By high noon on April 30, the old Altenheim nursing home building in Forest Park looked like something out of the movie SWAT: Tactical units from across Illinois manned staging areas, snipers were poised to take their shots, command posts dotted the cemetery, streets were marked off and a handful of officers stood steadfast, eyes trained on the building, waiting to give the order to go.
Inside, 20-25 hostages were clustered in an unknown location, taken by a hostile, home-grown terrorist group, bent on stealing nerve agents and releasing them into the Chicago mass transit system. One man was dead, two were wounded.
The only clue that this nightmare scenario was, in fact, a training drill, was the presence of several observers wearing bright yellow police vests and furiously scribbling notes on every decision, every maneuver, every minute lost, every detail missed.
The training drill, titled Operation Village Watch was the brainchild of Forest Park Police Officer Nick Kozak, who also serves on the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Special Response Team (ILEAS).
Kozak began working on the drill in October of 2004 and said it was designed to: uncover any problems the teams might encounter if something like this actually happened, iron the problems out, and ensure that, if and when the teams are needed, they can work together as one solid unit.
It was also an opportunity to evaluate the teams and their performances.
The main goal for the day, Kozak wrote in the information packet given to all participants, was enhancing interoperability and synchronicity”i.e. working as a team.
The script was based on several recent events in law enforcement, mixed together to create a worst-of-the-worst-case scenario for the participants.
At approximately 10 a.m., the first patrols to arrive were told they were responding to a burglary in progress, but instead found a dead security guard and a breach at a high-tech research facility, the “Altenheim Research Corporation.”
The Altenheim, in this incarnation, was not home to an elderly population but to a research lab developing and testing new chemical and biological materials for use by the military.
The facility, whose description was based on an actual privately owned business, had weapons grade biotoxins and chemical agents”specifically, Anthrax and influenza.
The responding units quickly discovered they needed help as there were bombs rigged to every door and hostages had been taken. There was also an active “shooter,” similar to the incidents at Columbine, Colo. and the Founders Bank in Illinois. A terrorism element was added, based on the Improvised Bio-Lab in Illinois and on Al-Qaeda training tapes.
As the scenario unfolded, more and more organizations showed up and coordinating all the teams at the Command Post became essential. At the post were representatives from the Forest Park and Oak Park police departments, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and ILEAS.
Also on site were members of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Cook County Bomb Squad, police dogs and Cook County negotiators, who attempted to open the lines of communication with the terrorists.
By noon, the first of many problems became evident; the Forest Park Police Department radios did not operate on the same band as the ILEAS response team and the Cook County Sherriff’s team.
Forest Park officers Steve Johnsen and Steve Weiler were hard at work ironing out communication problems and a lead member of each team involved was present at the command post on each of the different frequencies, coordinating all movement.
The officers at the command post found they had to relay the same message several times over different bands, all at the same time to help coordinate the teams breaking into the building.
“Lt. Weiler and Johnsen are coordinating with deputy sergeants from Oak Park and Cook County and the reserve unit with the special forces,” explained Police Chief James Ryan. “We knew we would have problems communicating.”
Despite this, said Larry Bieneman, a sergeant with the Oakbrook Terrace Police Department and liaison with Homeland Security, who was observing and scoring the men at the command post, the teams seemed ready to tackle the problem.
“They are doing exceptionally well, all of the field commanders from all the different departments are coordinating phenomenally well,” he said. “They have a lot of different things thrown into the mix, plus five or six teams out there, but they are doing very well.”
“IED,” chirped the radio, after a loud bang alerted all present that a bomb had gone off.
The message prompted a swift response from the Cook County Bomb Squad, who moved in, as the tactical teams cleared each floor methodically, searching for the hostages and their captors.
“We go in and render safe [the explosive] packages,” explained John Merola, a bomb tech with the Bomb Squad. “One of the things a perpetrator will do is to situate explosive devices to limit the advance of the team.”
As the teams inside the building came to a standstill, bomb techs quickly cleared the way for them to advance and bomb-sniffing dogs held the rear making sure all devices had been found and deactivated.
“Now that is something you don’t expect to hear in the U.S.” said a bystander listening to the radio traffic advising that IEDs had been found.
The term IED is military slang for “improvised explosive devices,” a term made popular by the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. Its use over a Forest Park radio band brought home a chilling reality that the units have been training for and hope never happens”that America is still on watch and that small towns like Forest Park might be at risk.
“The suburbs are a better hiding place because it is an easier place to make money for a business, and you have a better chance of a solid support group,” Kozak said. “It is not if it is going to happen; it is when it is going to happen. If you look at New York, there were groups from all over the country, and in Oklahoma City it was the same thing. That’s why we are doing this now.”
Another bang and a gaseous cloud emerged. Patrol officers quickly mobilized along the perimeter, radio traffic increased and the word was out that sections of town were going to be evacuated.
Inside the building, the feeling was tense. Men dressed in full tactical gear with M-16 weapons, traveling in packs, cleared each room.
“Gas masks, forced air purifier, handgun, a couple of us carry pressure pads, hands free walkie-talkies, backpack with breaching tools,” described Brian Prochaska, with the ILEAS team, showing his equipment.
The ILEAS team has been specially trained in chemical counter-terrorism and dealing with chemical agents.
As the teams swept the third floor of the building, they encountered the bad guys and a few wounded hostages. Not knowing who the bad guys were, all persons found were isolated, handcuffed and interrogated on the spot.
The hostages were all members of the U.S. Marine Corps Delayed Entry program, training to go to war, and the “bad guys” were all volunteers from the Northern Illinois Tactical Shooting Club.
In another room, ILEAS team members took down a door to use as a backboard for a wounded victim and administered first aid.
“Everyone seems to have it down,” said observer Jason Kane from the Milwaukee Police Department. “There was a lot of good work today.”
But not everything went off without a hitch.
“The area was too big for patrol officers and there was confusion in sustaining the perimeter. If [it were real], it would have been a huge problem,” Johnsen said after the exercise.
“It seemed the teams, once they got moving, did a good job, but I saw a lot of hesitation,” added the lead “bad guy.”
Also, there was a hazardous material container that was left untouched and unchecked in the operation. It was a cooler marked as containing nerve gas and sitting out in the open that should have been secured.
Finally, the teams were concentrating on the hostages and neglected to pick up the manual indicating what research was being done and what materials were on the premises.
In the end, the exercise proved successful and the hostages were rescued, but, said several officers on the scene, the biggest value was in figuring out how each of the agencies worked.
“Smaller agencies do not have the resources or manpower to mitigate major or drawn-out incidents,” Kozak wrote. “Therefore, these agencies must be able to operate with and coordinate with several different agencies to achieve their end goal. Each municipal, county and state agency all conduct operations differently.”