At an abandoned movie theater on the Boston-Brookline line, gunmen and their hostages shuffled out the front door, huddled under a thick blanket. Waiting SWAT teams, unable to tell friend from foe, could not shoot, but had to act quickly, or the group would make it to a getaway van.
That was one of the scenarios Boston-area first responders faced Saturday as part of an intensive training exercise dubbed Urban Shield: Boston.
The exercise, now in its second year, began at 8 a.m. Saturday and was to unfold over 24 hours. Participants included local police and fire departments, Boston’s Office of Emergency Management, the Coast Guard, the MBTA, area hospitals, and regional SWAT and hazardous materials teams, according to the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. This year, the city got funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security.
The groups worked together to respond to simulated emergencies at locations in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, like the harbor, a closed subway station, and the University of Massachusetts Boston campus.
Saturday afternoon at the former Circle Cinema in Cleveland Circle, on the Boston-Brookline line, special weapons and tactics teams confronted a simulated armed bank robbery in which the robbers were trying to escape with hostages.
Details of the scenario were withheld from the SWAT teams: Each team is evaluated by trained observers on how well they adapt to unanticipated events.
Afterward, the teams analyze their performance and trade tips and tactics. The robbers, played by police officers armed with guns that fire nonlethal “simulated bullets,”are encouraged to try to win, in this case, by making it to a waiting getaway van.
When the robbers emerged with their hostages, a waiting MBTA Transit Police SWAT team quickly encircled the group, snatched the blanket off their heads, and tackled each person, all without firing a shot.
“You might sit in a classroom and learn something now and then, but this is real-world pressure,” said Rene Fielding, director of the Boston Office of Emergency Management, which is helping to oversee Urban Shield. “If they have to lose, you want them to lose here, not in real life.”
Circle Cinema was also the site of a second exercise, one that simulated a shooter in a movie theater.
That event was planned before the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in July that killed 12 and injured dozens more, but has taken on renewed relevance. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said officials debated canceling the movie exercise after the Aurora incident, fearing that it might salt raw wounds, but ultimately decided to go ahead in the interest of preparedness.
Meanwhile, at the Bowdoin Blue Line MBTA station, which is closed on weekends, firefighters and hazardous materials teams from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and other nearby communities practiced responding to a suspicious package on a train. Onlookers in the busy downtown area gawked at the dozens of firefighters and decontamination tents full of rubber suits and air tanks.
“It’s good to build relationships between the departments,” said Deputy Fire Chief Bill Hallinan of Somerville. “When something really happens, it’s good to have met each other.”
Hallinan and other fire officials agreed that one of the most valuable aspects of the training was learning about each department’s capabilities, so first responders can call officers in other towns or cities who may have specialized skills or equipment appropriate to the emergency at hand.
The exercises were expected to peak Saturday night with a simulated disaster at UMass Boston,where responders were to confront an active shooter, a hazardous materials threat planted on a docked ship, and a chemical spill in a school lab.
The scenario was designed to test the ability of the various teams to work together, communicate effectively, and establish a clear command structure, all while the clock was running.
Other exercises were scheduled to continue into early Sunday morning.
“It makes sense: Why not be prepared?” said Jo Oltman, 31, who walked by the Bowdoin exercise.
“If something major happens, you want to know that they can all get together and do their jobs.”