When shots rang out Monday morning at the Washington Navy Yard, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives deployed three dozen agents with unique training.
Their readiness had been tested as recently as April, when a bomb exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
"In such a quick and fluid situation, they drop everything they're doing to help out in any way they can," said Timothy S. Graden, an ATF agent with 20 years of law enforcement experience who spoke for the agency.
Trained in responding to high-risk situations, Special Response Teams (SRTs) are responsible for clearing buildings and searching for hidden subjects, Mr. Graden said, and they send out precision marksmen — particularly in the case of Monday's shooting, with a suspect still at large.
The SRT is not just there to engage suspects, he said. Agents also act as first responders to offer medical assistance and to rescue survivors. On Monday, the SRT was able to usher at least one employee at the Naval Sea Systems Command in Southeast Washington to safety.
A separate unit of investigators also arrived, Mr. Graden said, looking for weapons to track or ballistics to test. As of early Monday evening, he had not confirmed the number or type of weapons used, but said shell casings recovered at the scene could allow technicians to match them with known weapons through use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. "It functions like a fingerprint system," Mr. Graden said.
Identifying the lead agency among the myriad responders at the scene was a challenge. Law enforcement sources say that by the time the ATF arrived, local police had fatally shot a suspect, identified by the FBI as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, a former Navy technician from Fort Worth, Texas. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service soon took over, the sources said, but as fatalities were confirmed, rising throughout the day to 13, the FBI became the lead agency. FBI spokesmen did not respond to calls and emails.
Ordinarily, a SRT conducts high-risk surveillance, serves arrest and search warrants, investigates home invasions and robberies, and tracks crime suspects in rural areas through the use of human and canine operators.
Employing a strategy in place since 1996, the specialized unit relies on five regional teams to conduct its high-risk tactical operations, averaging 217 "activations" over the past five years. (The other teams are in Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and Miami.)
The teams consist of 145 full- and part-time members. Tactical operators act as forward observers capable of covert entries. Crisis negotiators, recruited from the ranks of ATF agents, are prepared to respond to barricaded suspects and hostage scenarios, and they are trained to deal with mentally unstable suspects.
Monday was no ordinary day, however, as it marked the first attack on a U.S. military facility in Washington since terrorists flew an airliner into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. "We train for as many different scenarios as we can so we can react as needed," Mr. Graden said. "Whoever could get out there did what they needed to help. They did what they are trained to do."
Monday's shooting rampage inside the Navy Yard presented tactical and logistical challenges, he added. The Navy's oldest shore command is geographically isolated, sitting along the Anacostia River between the 11th Street and South Capitol Street bridges, just a stone's throw from Nationals Park and a developing neighborhood of condominiums, row houses, restaurants and local government buildings. Exit routes are limited.
"We train for all kinds of different situations, but you can never prepare for the exact one you'll be dealing with next," Mr. Graden said.
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