Officers defuse bombs, rescue hostages in exercises at state center

Published Sep 17, 2015 at 4:00pm

WHITESTOWN — “Interoperability” was the key word on Wednesday when more than two dozen law enforcement agencies from across the county and state came together for a large scale training session at the state’s Preparedness Training Center.

They diffused bombs, rescued hostages, rappelled down an elevator shaft and took out dangerous terrorist suspects at the state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind facility. And most importantly, according to the officers, they did it together.

“You go out and you’ll meet new guys, you’ll learn something new — even if it’s one thing that you can take away and it helps your team, you can’t ask for more,” said Sgt. Lance Zaleski, of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office. Officers from their Special Operations Unit and K-9 team were on site on Wednesday.

“You can’t come into this saying, ‘you know what, I’ve been a SWAT guy for 15 years, I know everything’. If you do, then it’s time to hang your stuff up, because you don’t.”

Both the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office and the Utica Police Department joined in the training, which included police departments and sheriff’s offices from across the state. The Rome Police did not attend.

This was the fifth-year of the inter-agency training operation at the Preparedness Center, and it has grown to such an extent that they have christened it with the name “Excelsior Challenge.”

The training focused on bomb squads, SWAT teams and K-9 units, and featured seven different scenarios; a bomb at a public protest, a manhunt in a wooded campground, a hostage situation inside a bank, a suicide bomber on a bus and more. The Preparedness Center is the go-to site for such training because of their large-scale training facilities that recreate actual emergency situations.

The Center has a fake campsite built in the woods, a fake trailer park, and a rubble-filled disaster area, complete with fake elevator shaft, among other simulated locations. The crown jewel of the Center is the Cityscape, an entire city block built from the ground up inside an old airplane hangar. The Cityscape features a paved road, sidewalks, a fake school, fake shopping mall, and fully-furnished businesses, like a fake bank, a fake pub and a fake bookstore.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal, and it’s free. You can’t beat it,” Zaleski said of the Cityscape. Officials bragged that the only other facility in the country that comes close is what the FBI uses to train in Quantico, Virginia.

“Agencies right now have such a fixed budget when it comes to training, so when you have a training opportunity like this you can’t turn it down,” Zaleski said.

All police agencies across the state who have bomb squads, tactical teams and K-9 units were invited to attend, officials said. About 100 trainees from 32 departments took them up on the offer.

“It’s about bringing in the tactical teams,” said Bob Stallman, assistant director of the Preparedness Center, which falls under the purview of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

“Trying to give them all the tools and practice we can, so when they real thing happens, they’re ready.”

Part of Wednesday’s training was also about networking between the police agencies. In the event of a real emergency, when agencies across the state have to work together to respond, they’ll hopefully no longer be strangers.

“This training provides a face-to-face contact with the other teams,” said David Gutzmer, commander of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office’s bomb squad. “So in the event that an incident does happen, we already know the people we’ll be working with because we’ve met them at the training facility.”