Sonoma Raceway Trades Motorsports for First Responder Vehicles

Counties and agencies come together for evacuation drill from Bay Area earthquake.

by Jim McKay / March 29, 2018
A volunteer his helped by first responders during a drill at Sonoma Raceway in California. Novato Fire District

The scene at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., was not the normal sounds of engine noise and the blur of racecars on the track, but of first responder vehicles and a Blackhawk helicopter.

It was a drill last Friday that combined agencies from multiple counties, the National Guard, the FBI, Cal Fire, Team Rubicon, the local hazardous materials teams and the local SWAT.

It was a central location for the counties, picked because of its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, which, for the purposes of this drill, had just suffered an earthquake and the raceway was suddenly the temporary home to 3,500 evacuees.

But as can happen during an evacuation, things go wrong — thieves abound, then a nearby crash of a vehicle carrying an unknown hazardous material and then a terrorist shooting.

The initial stage of the drill began with thieves breaking into cars, fighting and ransacking evacuees’ belongings. That gave law enforcement a chance to practice honing their response to those types of activities, while communicating across agency lines.

Then came the explosion and the response of the hazardous materials teams, which each brought different resources and equipment to the scene.

“It was the first time in at least 30 years the Sonoma and Marin county hazmat teams drilled together,” said Sandy Wargo, public information officer for the Novato Fire District. “It was an eye opener because we were able to see all the different types of equipment and resources each county has. It makes them stronger as a combination hazardous materials team because the equipment isn’t duplicated.”

The third scenario was the terrorist shooting and hostage taking, which allowed the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department SWAT to interface with the National Guard.

The drills allowed for critical practice of communications between jurisdictions and agencies. The goals going into the drill were:

•    Evaluate the capability to implement the Incident Command System (ICS) and to integrate civilian and military first responders in response to an incident.

•    Exercise the local coordination and integration of internal and external response resources by the local ICS.

•    Assess the ability to establish and maintain multiagency and multijurisdictional communications in response to an incident.

•    Establish and maintain a unified and coordinated operational structure and process that appropriately integrates all critical stakeholders and supports the execution of core capabilities.

•    Examine the ability of multiple response agencies to implement victim, personnel, equipment and/or medical facility decontamination in a mass-casualty incident.

The action-packed Friday tested the boundaries of first responders, with a glitch or two, not necessarily a bad thing for a drill.

“We found a few things,” Wargo said. “We used a Blackhawk helicopter and some of the communication was asking for it to land in a certain area, but it landed someplace else. That’s the purpose of having a drill.”

There were also fewer participants because of a funeral for a local police officer, but disasters don’t wait for the best time to happen. “It affected the participants,” Wargo said. “We absolutely understand and recognize that and things like that could happen in a true incident and agencies may not be able to support it as you would expect.”