OCEAN CITY — There will be helicopters circling the skies, Navy vessels near the shoreline and hundreds of first-responders from dozens of agencies around the downtown area on the first Saturday in November, but there will be no reason to panic.
At Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, Emergency Management Planner Bob Rhode outlined some of the early details of Operation Tourist Boom, a multi-agency drill planned at locations all over the downtown area on the first weekend in November. Allied federal, state and local agencies, along with private sector groups and quasi-public organizations, will be participating in the operation, which will include an active shooter exercise, a simulated vehicle assault with multiple casualties, a ship-boarding exercise off the coast, a simulated bomb detonation and a handful of other exercises designed to test the local, state and federal agencies’ ability to coordinate a measured response to the types of emergency situations that have occurred in other areas in recent years.
Operation Tourist Boom will include local agencies such as Ocean City Emergency Services, the Ocean City Police Department, the Ocean City Fire Department and EMS, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and U.S. Park Police from Assateague. State and federal agencies scheduled to participate include the Maryland National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard and even the U.S. Navy.
“The main objective is to coordinate all of the agencies so they work well together,” said Rhode. “We’re going to have nine simultaneous operations going on in real time with upwards of 900 responders from various agencies and 200 victims.”
Rhode outlined some of the early drills expected to be included in the larger operation such as Navy vessels offshore delivering resources such as manpower and materials during a simulated emergency.
“The Navy is going to be here and they are going to put landing craft on the beaches,” he said. “The purpose of that is if we lost access to the bridges during an emergency, we could get the resources we need here by vessel.”
The multi-faceted operation will not be limited to simulated emergency situations on land.
“There will be a ship-boarding and search operation right off shore and there will be helicopters and ships out there,” he said. “Around the same time, there will be an active shooter exercise at the amusement park on the pier with a high number of victims and personnel from the various agencies will go in and dissolve the situation and find the victims.”
Rhode explained the National Guard and other military components will be included in the operation.
“The military people will be doing a mine-sweeping operation on the beach and the plan is to simulate the detonation of a dirty bomb,” he said. “The operation also includes a vehicle assault with multiple casualties and they will actually load casualties and airlift them.”
The operation is not limited to just local, state and federal emergency responders, but also other local organizations that can benefit from the training.
“Atlantic General Hospital is on board because they want to train for receiving mass casualties,” he said. “Even the Worcester County Board of Education is on board because some of the simulated casualties will be students.”
Rhode said the multi-agency, multi-incident Operation Tourist Boom will help the allied agencies prepare for almost any type of real emergency and learn where there might be gaps in the current planning.
“The purpose of this drill is to figure out where we need to go in the next three years to make sure we’re prepared,” he said. “This will help with our gap analysis so we can learn where we have gaps in our emergency planning. This operation will be spread out from the Park-and-Ride in West Ocean City to City Hall and from the Inlet to the pier and the police substation at Worcester Street.”
Mayor Rick Meehan praised the operation objectives, but cautioned it would take a considerable amount of public outreach and advertising to make sure those who live in Ocean City along with visitors to the resort in early November are keenly aware of what is going on and that the exercises are just that and not real emergencies.
“I think this is fantastic and we all know how important it is to be prepared,” he said. “As I’ve said time and again, expect the unexpected. I also don’t want to create another Orson Welles and War of the Worlds episode. We really need to make sure the public is aware this is going to happen. We’re going to need to go to great lengths to make sure that occurs.”
Rhode explained there will be a massive media blitz over the next several weeks leading up to the training exercise with print and broadcast releases, fliers and posters and other mediums to ensure the word gets out all over the state and region. Meehan said with helicopters flying around, ships and other vessels offshore and first-responders from dozens of agencies running around, likely no amount of public outreach about the event would be enough.
“You can just assume 75 percent of the people aren’t going to know what you’re doing,” he said. “We need to make sure we have the chamber and the HMRA involved in this because those organizations are our local partners. We need to get this out on social media because that’s exactly where the first picture is going to show up. If you’re going to simulate disaster situations, there are going to be pictures of that out there and we have to be prepared. Whatever you’re planning in terms of getting the word out, plan more.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman also had high praise for the planned training operation.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to have all of those assets here in Ocean City,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had something on that scale here.”
Hartman asked how the information will be disseminated to the town’s elected officials during the real-time operation. City Manager Doug Miller said knowing exactly what is going to happen would somewhat defeat the purpose of the operations and he would receive and distribute information the way he typically would during a real emergency.
“My role that day is just having it blocked off, but I don’t know what the emergency will be,” he said. “It will probably be handled the way we would handle an actual emergency. I will probably get three calls from [Emergency Services Director] Joe Theobald, [Fire Chief] Chris Larmore and [Police Chief] Ross Buzzuro like I would in an actual emergency and then I will reach out to you. I’m in the dark. I just know to block off that day, but I don’t know what the emergency or emergencies will be.”
Rhode said there would be considerable planning in the weeks and months leading up to the operation and the Mayor and Council and the public would be kept in the loop. On the actual day of the operation on Saturday, Nov. 3, the simulated disasters and associated responses will be held in two sessions with an early morning session from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and again from 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“We will have exercises from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then set it all up again and reset for the afternoon session,” he said. “The plan is to have one operation start in the dark and finish in the daylight, and the other operation to start in the daylight and finish in the dark.”