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First responders practice emergency preparedness at Tulalip Resort Hotel

TULALIP — Law enforcement agents from across the country were able to hone their skills at the Tulalip Resort Hotel March 23-27, as the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office staged the National Sheriffs’ Association First Responder Program.

According to Sgt. Anthony Aston, lead instructor with the National Sheriffs' Association First Responder Program and a 24-year veteran of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, the goal of this program is to prepare officers to respond to major emergencies, including terrorist attacks, with a focus on saving lives, preventing further harm and protecting potential evidence.

Aston explained that the nine law enforcement agencies whose members arrived at the Tulalip Resort Hotel included more than 30 officers, from as nearby as Marysville, Tulalip and Seattle, and as far away as Iowa, North Carolina and Massachusetts. He noted that the Department of Homeland Security provides these agencies with grants, which completely cover the costs of training, transporting and hosting their members, regardless of venue or jurisdiction.

Aston elaborated that the program was divided into five modules, plus a practical exercise at the end that allowed the students to apply the lessons they'd learned. The first module trained officers to conduct vulnerability assessments of their communities' critical infrastructures and key resources, by evaluating their strengths, weaknesses and needs.

"This is something they probably already do, but it allows them to do it in an organized fashion," Aston said.

The second module concerned chemical, biological and radiological hazardous material incidents. It not only emphasized the steps that officers need to follow to protect themselves in such environments, such as wearing and using the proper equipment, but it also taught them to recognize the signs indicating whether they're dealing with natural, accidental or terrorist events.

"It's a new day and age on that one," Aston said.

The third module outlined the steps of setting up an incident command structure for first responders, so that those who arrive on scene within the first 15-30 minutes of a critical incident can organize fellow officers in controlling the situation, and establish procedures that those who relieve them can follow.

"In that sense, you're building a foundation that other officers can lay their house on," Aston said.

Retired FBI bomb technicians conducted the fourth module, on bomb recognition and post-blast investigation, so that officers can spot booby straps and suspicious events. Retired FBI Special Agent Bomb Technician David Williams lectured the evening of March 24 on the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

The fifth module addressed crowd control, ranging from protests to CBR hazmat incidents.

"These events could affect children, or hospitals, or mass areas," Aston said. "In an age of text messaging and cell phones, if kids let their parents know that their school is quarantined, or patients let their families know that their hospital is quarantined, do you have the crowd control procedures in place to deal with this, while limiting contamination?"

To review all five modules, students were divided up into two groups, one playing the role of a task force dealing with a terrorist event, while receiving information from federal and local governments, and the other armed with a tabletop model city, on which they literally mapped out their plans and resources in response to a critical incident.

Marysville Police Sgt. Mark Thomas was struck by the complexity of the training, whether it concerned small-scale or multi-jurisdictional events.

"The steps are still the same," Thomas said. "There's a lot of layers to the things that need to get done. We're learning a standard set of operations that applies to a wide variety of both planned events and unplanned events, and the same steps apply to both."

Thomas enjoyed interacting with fellow officers from the South and East Coast, and was fascinated to learn the differences between each agency's procedures and requirements.

Monroe County Sheriff's Sgt. Eric Davis, who hails from Georgia, echoed Thomas' comments about the long classroom hours of the program, but his occasional weariness was more than offset by his enthusiasm for both the material and the location of the program.

"It's been a very good experience," Davis said. "It's good information and good training, and the instructors have been great. We've enjoyed our stay here, and the facility we're at is outstanding."

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