- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Worst-case scenarios seem to be happening more than people care to count.
There was the Arizona mass shooting where six died and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured in 2011. The Sandy Hook school shooting left 28 dead in Connecticut, and 12 were killed in a Colorado movie theater shooting, both in 2012.
Over the years, anthrax has been placed in postal packages, suicide bombers have sneaked into airports, and most recently a gunman at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., murdered 12 people and then killed himself.
During the coming days, security forces at Patuxent River Naval Air Station will beef up training efforts to better face unpredictable, deadly threats like these. And they’re calling on St. Mary’s County and state law enforcement, along with regional emergency services workers, to help them pull it off.
“We’re making sure we’re ready to respond to real-world threats and the people are kept safe,” said Capt. Ben Shevchuk, commanding officer at Pax River.
Federal and military workers are used to annual drills like these — this one is called Solid Curtain-Citadel Shield and is happening across the Navy. But Shevchuk said he wants families who have loved ones working at the air station, county government officials and community organizations to know the base is actively monitoring its security capabilities. “Threats exist,” he said. “And they do change.”
Training will focus on areas including surveillance along the fences, at the gates, handling suspicious packages and disposal of explosives. Selected buildings on base will go through drills designed for their areas.
Shevchuk also expects about 50 police officers, 30 military masters at arms and additional staff from Pax River to work with others from the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office and the Maryland State Police, and emergency services from St. Mary’s and Charles counties during part of that training next Thursday.
The scenario will be based on a shooter on a rampage, what the Navy calls “an active shooter,”similar to what occurred at the Navy Yard. Hostage negotiators, SWAT and a helicopter search and rescue team are expected to be on hand, Shevchuk said.
Emergency planning is a countywide effort, said Gerald Gardiner, St. Mary’s County emergency management planner. Depending on an event, security forces at Pax River, or in the county, could need extra support, he said. The Navy and county organizations have worked together in the past on everything from fire and rescue to getting updates out to citizens.
During the drill next week, Gardiner’s team will stand by and wait for information, and then practice coordinating what services are needed to support the scenario — the same thing they’d do in real life. But the best thing that can happen in situations like these, he said, is that the general public is prepared as well.
Have a home fire drill plan, “like where everybody goes outside and meets at the front tree,” he said. Have a communications plan. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and following the earthquake three years ago, phone service was disrupted for people trying to make calls on the East Coast. But sometimes, Gardiner said, calls get through to other parts of the country. If you have a friend or family member out West, agree to call them and ask that person to make a call to significant other people, Gardiner said.
And he said his team is willing to come out to neighborhood associations and meetings of other organizations to give safety briefings.
“I think it’s very important that they know we’re planning,” Gardiner said.
St. Mary’s County school security team members were briefed about the Solid Curtain event recently. Although they won’t participate to the degree of local law enforcement, the school system also has several high-threat emergency planning events scheduled throughout the year. School officials also want citizens to know they have emergency plans ready, said Michael Wyant, director of safety and security.
Each school completes 18 drills a year. And they report back to Wyant about how things went, and what they learned. Those plans are revised each year. Ten of the drills are to practice what to do in a fire. Eight are designed to help students and adults in schools prepare for scenarios that could be every community’s nightmare.
Lockdown training is underway right now, Wyant said, for a time when children and adults in the school need a safe place to go but can’t leave the building. Children have been taught to turn off lights and stay away from windows and doors. The school system is looking at other measures, as well, such as upgraded locks on classroom doors and window coverings.
Within the past six months, he said, all the county schools can now say they have an electronic access system installed. And his security team is creating a video to teach parents and the community about these drills.
One, called “shelter in place,” is done in case of a chemical spill nearby or unexpected severe weather. Reverse evacuations are practiced for a time when children might be outdoors and need to get back in the building. There’s a drop, cover and hold exercise that was implemented about two years ago, partly in response to the Aug. 23, 2011, earthquake in central Virginia.
A silent evacuation exercise takes place to prepare for issues like a threat that is inside the building when the school might not want to announce an evacuation over its loudspeakers. And school staff practices using automated external defibrillator machines, which are installed on walls, used for medical emergencies like heart attacks.
“We’re committed to doing the best we can,” Wyant said.
Shevchuk said he hopes the Pax River training will empower people on the base, too.
Things as simple staying off roads during a tornado warning will be emphasized. But security forces also will teach workers to think about “run, hide, fight,” Shevchuk said. If someone can’t run to get out of a situation, they can hide, or put themselves on the attack and face the aggressor.
“We have to make sure that folks are always on the lookout,” he said.
If a vehicle is parked in the wrong place or looks suspicious, or someone looks out of place, “just speaking up — having the courage to do that — is very important,” Shevchuk said.