A burst of “shots” ripped through the quiet corridor to echo on the terrazzo floor of the McNamara Headquarters Complex. A smell like that of several lit matches wafted from the blanks fired by the Defense Logistics Agency police officer.
Soon a woman burst from a first-floor suite, waving a simulated handgun. She appeared to be pregnant. The woman ran into the DLA Human Resources suite next door, shooting “victims” at their desks.
Seconds later, phones buzzed and rang as the HQC warning system sent calls and text messages to the workforce. A public address announcement prompted a human river flowing to the exits, hands held aloft, while intercoms blared an alert tone.
Back in the HR suite, volunteer “victims” continued playing their role. Some clutched lifelike gunshot wounds while yelling for help, gasping for air and calling out their injuries — all with unnerving realism.
Others lay still on the floor or slumped in chairs, feigning death.
Outside, the gates to the complex closed, barricades went up and DLA Police officers stopped all traffic.
Seconds later, DLA Police officers burst through the door of the HR suite, their blue mock handguns drawn. They moved quickly through the cubicles and offices, clearing areas as they searched for the “shooter.”
They found her hiding under a desk just like so many victims — a self-inflicted gunshot wound helping her blend in.
The officers “shot” the attacker. Then they discovered that the bulge in her torso wasn’t the pregnancy it appeared to be — but a vest filled with explosives, represented by PVC pipe.
This active shooter was also a suicide bomber.
The officers slowly retreated, and a few minutes later, technicians from the 55th Explosive Ordnance Disposal company arrived from the main post to defuse the bomb. All the while, the haunting cries of the victims continued to fill the suite.
After an announcement ending the exercise, thousands of HQC employees walked back across the HQC parking lots to re-enter their workplace.
It was all part of a lifelike exercise Sept. 6 at the McNamara HQC on Fort Belvoir, Virginia — part of the greater “Capitol Shield” exercise for the greater Washington, D.C., region. The event tested the readiness of first responders along with the workforce of DLA and the other agencies in the complex.
Joining the DLA Police and 55th EOD Company were officers from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters nearby and firefighters from Fort Belvoir Fire and Emergency Services. In addition, personnel from the Belvoir Community Hospital, Fairfax County Police Department and Fort Belvoir Garrison staff contributed to the exercise, said James Johnston, DLA’s antiterrorism officer, who led the planning and execution of the exercise.
The introduction of the simulated bomb, along with a different HQC location from last year’s exercise, helped create unpredictability and reflect current threats, Johnston said.
“The purpose of an exercise is to validate existing plans,” he said. “Things that we found out today are definitely going to be key to keeping everyone safe.”
Adapting to the Threat
The McNamara HQC, home to DLA since 1995, has conducted such exercises regularly since just after Sept. 11, 2001. In addition to the exercises, DLA Police officers train for incidents throughout the year.
Each exercise incorporates lessons from past exercises and is based on threats law enforcement and intelligence experts consider most likely, replacing types of attacks made harder to perpetrate thanks to increased countermeasures, surveillance or technology, he said.
Johnston noted that the number of active-shooter events in the United States has been growing each of the past several years. In 2000-2015, there were 202 such incidents, or an average of just under 13 per year, Johnston said. But in 2016 alone, there were 20 mass shootings, and there were 30 in 2017 — an increase of 50 percent.
A key purpose of any exercise is to find areas for improvement, he noted. This year’s exercise pointed to potential refinements in employee notification and accountability.
Contributing to the unpredictability of this year’s exercise was a real-world event nearby, on the main post: a traffic accident. Although this slightly delayed the start of the exercise, Johnston noted that a real attacker would not necessarily wait for a calm day without distracting outside events.
The planning for each year’s exercise begins six to eight months in advance, Johnston said. The effort ultimately involves about 100 people.
That means each exercise relies on scores of volunteers, he noted. Fortunately, a diverse group of civilians and military members, from multiple DoD agencies across Fort Belvoir, stepped up to contribute.
This year’s exercise included 12 volunteer observers, who document the response; 12 evaluators, to judge the response; six controllers, who coordinate with the managers of the exercise and each other to speed up or slow down the activity in their area of the exercise; about 13 volunteer victims plus another to play the role of attacker; and 30-40 first responders.
In the pre-briefing just before the exercise, Johnston emphasized the importance of creating an environment that gives the first responders realistic stimuli, chaos and stress. He urged the volunteers to “never break role, unless there is a real-world emergency” and to “earn their Academy Award” with their reactions.
He noted that because in stress of an attack often causes victims to unintentionally give responders inaccurate descriptions of an attacker, the actors should also feel free to do so. During the exercise, wounded victims called out to the police officers that the assailant was at various points a man, a large woman and a group of people.
In reality, she was none of those but a lone, small-framed woman, played by Allison Polizzi of DLA Energy — a bundle of PVC pipe under her shirt pretending to be a bomb that was pretending to be a pregnancy belly.
Polizzi talked about why she volunteered for the role. “I told my kids, ‘Y’all might be working here one day,’ ” she said in an interview before the exercise. “I want to make sure everyone’s safe. If that means throwing everybody for a loop, that’s what we’ll do.”
A volunteer victim had the same motivation. “With everything that’s happened recently, it’s important to practice responding to these types of things,” said Yancy Duran-Castañeda of the Defense Contract Audit Agency. “Nobody really expects it to happen in their workplace,” she said, a red faux wound glaring from her face.
Providing those lifelike injuries was Navy Seaman (Hospitalman) Ashley Vargas, who’s worked in the general surgery department at Belvoir Community Hospital the last two years. She also works regularly with the hospital’s wound-care center.
“That experience helped me with this moulage,” Vargas said, using the term for injuries simulated using putty, makeup, corn syrup and other harmless ingredients.
Johnston encouraged those who might be interested in volunteering for the next exercise to contact him, since help is needed every year, he said.
He urged everyone at the HQC to take these types of exercises seriously, learn what their response should be and strive to be vigilant most of the time.
“It doesn’t matter what the scenario is,” he said. “If you know what the response is and you can apply it correctly, the chance of saving your own life and your family’s goes up significantly.”