Public Safety & Homeland Security

Suspicious Suitcase Provides Lessons for Multijurisdictional Response

Monterey, Calif.’s deputy police chief notes similarities in management of large projects and incidents.

by Corey McKenna / May 16, 2011

Projects and incidents involving multiple jurisdictions and disciplines can impart similar lessons when it comes to shared governance and leadership, Michael Aspland, deputy chief for the Monterey, Calif., Police Department, told a group of attendees at the Government Technology Conference West last week in Sacramento, Calif. Similarly shared governance is critical for a clear understanding of routes of communication and responsibility, he said.

“We all share common threats with common outcomes,” Aspland said. “We’re up against the challenges of different cultures, different missions, different initiatives and different chains of command.”

Aspland wrote a thesis involving case studies of public safety radio systems in Monterey and Marin counties. Monterey County changed its governance structure to facilitate a new system, while Marin County adjusted the governance structure of its network following issues with improper prioritization that hindered communications between personnel involved in the response to a 2003 flood.

In his thesis, Aspland identified three kinds of risk: financial, managerial and operational.

He then outlined three aspects of a strategy to mitigate those risks.

  1. Time and grind — “This is about working out the details,” he said. “This is getting together and talking through the issues. If you’re in a position of leadership on these groups it’s a guiding, not necessarily a pushing thing.”
  2. Relationships — “What will make your consensus team work the best is if you have prior project experience with the people that you’re sitting with because you don’t have to start from square one.”  
  3. Meta-leaders — “If you are a meta-leader, it really doesn’t matter what discipline or profession you come from, if you have the ability to think past that, those are going to be the key people,” Aspland said.

Lessons from these case studies might have been applied to a multiagency response to a suspected pipe bomb on the Naval Postgraduate School campus in March 2010.  

Bomb Scare Example

A report of a pipe bomb at the Naval Postgraduate School on Sunday, March 14, 2010 illustrated how the three aforementioned factors could have resolved a potentially ugly situation much faster.

At 7 p.m. a Naval Postgraduate School professor leaving a campus building noticed a suspicious suitcase unattended outside the building nearby a 2,000-gallon diesel tank. He reported it to the campus security, who called county dispatch.

Jurisdiction for the incident fell to multiple responders, including campus police, a regional bomb squad, Monterey police and fire departments. This was complicated by the fact that there was confusion of the procedures among the responders, who did not routinely work together, followed by a failure of the paging system that prevented the bomb squad from being immediately notified.

An X-ray of the suitcase at 11 p.m. showed what appeared to be a pipe and caps, however the information that began to go out from the scene suggested that it was a pipe bomb containing nails. At that point, a call was made and the Monterey Fire Department responded.

At 1 a.m. the next day, with the fire department on-scene, the bomb squad destroyed the bag with a coffee can-sized disruption device that might have launched the pipe 300 to 500 yards into the city of Monterey. Law enforcement examined the suitcase but could not locate the pipe.

Working together, police and fire searched the area, but the pipe was not found.

“People at the scene were working together,” Aspland said. “The fact is people calling in didn’t know who had the ball.”

Coordination between city police, campus police and federal agencies continued on the post-incident investigation and trying to locate the suspected device. At this point, concern that the pipe contained explosive had subsided.

Tuesday morning, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reviewed the X-ray of the suspected pipe bomb and determined that it was a ghost image. The image resulted from an X-ray used in a prior training exercise that had not been erased from a hard drive superimposed on what turned out to be an empty suitcase.

The commander of the Presidio of Monterey army base, located three miles from the Naval Postgraduate School with the city of Monterey in between, had been alerted of the suspicious suitcase and happened to reach the same conclusion a day earlier, but that information didn’t get passed on.  

Two things done correctly were on-scene communication and incident command. However there were issues with scene containment, post-incident investigation and follow-up because of the overlapping jurisdictions. “Feds don’t necessarily work very closely with the city here. We just don’t have these concurrent jurisdictional issues going, so it can create confusion when you don’t work with somebody except in a significant event,” he said. “In this case, it was not knowing what procedures and policies were, not knowing what jurisdictional issues existed, not knowing discipline cultures that we were dealing with.” He said.

Since then, lines of communication have been opened between the city, the Presidio Monterey and the Naval Postgraduate School. In September 2010, the Army base hosted an active shooter exercise. Participants included the Monterey Peninsula Regional Special Response Unit, the regional bomb squad and the Monterey Fire Department that operated emergency operations centers and the Naval Postgraduate School. Additional exercises have been scheduled for the spring and fall.

“We now have regular meetings with all stakeholders to make sure we’re coordinating information,” Aspland said.  

Additionally the city has since experienced two incidents of suspicious packages where the appropriate authorities were notified at the outset. “So we’ve actually had legitimate suspicious package events that have been handled perfectly as a result of lessons learned from this event and we have developed a shared governance model to manage the event.”