Explosions, Toxic Plumes Abound in San Francisco Bay Area Drill

Golden Guardian exercise brings Bay Area officials together to develop communication skills.

by , / May 19, 2010
Paul Williams, GTtv

[Photo: A sea lion trained to locate explosive devices salutes officials during California's Golden Guardian statewide training drill. Photo by Paul Williams.]

Acting on "credible intelligence" that something in the form of a terrorist attack might occur in the area, San Francisco Bay Area officials manned several posts to gain a tactical edge in case the reports were true.

Then it happened. At approximately 9:18 a.m. on Tuesday, May 18, officials at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the tactical center and a unified command post were notified of an explosion of a container ship at the Port of Oakland; another ship entering the port struck an improvised explosive device and lost its steering ability, and a possible toxic cloud in nearby Redwood City.

Then at 9:48 a.m. there was a report of suspicious people in the water in the China Basin area of San Francisco. And at 10:33 a.m., the Maritime Security level was raised to MARSEC 3, meaning no movement was allowed on the water while officials, some using dolphins and sea lions to locate explosive devices, patrolled the waters. 

These scenarios along with other possible disasters in the making were a test, part of Golden Guardian, a full-scale, statewide exercise held annually in California. This exercise differed from past Golden Guardian exercises in that the participants were assembled as a result of intelligence rather than at the reaction of an event, such as an earthquake.

"This is a regional exercise, we're working with multiple jurisdictions along the bay, we're working with possible attacks on maritime security. So in San Francisco we're really looking at how we would help other municipalities along the bay deal with and react to these incidents as well as get ahead of anything that may occur [in San Francisco]," said Jill Raycroft, an exercise planner with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, from a building set up as a unified command post.

The post included members of the San Francisco Police and Fire departments and the local port authority. "Again we haven't had anything happen here, it's just to see how these three departments work together and are interconnected," Raycroft said. 

At each location, participants watched DVDs of pseudo news reports about the various incidents occurring around the Bay Area. It was a test of sorts to see what issues might crop up when the real thing occurs. At the tactical center, a glitch occurred when San Francisco police officers couldn't log on to the FBI's Law Enforcement Online site. First the site timed out, then officers found that their passwords weren't valid.

"That's the type of information we want to capture and document," said Sgt. Neil Swendsen of the San Francisco Police Department. "It's all part of sharpening that sword, sharpening that blade."

Swendsen said events like the Golden Guardian are OK, but more training events, even on a much smaller scale with other agencies and jurisdictions, would be ideal. Without that constant training, there could be a lack of trust and some wrestling for power.

"In a perfect world, what you would want is a group of core people who are constantly trained and constantly exercised, and that takes a huge commitment and a huge amount resources. And it's really unrealistic for some departments," he said. "You've got to really work through the politics and build relationships."

Back at the EOC, officials were working on a report that nearby San Mateo County had lost emergency communications and in the China Basin divers and sea lions and dolphins were hunting for explosives. Luckily it was all just a drill.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at