The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have put pressure on local authorities to show they’re ready for that kind of violence. Some jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles, are stepping up exercises and terrorism simulations.
There’s a hill near downtown L.A. — it’s kind of a mesa, overlooking Dodger Stadium. There’s a big parking lot up there — and right around 3 p.m. last Friday, the lot started filling up with police cars.
This is a “muster” — a surprise test by the L.A. Police Department brass to see how quickly they could get their on-duty police to converge at a central point. The cops show up already wearing helmets and ballistic vests and carrying their big guns — there a few hundred of them, and as they form up into ranks, they look like an army. The deputy chief in charge of counter-terrorism, Michael Downing, steps up to a microphone and delivers a speech about how peace officers sometimes have to act like soldiers.
“For that small amount of time that we’re asking you to go out and interdict and put down a threat, you become a soldier,” he says, as a police helicopter swings in overhead, with two tactical officers hanging off the side, looking armed and ready. “When you’re involved in your mission, you’re gonna have these guys above you.”
After the helicopter and the speech, it’s time for the police to get their scenarios. These are simulated calls for help — a captain in tactical gear reads them out — and it quickly becomes apparent that in this exercise, several attacks are happening around LA simultaneously. It sounds a lot like what happened in Paris, and Downing says that’s no accident.
“One of the things with the terrorism arena is they defeat a strategy, you defeat a strategy, they come up with another strategy,” he says. “So we’re trying to stay one step ahead.”
And it’s not just police that are having to think strategically, like this. This kind of militarized mindset is taking over in all the emergency services — firefighters and paramedics, too.
“It’s becoming a lot more like combat,” says E. Reed Smith, an emergency physician who’s the operational medical director for the Arlington, Va., fire department. “Not only are you trying to take care of a patient who maybe has been shot, but you have to worry about yourself getting blown up.”
Smith is one of the leading proponents of a new philosophy in emergency services that seeks to prepare medics for combat-like situations. They wear ballistic vests and helmets now, and go into dangerous areas with armed escorts.
This change started happening about a decade ago, but Smith says the tactical complexity keeps growing. Now EMTs and firefighters have to worry about something like Paris or the 2008 attack on Mumbai — tactical challenges that are beyond the average school shooting.
“We get jammed up when you throw in explosives, when you throw in fire being used to shape or amplify the devastation,” Smith says. “Fire being used as a weapon. That’s what we call complex attack.”
Still, Smith cautions against emergency services diving too deeply into the military mindset. Some of the lessons of Iraq don’t apply to LA. For one thing, when you’re dealing with civilian victims, the injuries are very different. And some EMTs simply don’t believe they signed up for this kind of combat emergency work; in some cities, it’s not policy.
Back on that mesa in Los Angeles, the officers have gone off on their simulated assignments, and the attention turns to the press conference in front of the LAPD’s big black mobile command center. Chief Charlie Beck acknowledges these exercises are partly about perceptions.
“We will do these trainings regularly, not only to remind the public of the continuous threat and our ability to meet it, but also to prepare ourselves,” Beck says.
The hope is that if and when a real attack happens, it’ll be similar to something the police and the EMTs have rehearsed.