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Drill tests reflexes to maritime threats

Operation Bay Sentinel 2006 put emergency services to the test in the event of crisis on the water.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published August 2, 2006


[Times photo: Ken Helle]
A Coast Guard team member drops to the deck of a cruise ship during Operation Bay Sentinel 2006, a large scale maritime security exercise to practice for crisis situations.

TAMPA - A suspicious package at the Port of Tampa, a menacing criminal on a ship and, at the same time, a reported explosion at a fuel facility.

Not to worry, though.

The flurry of activity early Tuesday, which included officers rappelling from a Coast Guard helicopter onto a ship in Tampa Bay, was just practice.

The drill, called Operation Bay Sentinel 2006, was designed to test plans in place to deal with maritime security. Dozens of law enforcement personnel from about 30 agencies participated, including the Coast Guard, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department, Tampa Fire Rescue, the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Tuesday's scenarios weren't real, but officials took them seriously. From a full command center at the Coast Guard Prevention Center on Davis Islands with briefing and strategy sessions, to a deputy suiting up in heavy bomb protection gear in the scorching heat, to boats with guns surrounding a ship, the drill simulated a real crisis.

"The only way to prepare for real-life events is to do it in real life," said Hillsborough sheriff's Sgt. Todd Anthony. Anthony helped out with the suspicious package drill at the port near Martin Gas Sales on Pendola Point Road.

Operation Bay Sentinel began Monday evening and continued through the day Tuesday, according to Coast Guard Capt. Joe Servidio.

The purpose was to make sure agencies can work together, in case of a real crisis, he said.

Tuesday morning began with trouble on a boat. The boat, actually a ship used for dinner cruises, was supposed to be a non-passenger vessel that had a dangerous person aboard.

As the boat headed for waters just off Davis Islands, law enforcement vessels zoomed through the water, surrounding the ship. A helicopter arrived and officers scooted down a cord, landing on deck, where they planned to apprehend the suspect.

Just before noon, officials dealt with a suspicious package at the port, sending a robot out to inspect it. After the robot took a look, a deputy in full gear checked, too, to be sure it wasn't a bomb.

At the same time, another set of investigators dealt with the report of a gas explosion.

As the drill wrapped up Tuesday afternoon, Tampa police Capt. John Bennett said he was pleased with how it went.

When an international event, such as a terrorist attack, happens, local authorities need to know there's a plan in place for the port and the city, he said.

The biggest lesson learned was the importance of creative thinking, a skill needed in unpredictable and unusual situations, he said.

"We're at a point now where we have good fundamentals," he said. "There's certain situations where you've got to think outside of the box a bit."

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 2, 2006, 01:46:48]


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