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Urban Shield and Alameda County’s ‘Ad Hoc Committee’: What is at stake

by John Lindsay-Poland

Alameda County faces significant risks of mass disaster from earthquakes and fires, and in the here and now is experiencing the slow-moving but devastating disaster of the housing crisis. In this context, the focus on responding to terrorism that dominates the training exercise known as Urban Shield, together with the exercise’s repeated expressions of racism, its tone deafness to community needs, and the war game quality of its SWAT team competition, have provoked sustained opposition to Urban Shield.

Urban Shield is coordinated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. It is funded by county resources and by a grant the Department of Homeland Security known as the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI).

In March of this year, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors responded to community opposition by deciding that it would not fund Urban Shield “as currently constituted” after 2018. “Urban Shield as we know it ends … after this year’s Urban Shield program,” read Supervisor Keith Carson’s motion, which was approved 4 to 1. Supervisors emphasized the different between preparedness for natural disasters and training against terrorism, and decided to convert the $5.5 million UASI grant to Alameda County into an entirely “emergency preparedness effort…not a $4 million emergency preparedness effort that deals with natural disasters and $1.5 million that deals with manmade contingencies [Urban Shield], that we have now.” [Note: the Urban Shield portion of the UASI grant is in fact $1.7 million.]

The supervisors then decided to appoint an ad hoc (temporary) committee to make recommendations on what the UASI-funded exercise and grant should be. It took the board several months to appoint members of the ad hoc committee and to decide on and contract facilitators for the committee, which is operating under the requirements of the Brown Act and must complete its business by early 2019. Supervisor Carson appointed me to the committee, as he had to the much larger Urban Shield Task Force last year.

The committee held its first meeting on September 19, not long after the Urban Shield exercise held on September 6 to 10, which committee members also observed. The committee’s first meeting elected a chair (Erin Armstrong, of Supervisor Nate Miley’s staff), the county’s deputy counsel explained the Brown Act, decided on a calendar through December that includes meetings in each supervisorial district, and outlined needs for data to inform our recommendations. At the first meeting, we also identified needs for data – I submitted the list below.
I believe this committee should articulate a vision for the emergency preparedness needs of Alameda County and the Bay Area that addresses:

  • the most important risks (and who gets to define what’s important);
  • who receives training (police? County agencies? Vulnerable community members?);
  • design for the training exercise(s); and
  • who coordinates the various pieces of these efforts.

The committee’s facilitators agreed to incorporate the articulation of such a vision into our process.

The sheriff’s office had three staff at the first meeting, including Undersheriff Richard Lucia, who spoke at length about the Bay Area UASI, on whose approval authority (board) he was vice-chair for several years. The undersheriff claimed that Urban Shield and UASI training courses coordinated by the sheriff’s office satisfy a federal requirement that 25% of UASI funds be dedicated to law enforcement prevention of terrorism activities. (In fact, more than a quarter of BAUASI funds besides the Urban Shield exercise and training satisfy that requirement.)

 Just one member of the public was present. Paula Rainey from Alameda spoke during public comment about SWAT teams’ explosives practice during Urban Shield at a sensitive bird sanctuary in Alameda Point this year.

Fulfilling the supervisors’ wish to produce recommendations on how to reconstitute the UASI-funded emergency preparedness exercise will be a challenge. I will continue to write about it in this space.

For a web page with materials on Urban Shield and how Alameda County has addressed it, see this web page.  

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Data needs submitted by John Lindsay-Poland to the UASI Ad Hoc Committee, September 19, 2018:

“In order to understand what the options are for UASI regional exercises in 2019 and beyond, it is important to understand the resources that have gone into Urban Shield. We request the following:

From BAUASI:

  • FY17 MOU (most recent) between BAUASI and Alameda County
  • Meeting with BAUASI staff, including coordinator of Yellow Command

 From Alameda County Sheriff’s Office:

  • 2018 Urban Shield expenses, including breakout of expenses for Red, Yellow, Green, Grey commands, and payments to private contractors and parties
  • Number of Alameda County Sheriff’s Office staff who used Urban Shield as part of pay incentive program for each of the years 2015 through 2018.
  • Most recent audit of ACSO / Urban Shield (as required by MOU)

 In order to conduct the survey mandated by the 2017 Urban Shield Task Force, we request the following information of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office:

  • List of all agencies that have participated in Urban Shield, indicating their role or roles (competing team, host, evaluators), and in which discipline or disciplines (tactical, urban search and rescue, maritime search & rescue, EOD, hazmat, CERT) they participated for each of the years 2014 through 2018.

From other sources:

  • Information on emergency preparedness programs that use a whole of community or community-led model”

In addition, other committee members requested data on: 

  • Research on the efficacy of emergency preparedness programs
  • Decisions by the Alameda County Operational Area Council and its support for emergency preparedness
  • What other regions in the United States do for emergency preparedness

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