A young woman rolls on the ground clutching her abdomen as first responders descend upon her.
“Oh, my God!”, she screams in agony, as blood pools on the pavement beneath her. “I’ve been hit! I’m bleeding! Somebody help me!”
Other victims lay scattered around her, some being hoisted onto cots and carried away by emergency workers, while others fade in and out of consciousness waiting on help to arrive.
To the left, white smoke billows through the afternoon sky, dancing in and out of what used to be business storefronts with windows but now hold nothing but empty frames with shards of glass after the explosion.
“All units respond to 4th and Main,” a voice blares over a nearby policeman’s radio. “An explosive device has detonated. We need back up.”
While it sounds like a scene ripped out of the morning headlines after a terrorist attack, similar to the Boston Marathon bombing, it could also be the script for a simulated disaster drill using victim actors for crisis training of first responders and law enforcement.
In fact, “Urban Shield Boston” — a 24-hour simulated training exercise conducted annually in the Metro Boston area and billed as a national example for other communities — has utilized crisis actors from the San Diego, California-based Strategic Operations, according to a recent report by The Atlantic Cities website.
“The drills are intended to be strikingly lifelike. Urban Shield has worked with Strategic Operations, a Hollywood effects company that also helps prepare army medics for the battlefield. (Their disaster scenario staff, Baker says, include an amputee.),” Henry Grabar, writing for The Atlantic Cities, noted. “With a generous helping of moulage, their drills aim to force officials to confront both the logistical and atmospheric challenges of a disaster.”
The training event involves more than 600 emergency responders from 50 agencies, and is so real it prompted Boston’s mayor to issue a 2012 public notice assuring residents there was no danger to citizens.
Strategic Operations, along with other companies like Denver, Colorado-based Visionbox Studio (Crisis Actors), supply not only trained role players but effects and props such as combat wound makeup, training structures, wardrobe, and pyrotechnics.
Last year, Strategic Operations introduced the “blast trousers”, which replicates groin-area injuries complete with a spurting femoral artery.
“A vessel in the cavity replicates the femoral artery, and fake blood is pumped at similar pressures as in a human body,” according to a 2012 report in the Marine Corps Times and posted on the company’s website.
Clients of the companies include branches of the U.S. military, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Justice Department, U.S Marshall Service and numerous domestic and international law enforcement agencies.
And while many simulated exercises are conducted in controlled environments and locations, there is mounting concern that “live” exercises — with or without crisis actors — have been carried out during the Boston Marathon, the annual Capitol Fireworks display in Washington, D.C., and other large-scale public events.
On the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, NBC affiliate WPMI-TV in Mobile, Alabama ran a local story about a University of Mobile coach who reported seeing heightened security at this year’s running event prior to the explosions, including bomb sniffing dogs and law enforcement spotters on building rooftops.
“They kept making announcements to the participants do not worry, it’s just a training exercise,” Coach Ali Stevenson told Local 15.
Similarly, a 2008 op-ed piece in the Boston Globe described the marathon as a “dry-run disaster.”
“According to BEMS chief Richard Serino, his department considers events like the marathon and the Fourth of July celebration as “planned disasters” – safe, controlled environments that present “an opportunity to test some things you would never want to test in a real disaster.”
In addition to providing realistic training opportunities for first responders, these planned exercises may have the unintended consequence of blurring the lines between simulated and real disasters, and fueling suspicion of critics who worry that such events are being used as props to dismantle constitutional freedoms and civil liberties.
A recent story by Fox News profiled one such critic.
Florida professor James Tracy, according to the report, believes that the Boston bombing was a “mass casualty” drill planned by the government.
“In short, the event closely resembles a mass-casualty drill, which for training purposes are designed to be as lifelike as possible,” Tracy wrote in an April 22 post on his personal blog, Memory Hole. “Since it is mediated, however, and primarily experienced from afar through the careful assemblage of words, images, and the official pronouncements and commentary of celebrity journalists, it has the semblance of being for all practical purposes “real.”
Tracy previously alleged that victim actors may have participated in a planned exercise during the Sandy Hook, Connecticut school tragedy last December.
Increasingly, the federal government is awarding grants to agencies like Homeland Security to conduct training exercises in major U.S. cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.
The April 19 report by The Atlantic Cities also revealed that over the past decade DHS has shelled out “billions of dollars” to Boston and at least 30 other U.S. cities for the development of various protection strategies.
In 2009, it was announced by the Mayor of Boston that the city was awarded more than $15 million in grant money to develop strategies against potential terrorism and catastrophic events.
“The Boston site contains a number of critical infrastructures and high profile targets,” said a draft investment justification document for the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program (RCPGP) administered through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In addition, several high-profile, annual events such as the Boston Marathon draw more than a million spectators and participants into the region,” the draft continued in part.
“Terrorists have clearly demonstrated both the intent and capability to employ Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) worldwide. As this type of threat has the potential to produce a large number of causalities and destruction to critical infrastructure within the Boston site, a layered multi-discipline, multi-jurisdictional regional approach for the coordination of all hazards plans to prevent, prepare, respond and recover to such an incident is imperative.”
Share your thoughts below.
Are you concerned that disaster preparedness drills are being conducted during live public events, or do you accept this as a necessary function of government to ensure the safety and security of our citizens?