It was Saturday evening, April 9, when I noticed a row of what looked like special operations vehicles parked along the piers at Alameda Point. No two were alike, and each was clearly marked with a different label such as “Command,” “Entry,” “Science,” or “Communications.” I couldn’t help but ask one of the men dressed in army fatigues what was going on. He told me that he was part of a full-time National Guard unit—the 95th Civil Support Team (WMD)—that was practicing ways to respond to a catastrophic medical emergency. I was invited to attend the following day’s exercise. What I witnessed was unforgettable.
The exercise at Alameda Point was part of a series—dubbed BayEx 2011—taking place over a four-day period throughout the Bay Area. BayEx 2011 was designed to test the ability of regional emergency responders to coordinate their efforts.
The exercise on the Cape Orlando in Alameda was to test whether a maritime ship could be used as a medical triage center should local hospitals become overwhelmed due to a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Students and reservists alternated playing the roles of victim and medical provider.
Other BayEx 2011 events included: searching for a chemical weapon at Camp Parks in Dublin; responding to chemical attack on a BART train on a spur track in Oakland; and intercepting a railcar cargo container with biologically contaminated car parts at the former NUMMI plant in Fremont.
The 95th, based out of Hayward, is one two such highly specialized units in California. Larger states have two units, but most have only one. They swing into action only when their assistance is requested by local authorities or by the Governor. In addition to their chemical, biological and nuclear detection capabilities, they are also equipped to serve as the command center for all emergency responders. Their communications system has encrypted data transmission and is connected to nationwide chemical and biological databases.
Two days later I attended the 95th’s multi-agency response exercise on a BART train, simulating a terrorist chemical attack in Oakland. Watching first responders from around the Bay Area deal with “injured” passengers while wearing cumbersome hazardous-materials suits showed me just how important these training exercises are.
Members of the 95th spoke enthusiastically about their work. “I never wake up in the morning and say I don’t want to go to work today,” Commander Lieutenant Colonel Zac Delwiche said. “There is intrinsic value in what we do.” The unit’s medical officer, Major David Dominguez, who helped write the manual setting out the nation’s medical response to a WMD attack, sees the exercises as a “see one, do one, teach one” process. Dominguez finds it rewarding to “practice daily to save lives, knowing what you do will make a difference.”
After all was said and done, I walked away feeling reassured about the regional efforts professionals are making to prepare for a disastrous event. According to the 95th’s public relations officer, “There were nearly 3,000 participants in BayEx 2011, from planners, participants, observers, controllers, and safety personnel all the way to role players and volunteers over a four-day period. There were at least 100 agencies and departments involved between local, state, federal, civilian and volunteer organizations.”
Operations Officer Captain Nathan Serena said that working on a ship in Alameda is a “fantastic venue” and thanked Alameda for being receptive to their unit being here.
If you want to see what happened, you can view the Alameda Point and BART exercises below. I think you too will be reassured.
Shorter version published in the Alameda Sun.