An ode to our Golden Guardian

MAY 20, 2010

Not sure if you’ve noticed lately, but terrorism warnings are increasingly like car alarms. We all hear them, and know what they mean, but when they go off we just go about our business as though nothing unusual is happening. They’re invisible, just background noise. Even an attempted car bombing in Times Square – foiled by, of all people, a couple t-shirt vendors – produces little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.

Not to sound glib, but remember when terrorism was big? There were the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., sure, but those were pretty abstract for most people. The pitfalls, suspense and endless red herrings of the Fox show 24 – which debuted at roughly the same time – were far more real and immediate.

But now 24 is coming to an end, and few seem to notice. It’s like the color alert system the Bush administration started nearly a decade ago. It’s Orange now (I think) but who can remember the last time anyone said or did anything about it? Who even remembers what Orange means?

This is why I wasn’t surprised to find that virtually no one has been writing about Golden Guardian 2010, a massive statewide simulated disaster exercise that ran May 18 and 19. This year’s “theme” was terrorist attacks on port facilities, so across the state, police, fire and other emergency crews fanned out to deal with simulated assaults on our myriad wharves and piers. There was a simulated hostage taking and ship bombing in the Port of Sacramento, a pretend ferry hijacking in Long Beach and a made-up bombing on Redwood City’s wharf.

Terrorists bombing Redwood City? What’s next? Dirty bombs in Paso Robles?

Seriously, I didn’t know anything about all this until today, when I read a press release from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office.

“I am very proud that California has the best law enforcement and first responders in the world,” Schwarzenegger said in the May 19 statement. “But there is always room to improve, and practice makes perfect. Exercises like this are so important, because we must be prepared for the real thing. Here in California, if the unthinkable happens, we will be prepared.”

Yes, we must be prepared (notice how Arnold used that word twice?) and vigilant and there’s always room for improvement and God forbid any of us should think the unthinkable, but after we wade through our governor’s clichés and platitudes, we’ve got to ask whether any of this is actually making things better. Looking over past Golden Guardian exercises (Schwarzenegger started the program back in 2004), there’s evidence that says otherwise.

Golden Guardians 2006 and 2007 also dealt with terrorism. According to the After Action Report Executive Summaries provided to the public, the biggest “Area for Improvement” (“Failure” is such an ugly word) is that police and firefighters just don’t talk to each like they should be. This isn’t a new or academic problem, either: one of the most glaring findings of the 9/11 Commission was that New York police and fire units didn’t talk to each other, even to relay warnings of imminent building collapses, which contributed to the deaths of hundreds of cops and firefighters.

“The Response Information Management System (RIMS) remains non-user friendly, difficult to obtain posted information, and slow in processing when the system is used by many applicants in an emergency,” the 2006 report explained. “Fire, police and other first responders continue to lack reliable interagency communications tools.”

A year later, little had changed. “Golden Guardian 2007 demonstrated that successful communications interoperability at the local level is still a challenge,” stated the 2007 report. “Additionally, some first responder agencies did not have a solid communications links [sic] that enabled them to perform simultaneous actions toward the safe mitigation of an event. The causes for the difficulties were not having the interoperability communications equipment on site, or a lack of training on equipment that was there.”

Golden Guardian 2007 also had the distinction of going a tiny bit haywire. After an official with the non-profit organization History San Jose accidentally received a fake “alert” fax warning about a contagion that had supposedly been released into the air at a recent HP Pavilion concert, she began e-mailing the non-profit’s members. It took a half hour of very tense calls before drill officials were able to calm everyone down.

In any case, Golden Guardian 2010’s After Action Report is weeks away, at least. But have no fear – our state’s First Action Hero is on the case.

“Governor Schwarzenegger has made public safety a top priority,” Cal EMA Secretary Matthew Bettenhausen – who runs the Golden Guardian exercises every year – said in the May 19 press release. Of course, Schwarzenegger has many “top priorities.” One of them is unemployment, which has been lousy for years, and currently stands at a nauseating 12.5 percent.

-Anthony Pignataro

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