It was the annual SWAT exercise at a local nuclear plant facility. One of the sites at the facility had been deactivated for years so it was always the spot we would go to train and exercise not only our SWAT team but also the members of our negotiating team, communications team, hostage rescue team, technical “sound” team, and public relations team. It was an event that would start before the sun was up – we would travel over and spend the night in some local hotels the evening before the event – and would end late in the day. It was a long 12 hour day but it was where we were all able to try out our methods, procedures, and new pieces of technology so we enjoyed spending the day together and making sure we were trained and prepared to handle situations like what we would be pretending to handle.
Basically, the scenario was always something to do with some armed terrorists somehow breaching the perimeter security of the plant, getting inside of the plant, and then taking over the reactor control room. Hostages would be taken and some would always end up being killed by the terrorists.
Things were actually so realistic that actors were brought in to play the parts of the good guys and bad guys – they had scripts and timelines. There were always scenario monitors to maintain the flow of the exercise and make sure that things were all done safe, but the actors were really the ones who set up the scenario and pace of the exercise. They were quite good, frankly, and quite scary sometimes.
After a few hours of playing, it didn’t feel like playing anymore. Things would always get pretty serious and hairy – lots was at stake and the scenarios always became very complicated and almost overwhelming. But, again, these kind of exercises truly tested the mettle of the well-trained men and women who participated in these kinds of events.
Anyway, there was one request that had been negotiated by the terrorists and our negotiators – we were going to send in iced water to the control room. The water was to be placed inside of a cooler that was to be filled with ice to keep the water cold.
This, of course, gave us an opportunity to place a listening device in the cooler – being able to hear what was going on inside would help out in analyzing and deciding what further actions to take against the terrorists inside. Several of us quickly found a cooler, did some surgery on it, sealed it up so little cuts couldn’t be seen, and tested it out. It sounded good – someone talking would get picked up by the receiver-transmitter in the cooler. We had a receiver with us that could, then, listen in on the device. It was a go.
People filled the cooler up with ice and water and gave it to the selected individual who would walk half-way in and pass it to the terrorists. It all worked and we had the cooler inside with good audio coming out of the control room. It seemed we would have a leg up on our friends inside.
Unfortunately, though, we began to notice several things. If and when someone was getting water from the cooler and as the ice was melting, all we could hear was gurgles and swishes and knocks. It was so bad that, literally, any voices or sounds from the control room were wiped out. Of course, this was only a problem when people were getting water out of the cooler but since the water was badly needed and people were very thirst inside, the noises in the cooler went on quite regularly – people were thirsty and hot. This wasn’t quite working out the way everyone had hoped. Every time someone got something to drink we lost our audio feed for a few seconds.
And then, our feed began to pop in and out intermittently. Now what? This went on for some time – the ice and water noises combined with the random pops off and on were making this means of audio collection less than desirable. And then – POP! – and we lost the entire feed. Nothing else. And that was the end of this technique.
Much later and at the end of the exercise when we were cleaning up and getting ready for the evening’s debrief, we wondered what had happened to the water cooler. We took it apart – and water poured out all over us from the inside walls were we had place the device. There was a crack in the cooler and water had melted and basically flooded our electronic device – it died from drowning. Well, lesson learned from this…