Opinion: Berkeley first responders should continue to participate in Urban Shield

Urban Shield is about training first responders for rare events, like a terrorist attack. It lasts 48 hours, so it will not make police officers “racist.” The training is valuable.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about police and first responders participating in a training exercise known as Urban Shield.

At the June 13 City Council subcommittee on NCRIC and Urban Shield, Mayor Jesse Arreguín removed his earlier vote to prohibit the police from participating in Urban Shield or from attending the trade show associated with the event. While his stated reason for doing so was because the vote raised unclear legal issues, he also commented several times that he was unaware of any negative incidents associated with members of the Berkeley Police Department attending any of these exercises, and that according to first responders, both the training received from these exercises and materials discovered at the associated trade shows from past exercises have been instrumental in saving lives in other disasters in Berkeley.

Urban Shield is about training first responders for rare events. The events Urban Shield prepares our first responders for are not the day-to-day events we see in most of America. These events, ranging from disastrous accidents to terrorist attacks are rare, but damaging to the community they occur in.

Two aspects of emergency training covered in Urban Shield I would like to address:

In “disaster” situations, including fires, earthquakes and severe accidents, regardless of the organizational issues, fire or medical will probably take the lead. Having said that, the police are required to act in almost any such incident especially in terms of crowd control and minimizing crimes of opportunity. In addition, most disaster scenarios involve intense action on the part of first responders that lasts for long periods (days, at least). Because of the rarity of these situations, it is critical that all first responders, including fire, health services and police train together to deal with these situations in as realistic a form as possible.

In a terrorist attack or another form of criminal attack, it seems likely that the police would take the lead; however, it is unlikely that the police alone can handle such a situation since people are usually hurt or killed in such events, and often fires and/or hazardous material releases are involved. Also, these situations, while usually relatively short in duration (less than a day) involve actions outside of normal day-to-day activity, and frequently highly intense periods of physical activity and emotional stress. In such situations, first responders, whether fire, health services personnel or police, respond based on training. So, it is critical that training prepare these first responders to identify and respond appropriately to these emergencies.

Many detractors from Urban Shield complain that the training will militarize our police department and will turn our police into racists. I find this argument to be somewhat unthinking in that the entire exercise lasts for about 48 hours and is only given once a year.

Another argument has been to have our own training separate from Urban Shield. Both the fire and police chiefs have said that planning and staging such training is beyond the current ability (for both staffing and expertise reasons) of either department. Further, the apportioned cost of the training for Urban Shield for Berkeley seems to be over $1 million. However, this is paid for from Homeland Security funds. If we did this training on our own, the cost would be higher since it would lose the economy of scale currently realized through Urban Shield, and it would have to be paid for our of general funds from the city of Berkeley.

It has also been suggested that Berkeley should place more emphasis on prevention, de-escalation and preparedness. However, all these skills are embodied in the continual training mandated to all our first responders as part of their ongoing training requirements. The Urban Shield exercises, on the other hand, are a once a year short, intense set of exercises to help prepare the first responders to deal with unexpected (and yes, violent) events that are not easily covered in the classroom. It would be criminal not to take fullest advantage of this type of training when available.

It is critical to the safety of our community that all first responders be encouraged to take the fullest possible advantage of any training offered through Urban Shield.

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside updated the publication time after publication due to a technical issue with our daily newsletter. No other changes were made.

Paul H. Degenkolb, a 40-year resident of Berkeley, is a licensed mechanical engineer who worked 17 years in the aerospace industry 20 years as an IT manager. He has completed two of the standard Arrest and Firearms courses for California peace officers.