Massive Training Operation Set For Ocean City Next Weekend

Massive Training Operation Set For Ocean City Next Weekend
A poster announcing Operation Tourism Boom is shown. Submitted image

OCEAN CITY — Helicopters will swirl around the skies, Navy vessels will set up offshore and hundreds of first-responders from dozens of agencies will be running around the downtown area next Saturday, but there will be no need to panic.

Coordinated by the Maryland National Guard and mandated by Gov. Larry Hogan, Operation Tourist Boom will be conducted at different locations all over the downtown Ocean City area next Saturday afternoon. 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 will be part of the operation.

Operation Tourist Boom is 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.  The operation 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.

According to a release from the coordinating agency, over 600 Maryland National Guard soldiers from all around the state will participate and work in coordination with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and dozens of local, state and federal agencies. The total estimated number of participants in the various exercises is expected to top 1,100.

The operation will simulate a large-scale emergency and terrorist attack. Early in the operation, Hogan, after assessing the situation, will declare a state of emergency and activate the Maryland National Guard to support civil authorities in law enforcement, security and decontamination efforts. The objective of the operation is to conduct a dynamic, high-intensity and realistic training operation that prepares the Maryland National Guard for a complex domestic incident. Maryland National Guard soldiers will practice interagency coordination and build partnership capacities with the local, state and federal agencies participating in the drills.

When Operation Tourist Boom and all it will entail was presented to the Mayor and Council in September, the town’s elected officials urged the participating agencies to include a comprehensive outreach campaign to alert the public about some of the activities they will see and hear next Saturday, Nov. 3. The Mayor and Council voiced concern the sight of helicopters flying overhead and SWAT teams running up and down the Boardwalk would alarm residents and visitors unaware the vast operation was just a training drill. Back in September, Mayor Rick 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 at the time. “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.”

Heretofore, however, there has been little pre-event publicity with the multi-agency disaster training drills now just a little over a week away. During a meeting on Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners got an update in their agenda packet about the massive training operation set for next weekend in Ocean City and voiced concern about the apparent lack of pre-event publicity.

“How are we going to deal with tourists coming in and seeing all of this going on?” said Commissioner Bud Church. “The general public coming in from Pennsylvania or Connecticut or wherever is not going to know where or what is happening. I’m a little bit concerned.”

Worcester County Emergency Services Director Fred Webster said the Maryland National Guard is largely responsible for pre-event public outreach.

“All of the PR for this is being handled by the National Guard,” he said. “The guard hasn’t been real forthcoming because they want to keep as much of this under wraps as possible. There will be announcements put out just prior to the event so that anybody who wanders into the area or wanders onto the beach won’t be totally panicked by this, but it’s been described to me as a recruitment and public relations tool for the guard.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.