Navy trains not just for terrorists, but traffic

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By BROCK VERGAKIS, Associated Press

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — When the Navy trains for responding to a terrorist attack on one of its U.S. bases, it's not just explosives, gunmen and suspicious fishing boats that the service's top leaders are concerned about. It's the traffic.

That vulnerability was highlighted in major Navy ports like those in San Diego, Mayport, Fla., and in the Pacific Northwest during last year's annual exercise, when heightened security at bases resulted in severe gridlock. Navy officials say that traffic leaves sailors waiting to get on base vulnerable to attack and can keep emergency vehicles from being able to quickly respond.

Navy officials are vowing to fix the traffic problems for this year's weeklong exercise, which begins Monday and affects every Navy installation in the continental U.S.

"Last year, the admiral said, 'Well look, we need to know what would happen in the real world if this happened during rush hour.' And so we did it, and we found out that we had some issues that needed to be addressed," said Capt. Matthew Colburn, director of fleet anti-terrorism at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.

Some people waiting to get on base in already traffic-snarled regions complained of sitting in their cars for hours as security personnel thoroughly checked IDs, inspected vehicles and occasionally used bomb-sniffing dogs. One of the primary culprits was people coming onto base who didn't need to be there.

Adm. John Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said security conditions last year reached a point that commanders should have only required essential personnel to report to base.

"But very few across the nation actually took this step. This low rate of participation works against the intent of the exercise and prevents us from accurately simulating the conditions that would be present and operating during a real-world threat," Harvey wrote in a blog post leading up to this year's exercise.

The Navy is encouraging those who can telecommute to do so, among other things. The Navy says people should still expect traffic delays near bases, but they're hoping they won't be nearly as long this year.

The traffic wasn't a nightmare for only sailors waiting to get on base. It created significant problems for civilians, too. Commuters were caught in the traffic, and public transit was delayed. In some areas, children riding school buses showed up more than an hour late to class and others had long waits to be picked up.

"I think everyone was affected by it. It didn't matter whether you worked on an installation or if you were a child on a school bus trying to get from point A to point B," said Capt. Mary Jackson, commander of Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval base.

One of the primary lessons learned from last year was the importance of communication. The Navy has spent the past year working with communities around the country to ensure police, transportation officials and school systems aren't caught off-guard.

That kind of coordination could be useful during other emergencies, too, such as hurricanes, Jackson said.

In Virginia Beach, which is home to the Navy's East Coast master jet base, 24 of the district's 85 schools had children showing up late because buses were stuck in traffic last year. The district is the state's third-largest, with nearly 70,000 students.

Nancy Soscia, a Virginia Beach City Public Schools spokeswoman, said the military has made sure school officials wouldn't be taken by surprise again this year.

"They were actually very apologetic and said we kind of learned what happened last year," she said. "... They said it wasn't a pleasant couple of days for them either."

The Navy said it has been invited by the Virginia Department of Transportation to have a liaison at its traffic command post — where cameras monitor roadways — during the exercise as well as in the event of any emergencies. VDOT officials said they would work closely with the Navy to address traffic issues, but did not specify how, citing security concerns.

School systems have also been told which days traffic will be especially bad. Soscia said that in a real catastrophe there may be little the district could do to avoid students getting stuck in traffic, but that it could use its emergency notification system to let parents know why their children are late.

While Navy officials are working to address traffic problems, they also acknowledged there will still be delays, particularly in fleet concentration areas like in southeastern Virginia and San Diego.

Those who live or travel near bases may see more emergency vehicles and patrol boats with their lights flashing than normal.

Colburn declined to offer specific threats the Navy will be responding to during the exercise, but said they could range from a Fort Hood-style shooting to a water-borne attack. In the San Diego area, Navy officials have said this year's exercise will involve the Red Cross, the Marines and city homeland security officials to provide additional realism.

"We change the way we do business based on the change and the threat, and that means we have to test our procedures as they change," he said.

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Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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