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FBI uses Washington Square as terrorist response center

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - During last weeks exercise, about 100 members of the FBI, and other local agencies practiced different situation, with the help of about 30 volunteers posing as bystanders, terrorists and victims.When federal agents descended on Washington Square mall last week, they knew what to expect.

A shooter, somewhere in the mall. Armed and dangerous. And, he’d taken hostages.

This was the situation agents from the FBI’s Portland Division found themselves in during a major field test at the mall on Wednesday, April 30.

The simulated terrorist attack was meant to test the responses of the FBI, as well as the Tigard Police Department and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in the event of a terrorist attack on the mall. The agencies practiced how to react, communicate and work together during emergency situations.

Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman with the FBI said the training session — which took place after the mall had closed — took months to plan.

“You are able to test a lot of different things. You test reactions, you test equipment and how communications work between you and other agencies,” she said. “Can you communicate? It’s very different standing in a parking lot in the middle of the night as opposed to something preplanned. You test things in the scenario that you can’t test around a table.”

The overnight operation was part of the FBI’s Complex Mall Attack Initiative, Steele said, developed to promote preparedness and strengthen partnerships in the event of an attack on a shopping complex.

“This is a program going on in every field office across the country,” Steele said. “Months ago we had a tabletop exercise with local mall executives and security teams where we went around the table and talked through a scenario, what resources we each bring, but we knew we would have a field exercise at some point.”

The training comes about a year-and-a-half after the Clackamas Town Center shooting, which left three people dead, including the gunman, Jacob Roberts.

“Law enforcement collectively experienced the deadly assault at Clackamas Town Center in December 2012,” said Gregory Bretzing, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon. “We’ve seen similar attacks in the U.S. and across the world. We have to make sure we are ready to respond quickly and effectively. Lives depend on it — and that is a responsibility we take very seriously.”

Steele said it took about 30 volunteers to fill various roles for the operation.

“They helped us out being bad guys, victims, hostages. In total we had 100 people from all the different agencies.”

Significant exercise

Tigard Police tested its first response capability with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

“Police and EMTs would be first responders to this situation, and were able to test how they treat the wounded and triage them or even get them out of there,” Steele said. “We are making sure we are all working together and talk amongst each other, and do that in an effective way.”

Tigard Police Chief Alan Orr said the exercise gave the agencies a chance to work together in a controlled environment.

“Now, more than ever, partnerships with law enforcement, such as the FBI, are integral in maintaining safe and livable communities,” Orr said. “Equally important are the community partnerships, which serve to further strengthen our cities and make them safer.”

The simulated attack also gave SWAT agents and others the chance to practice their response, Steele said.

“And it was not just SWAT. We process a simulated crime scene. We bring in a hostage negotiator, support crews and bomb technicians to test responses, where they go into a situation that they believe contains an (improvised explosive device),” Steele said. “That all plays into the larger exercise.”

The FBI trains for situations like this all the time, but rarely on this scale, Steele said.

“There are a lot of different pieces that we don’t bring together often,” Steele said. “They train independently, but if you get involved in a situation like this in real life, you need to bring these teams together.”

In 2007, the FBI participated in a nation-wide training involving several cities, and then participated in a smaller training exercise across the Portland area a few years later.

“This is not as big as those, since we were only playing with Tigard and the mall and TVF&R,” Steele said. “But this was a significant exercise for us.”




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