OAK HARBOR — Flames erupted at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in the drizzly morning hours last week, brightening the sky and engulfing a helicopter on the base’s flight line.
Firefighters with Navy Region Northwest Fire and Emergency Services arrived on scene to battle the blaze and tend to the wounded.
The fire was just a drill, but the response from those involved was real.
“If we fight like we train and we train like we fight, then the mission continues,” Navy Region Northwest Fire and Emergency Services Training Chief Alan Sprouse said. “The jets will fly and we stop the damage at the smallest level possible.”
The Wednesday morning drill was part of the Navy’s two-week anti-terrorism force protection exercise called Solid Curtain/Citadel Shield. Drills were held at Navy bases throughout the country.
“It better prepares the security members to respond to any real-world events,” said Installation Exercise and Readiness Officer Shawn Lightfritz.
He said drills such as Wednesday’s help the base prepare for real-life incidents such as one in early January where base personnel were told to shelter in place after a sailor reported hearing what sounded like gunfire about 5 a.m., according to a news release from the base at the time.
It was determined there was no actual threat.
During the two weeks of Solid Curtain/Citadel Shield, NAS Whidbey base security and emergency personnel practiced responding to a variety of threats, including a surveillance threat, an active shooter situation and Wednesday’s simulated attack on an aircraft, Lightfritz said.
NAS Whidbey has 14 emergency preparedness drills that have to be done at least twice a year, he said.During Solid Curtain/Citadel Shield, the base runs through as many of those as possible.
“It helps a strong team get stronger,” base commander Capt. Geoff Moore said.
The two-week exercise had two parts: Citadel Shield focused on installation-level training, while Solid Curtain focused on Navy-wide responses.
“A rock in the water here could make a ripple throughout the entire U.S. Navy,” Sprouse said.
The exercise helps Navy commanders at the local and national levels find areas in which the Navy may have security weaknesses and address them, Moore said.
“Decision makers are using this to understand the greater problem and using this to instill greater security measures across all Navy installations,” Moore said. “It helps coordinate intel sharing across the enterprise to make sound decisions.”
Solid Curtain/Citadel Shield exercises have been held for 14 years, Lightfritz said.
In the five years he has been participating in the exercise at Whidbey, Lightfritz said the exercises have revealed areas where there could be improvements — which have been implemented to make the response teams stronger.
Moore said he was happy with how the base performed during Solid Curtain/Citadel Shield.
“We’ve met or exceeded all expectations,” he said.
The biggest challenge during the drills, he said, is the amount of turnover among personnel.
Instead of seeing that as a weakness, Moore said he sees it as an opportunity — a chance to engage newer personnel members into “Team Whidbey.”
“At the end of the day, this is a great training experience, a great learning experience,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people here that love what they do, that understand the importance of what they do.”