WEST ORANGE, NJ – On Thursday, on Pleasant Valley Way, there were shots fired, loud explosions and people running off a bus shouting, “They are going to start killing hostages every two minutes.” However, this was not a real hostage situation; rather, it was a “Mock Active Shooter/Terrorist Drill,” run by the West Orange Police Department in conjunction with county, municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
It was the third such drill performed in West Orange, with similar exercises done at a school and a cinema in the recent past.
“This is our third drill that we have done in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and the Picatinny Arsenal,” said Lt. John Morella of the WOPD and member of the Montville Township Board of Education. “This is the first time that we were able to enlist the aid of the FBI to where an actual municipality was able to turn over a scene to the FBI. It is one of the first ones that we are aware of.”
It was also a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for many of the people involved, according to Morella
“The goal here was to get our guys a bunch of training that is typically not available to anybody,” he said. “The training that we did today is typically done in less of a setting as this. We typically don’t have actors. We don’t have all of the different types of technologies available. This is something that is like a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a lot of guys who take an opportunity to do it. It’s just a great learning experience for everybody. It allows you to see where your weaknesses are, and it also allows you to see where your strengths are. The whole point of this is so that this way, we can do it in a safe environment, so that guys can get excellent training and get an excellent experience.”
Thursday’s event took months of planning and included 120 people. It was a success, according to all involved. It served as a training exercise to aid the law enforcement in assessing strengths and weaknesses in actions related to a possible terrorist attack.
West Orange Police Chief James Abbott said, “I was extremely happy, everything went off, there were no injuries, everybody did a great job and my congratulations to—really my thanks to all of the participants and the volunteers who came out for this, the young kids, the adults.”
“This was a simulation, but it was about as real as it gets,” he added. “There were months and months of preparation that went into this and it came off as expected. And, I think it better prepared all of us for this type of event in the future.”
On Aug. 18, after receiving a media advisory from the township, TAP into West Orange published a news item informing the public that Pleasant Valley Road between Stanford Avenue and Route 280 would be shut down from 9 a.m. until around 2 p.m. on Thursday so the police could conduct an emergency drill. TAP was invited to cover the “drill.” The public was not supposed to know what was planned but word was leaked out and some residents arrived to watch the drill. This too was part of the exercise.
There were two parts to the drill. Part of it took place on a bus, and the other took place inside the synagogue.
The simulated drill began with a call to the WOPD regarding a bus accident where a pedestrian was hit by a bus. A New York City bus was used for the exercise.
Once officers got on scene, they realized this was not the case—it was instead a terrorist incident with hostages on the bus and inside Congregation Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D), located at 700 Pleasant Valley Way.
According to Abbott, a synagogue was chosen because of heightened awareness with issues in the Middle East.
“Our synagogues are always under constant police surveillance and protection, we have a very high Jewish population and we do our best to protect them,” he said.
The situation escalated from there.
First, the terrorists on the bus, one with a rifle and the other with a suicide vest, “killed” the bus driver by slitting his throat and tossing him off the bus. One of the terrorists on the bus then called the WOPD Communications Department, while the leader and other terrorists inside the temple flooded the WOPD office with more calls to tie up the employees and lines.
The terrorists were making demands for having prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, and were speaking in Arabic. They said that if they didn’t get their demands met, they would start killing hostages.
They then began acting on their threat. They used blanks on the bus, for the sound effect to be heard outside. And, they started pulling victims out of the bus, one at a time, to be killed in front of law enforcement.
“The first wave was taking care of the bus,” said Morella. “The local police department came with other departments to try to handle the bus. We had multiple hostages being killed by the terrorists; we also had suicide vests in play that would actually expel powder. And on the inside, we had actual people that would speak Arabic language contacting our communication desk so that this way they (the department) could get a full feel if something like this was to really happen. The actors also made a plethora of phone calls to the department to flood the lines, so this way our communications department could also be handled.”
Five “actors,” all males, acted as terrorists. One of the actors on the bus got off and detonated his suicide vest killing everyone in the area, with simulated casualties visible outside the bus from the “explosion.” The other terrorist on the bus then kept “killing” hostages to try to get their demands met. Screams by the bus hostages could be heard a block away.
When the police got on scene, there were 12 stage "kills" (people who appeared deceased). Morella explained that this was important so the police could actually see and feel what a situation like this would be like.
He also explained that stagecraft materials were used both as weapons and as wounds. He said that simunitions (non-lethal training ammunition) and UTM were used, “basically paint balls that are expelled from real live guns, but it’s a non-lethal hit, so what it does is allow for a little paint pellet to hit the body.” He also said they had to wear masks because the pellets come at a high velocity and “it will hurt.”
The explosions were basically done via CO2-charged suicide vests that also had baby powder in them to give the simulation of a vest going off, shared Morella.
The injuries to the bus driver, the 12 staged deaths and other injuries incurred throughout the exercise were staged—pre-done, according to Morella.
“We had University Hospital come up with their moulage (application of simulated illnesses or wounds in order to better train healthcare professionals) expert to doctor everyone up so the injuries looked real,” said Morella.
