The industrial building filled with smoke, thousands of shards of broken glass and a city bus looking worse for wear after about a pound of C-4 was detonated inside might have seemed post-apocalyptic if it weren’t for a whistled rendition of “The Hunger Games” theme and sporadic bursts of laughter.
The role-players — some sporting gruesome makeup to simulate the impacts of the terrorist attack their comrades were training for — prepared for their work with the easy confidence of those trained to handle explosive ordnance.
About 300 military and police personnel from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the U.K. spent last week at Satsop Business Park as part of Raven’s Challenge VIII, giving explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) experts, police and fire agencies and the federal analysts who would process information in a real crisis the rare opportunity to train together.
“This is the largest interoperability EOD exercise in the world,” said Special Agent Brad Earman of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF organizes the training.
The Satsop excercise was one of four sites nationwide spending the week participating in a storyline involving multiple terrorists attacks with mainly improvised explosive devices.
“We’re responding together, we’re gathering information, we’re then going to push that information up to federal agencies who are going to collate that information and look for commonalities and hopefully prevent further attacks,” Earman explained.
The teams participate in other trainings, some at the state level and some with only federal agencies. In a real attack, though, many agencies would respond at once, and everyone already knowing one another might prove a crucial advantage.
“When something like this happens in Seattle, everyone knows each other, we’ve been through this extensive training,” Earman said. “Historically, that’s what leads to success, because you have those pre-existing relationships.”
Explosives Enforcement Officer Brennan Phillips said care is taken when designing the annual event to avoid too many specifics on the terrorist group itself in creating the storyline.
“We do see improvised explosives as a fairly likely threat, so this is a good exercise to deal with that,” he said.
The individual training scenarios, eight in all at Satsop, are altered each year based on actual threats bomb teams might face, or have faced.
“One scenario here, the inspiration could have been Boston,” Earman said, referring to the attacks at the Boston Marathon last year.
In the bus scenario, soldiers from the 701st Ordnance Battalion at Joint Base Lewis McChord act as injured civilians after a terrorist has detonated at least one device on a bus.
“That would be kind of a London tube type situation,” Phillips said. “It’s a mass casualty situation that requires bomb disposal people to work with police and fire.”
A bomb team member supervising the exercise explained that the attacker had three devices in all, two of which are now “low ordered,” or not fully detonated.
“The bus driver knows the guy came on with three backpacks, with the right questioning, they’ll find that out,” he said.
But first, the responders in the training have to decide how to evacuate the injured while coping with an unknown number of additional bombs.
“It’s a balance,” Earman said. “That’s the exercise, that’s the training.”
In another scenario, participants must disable explosives in the trunk of a small sedan. They prepare a water charge known as a “boot banger” to do the job.
Viewed through cameras in the bustling command center, the back half of the car disappears in a circular cloud of mist as a sound like low, nearby thunder shakes the building.
As the mist clears, the back passenger side has disappeared. A hunk of rubber that was a tire just a few moments before falls back to the ground with a wet smack.
Most of the bombs in the scenarios are training devices, rather than live explosives, but the devices teams used to disable them are very real.
Though most rental agreements don’t call for a maximum size of explosives to be used, Manager of Business Development Alissa Shay said she wasn’t nervous about the ordnance exploding throughout the week.
“It doesn’t, because it was meant to be a nuclear facility, and the reactor building where they were doing the explosives was built to withstand being run into by a Boeing 747 — it’s pretty sturdy,” Shay said. “If they felt comfortable with using our facility, then we should. I feel pretty comfortable it was built to withstand pretty heavy impacts. That’s one of the reasons it was selected, because if its unique nature.”
The park is rented for set-up and the training itself for $24,950, Shay said. It causes minimal disruption to the regular tenants.
“There’s random rumblings throughout the day, but that’s really the only disruption,” she said. “They’re really awesome to work with.”