When I signed up last year for a three-day course to be certified as a member of Santa Monica's Community Emergency Response Team, I wanted to be prepared for the Big One; I wanted to know what do if fire breaks out in a high rise; I wanted to know how to help car accident victims.
Mostly, I just wanted to feel less helpless in the face of disaster. It's a good idea, because, as our instructor made clear on the first day of class, "You can't depend on the government. I'm the government, and I'm telling you, we're not coming."
I got the badge, the hard hat, the vest, a way-cool tool to turn off the gas. And as a CERT volunteer, I also get invited to help out at community events. So there I was at 5:30 this morning at Santa Monica Place watching 18 fellow CERT members being plastered with fake wounds and having fake bloody limbs jammed into their shirts and pants. Today, the community needed us, and nine high school Police Explorers, to play the role of people caught between the car bomb across from Nordstrom and the two masked shooters running amok near Bloomingdale's.
A couple of times a month, the Santa Monica SWAT team conducts drills to hone their crime- neutralizing skills. Generally, such exercises occur in controlled spaces, such as a warehouse, but today was the first time the team used an "occupied space." The Santa Monica College shootings last June remain vivid for this city's first responders, and the mall was necessary to perfect an emergency response everyone hopes they never have to repeat.
The Office of Emergency Management choreographed it with the help of mall management and the city's commercial interests. Very few things in Santa Monica are allowed to interfere with the robust, revenue-enhancing exchange of goods and services, but this was important, because terrorists generally don't do you the favor of operating in environments with which you're comfortable.
We checked in and were assigned our roles. Mark Hollinger teaches emergency medicine for the L.A. Sheriff's Department, but he moonlights as a disaster set-dresser. He cut one guy's shirt and stuffed a bloody arm stump inside; glued shrapnel wounds onto a woman's forearm; rendered a Heidi-braid-sporting woman into a burn victim. She asked if she could keep the mask to wear later at her PTA meeting.
Mark Hollinger turns a volunteer into a victim.
We were bomb blast victims, we were gunshot victims, we were told by Paul Weinberg, emergency services coordinator, to "have fun with it, ham it up. We're trying to create a heightened sense of anxiety." CERT trained us to respond to disaster victims, to triage, to ameliorate damage, but that was not our job here. We were not supposed to resist the terrorists, or to be heroes.
"If an officer is terse with you," said Lt. Robert Almada, emergency services manager, "roll with it. There's lots of anxiety, which can manifest as officers being rude."
A rude officer giving me a rolling-stop ticket is objectionable; a rude officer saving my life ... yeah, I'm good with that.
The cops knew they would be involved in a training exercise, but were not told the details in order to assess how well they responded to surprise. They would play both the good guys and the bad guys, and their mission was to neutralize the threat, not rescue us. The Fire Department folks would take care of the injured, the dazed and confused, unless we were assigned to be "DRT"--dead right there.
"I'll pretend to have a heart attack," offered one CERT guy. Because he once suffered an actual cardiac event, he said, "I know exactly how to act."
"Perfect!" Weinberg said, as if his ideal scenario would be a volunteer who once had the good bad fortune to have been held hostage for six hours in a dank parking structure.
"Am I dead?" asked one volunteer, uncertain about her role. "I have a gunshot wound to the head."
Affirmative. Unless that's not a gunshot wound, but bomb blast shrapnel. Check with Hollinger, the guy holding the bottle of Ben Nye Stage Blood (Zesty Mint Flavor).
My job was to kneel on the concrete in a line with four or five other short-lived actors, our hands clasped behind our heads while one of the shooters methodically shot us in the back of the head ... unless, of course, SWAT got to him first.
Like any true emergency, the drill didn't exactly adhere to the script. After the bomb detonated, the DRTs assumed position, the walking wounded were triaged (or not) and the two shooters took off toward Bloomies. We the doomed waited for our masked man to appear, but it all happened so fast we were too dispersed for anything as organized as a lineup. The bad guy burst into the room, pursued by five or six cops. The shooter grabbed two hostages, and I was left cowering behind a steel girder between the hunters and the prey. When the bad guy forced the hostages around the corner, a cop told me to run out the other way, and exit the mall any way I could.
I fake froze, and he yelled at me again, waving his rifle in the direction he wanted me to go. Two minutes later I was out on the sidewalk with the other victims, dead and alive.
As we left the premises, the police and fire personnel were engaged in "hot wash" -- the debriefing immediately after the exercise. It'll be a while before the full report is written, but in a quick summary provided by the OEM, "On February 19th 2014, there was a terrorism incident at the Santa Monica Place Mall. There were multiple shooting victims as well as a car bomb explosion. The people responsible for the attack were neutralized by law enforcement."
I don't know if the hostages made it. But I do know that my city practices to respond to the unholy acts of the deranged and the venal. In a free society you can't be completely safe, only safer. And, today, we are.
Photos: top, Santa Monica Office of Emergency Management; others, Ellen Alperstein