Inside the synagogue were three terrorists, one with suicide vest and two with rifles.
He explained that this simulated real life where the police “don’t know everything going on.”
“There were a lot of different things that happened to be distractions, where we had an individual inside that was armed and dangerous and had explosives on him,” said Abbott. “We had people outside to create distractions and they were also armed with explosive vests, so they went after police officers that initially responded and were no longer available because they were hypothetically injured.”
Morella said, “You have to understand, in these types of incidents, you are going to have death. That is their main idea (the terrorists) when they come here. They want to cause as much chaos and as much catastrophe as possible. So, no matter what, people are going to get hurt, people are going to get killed—sometimes its officers, sometimes its civilians. It’s the way you have to deal with it. We want to actually practice how we are going to play, and make them (officers) realize that this stuff actually does happen in the world and we have to prepare for it.”
In the end, all the terrorists were neutralized. Two killed themselves with suicide vests and the other three were shot and killed by officers.
"It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that gave me a realistic view of how federal government works together to execute a mission," Montville Township Police Explorer Pam Danko said.
With the drill over—next comes more hard work. The law enforcement agencies will go back and review the footage shot by the Picatinny Arsenol and Bae Systems to ascertain what was done right and what needs work.
“Each time afterwards, we go back and we critique it and find out how we can do it better,” said Abbott. “We want to be prepared, not just us at the West Orange Police Department but how we are going to work together and network to respond to an event like this in the event that it does occur.”
Abbott discussed ways it will be critiqued on “so many different levels,” and said, “for instance, a lot of people that are here are legitimately videotaping this with their phones, and I can tell you we are not going to allow that in the future. We don’t want a thing like this to end up on YouTube … that’s what I learned from this today, itself. We asked everybody not to release it and there are people who are here legitimately and some are strictly here as invited guests and observers. So, in the future, there will be no recording of this type of event other than by reporters we have set up previously.”
Asked what we can learn from something like this, Abbott said, “Well, the issue we have been seeing is ‘copycat’ with the cinemas and the schools, etc.”
He added that his hope is that “law enforcement is going to be adequately prepared to respond to this (copycats).”
“What is great about this whole experience, is that it was the first time that we were able to combine not only municipal, county and state but also to get federal involved because you typically don’t see drills like this when it comes to terrorist incidences where you get all agencies involved,” Morella said. “It’s a great learning experience. Of course you are going to come away with some ideas for whereas we need improvement, and will come away with areas to where we did very well. So, that is going to be hot-washed at a later time. There was tons of video cameras done by Picatinny Arsenal, that we will be able to look at for educational purposes.”
Other groups also have take-a-ways from the exercise.
Lieutenant Colonel Ingrid Parker, garrison commander for Picatinny Arsenal said, “We provided technological support. We have intra-agency partnerships with some of the folks out here, so we provide some technology support, and second, we have our own exercise coming up soon, so we came to watch some of the challenges that the police face here.”
She added, “We all face similar challenges, which is time. You only have a certain amount of time to bring an event to fruition. The second one (challenge) that we anticipate is the amount of police that you have available. And, the last one (challenge) is communication. You have to be able to communicate with a really diverse audience, from the media to the people that are involved in the incident. And, then of course is your leadership. So, we all experience those same things. So, we wanted to see how someone else worked through those issues.”
When asked by a newscaster how scary a lone wolf situation is where a person could just show up wearing a vest, Garrett McKenzie, assistant special agent in charge, FBI Newark Division for Crisis Management said, “That’s really our number one fear right now … its really difficult for us to get on track of them … the less planning, the attacker does, the less opportunity there is for us to get involved.”
McKenzie was also asked, “You have dismantled some people involved with ISIS but how difficult is it to get the intelligence on people like this?” He said, “It’s difficult, but it’s not so much more difficult than other methods of getting intelligence. We rely heavily on our informants; we rely very heavily on community; local law enforcement. Anybody who is a member of the community knows people, talks to people and they engage with someone and they get that ‘sense’ way before we’re ever going to get it that there’s somebody who’s got a problem that we may need to look at.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Congregation AABJ&D, who said they (the synagogue) have a great relationship with local law enforcement, also had some take-ways. He said, “I think you have the comfort of knowing that if ‘god forbid’ anything would ever take place, that local, state and federal law enforcement have a good feel for our building, our facility, and to see them handle the scenario with such professionalism was comforting. On the other hand, it’s obviously very frightening see it all go down.”
“We work very closely with Chief Abbott and Lieutenant Morella and the West Orange PD,” he said. “They are phenomenal at protecting us and we are really very grateful to them.”
When asked if he is wary of danger because the High Holidays are coming up in Sept., he said, “We’re vigilant at all times of the year. We have our own security that works in tandem with the West Orange PD and beyond—all the levels up. We work very closely with them. I am really proud of that relationship.”
“Every time of the year is something that we always have to be aware of,” he said. “We have been always vigilant and just watch what’s going on.”