Florida Keys News
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
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A full-scale field exercise
Drill tests communication, ability to function as a team

A pair of Homeland Security explosive specialists paced across the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Ingham Tuesday afternoon, patiently waiting for a device to be brought to the surface after it was found attached to the side of the retired vessel.

Nearby, Key West police cars lined the cul de sac as a police boat circled its diving team in 30 feet of water, searching the length of the boat for a bomb.

It was plain to see, something was amiss. No worries, it wasn't for real.

"Every three years we have a full-scale exercise requiring field operations," said Lt. Jason Nguyen with the Coast Guard Key West Sector on scene.

The three-day event started Monday after intelligence was received last week that a "threat" might be imminent. In this case, the intel scenario was that a terrorist group was attempting to set off a bomb on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, which escalated security levels across the globe.

The next step was to pull together agencies from the local, state and federal level, including the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Navy and Key West police, to deploy assets and deal with the simulated threat to national security, Nguyen said.

"We received direct intel to raise our Maritime Security Level (here in Key West)," he said. "We stepped up patrols locally as part of the exercise."

The groups were graded on how well they communicated and functioned as a team.

During the next segment, a search by a law enforcement boat was part of the increased security measures. All the agencies met at the scene where the device was believed to be located. After the "bomb" was found and the threat defused, they were debriefed, which was also part of the drill, to see how quickly they reacted to each other's actions.

Taking part in the exercise was the Key West Police Department.

Early Tuesday morning, Sgt. Jeff Williamson stayed on the boat as dive leader Randy Smith, assistant leader Lee Lovette and dive team members Michael Malgrat, Steve Mitchell, Jessie Young and Janeth Calvert searched the waters for the potential bomb.

"I stayed behind to make sure the ship was 'locked out,' which means everything was shut down so none of the dive team could be hurt," Williamson said.

He said the team often holds its own training drills, so this was a routine dive.

"We do this from time to time, check under cruise ships as a training drill," Williamson said. "It is known that cartels will attach a magnetic package under the hull and then when they get into port, another diver goes under and pulls it off."

All in all, it was a successful exercise, despite Mother Nature's rain deluge.

Today, the final day, will be spent at the Key West Emergency Operations Center to go over the information gathered during the past two days, Nguyen said.

"Each year is a different scenario," he said. "We look at current events and what is happening at the time. Yesterday (Monday), the shooting spree at the Navy base in Washington, D.C., is a prime example of why we need to do this."

sfrederick@keysnews.com

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