together to try to interdict and prevent bad things from happening in Alaska."