U.S. Coast Guard, Juneau police test response capabilities with nuclear scenario

Volunteers watch a U.S. Coast Guard vessel approach the St. Nicholas during a training exercise in Juneau waters on Wednesday. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Juneau emergency responders took part in a training exercise this week to test their ability to work together in the event of a large-scale threat. Part of the simulation involved responding to a nuclear bomb aboard a ferry.

Listen now

About 30 community volunteers got the chance to ride along for a close-up view of operation “Shielded Eagle.”

On Wednesday, the St. Nicholas took off from a dock by the ferry terminal with passengers and a handful of crew.

It may have looked like a typical tour excursion, but the St. Nicholas was standing in for the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Columbia. It was also carrying an imaginary nuclear threat.

Later on, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Juneau and the Juneau Police Department would board the vessel. But for now, Allen Marine Tours put out coffee and doughnuts for passengers, who range from retirement age to college students. Despite the serious nature of the exercise, volunteers are enjoying themselves.

“Like everybody said, I really want to thank you for being here. I mean, although, it’s a pretty nice day for a boat ride,” Rich Baenen, a member of the Coast Guard Exercise Support Team, said.

Baenen explains that the training scenario involves a radiological device planted somewhere on the boat by terrorists. Earlier, a device that emits low levels of radiation — for real — was hidden on board.

Volunteers take part in a training exercise for Juneau emergency responders aboard the St. Nicholas in Juneau waters on Wednesday. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

“What your role is, is simply passengers, right? Somewhere in this scenario, there could be some bad guys, some bad gals, but you’re not one of them,” Baenen says.

Jack and Judy Marshall, both in their 70s, went along for the free boat trip.

“You know, with all this sun and everything, it’s going to be really beautiful out here,” Jack Marshall said. “A lot of mountains are white. Should be great. Maybe see a whale or two.”

And they did, almost immediately. A humpback whale surfaces near the boat.

Carolyn Garcia is on the email list for Juneau’s emergency planning committee and signed up as soon as they put out the call for volunteers last week.

“I’m interested in the drill just because I’m also a Red Cross volunteer and I’m interested in helping respond to emergencies and participate and just know what’s going on as far as what the rest of the community is doing,” Garcia said.

After a few hours spent floating offshore, a Coast Guard boat approaches. They pull up alongside the boat and board quickly, plastic guns in their holsters.

A member of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Juneau uses a radiation detector aboard the St. Nicholas on Wednesday. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The team asks passengers to sit with their hands above their heads until they can verify identities.

Passengers secured, the team searches the boat and locates the hidden device.

Coast Guard Lt. Tim Storbeck was part of the team of coordinators in charge of the exercise. He said they were happy with the team’s performance. While a terrorist scenario may seem like a remote threat for Juneau, he said the point was to test response capabilities and make Juneau safer.

“If something major happened where we absolutely needed the police department to go out, if we hadn’t practiced beforehand,” Storbeck said. “For example, they don’t have life jackets, ’cause they don’t have a maritime unit, so the Coast Guard had to provide life jackets for the police department. We wouldn’t want to find that out when we’re going out to respond to some sort of scenario.”

Police Lt. Krag Campbell agreed. They regularly practice on their own, but don’t get the chance to collaborate much.

“We don’t get that many opportunities to work with them like that, so this was a good opportunity to us to work together to see how are things were working, how’s our communication,” Campbell said.

The exercise continued Thursday, with the teams picking up right where they had left off. Evaluators will debrief at the end of the week.