Communications and Media Specialist
JOHNSON VALLEY, CALIF. Ensuring the safety of hundreds of competitors, 50,000 spectators and military personnel conducting live-fire-training near the Johnson Valley Shared Use Area where the annual King of the Hammers racing and rock-crawling event is held each February is a massive undertaking that requires coordination between multiple federal, state and county agencies.
There is no room for failure.
Officials from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., have worked with the Bureau of Land Management and race organizer HammerKing Productions since the base was expanded in 2014 to include new training lands in Johnson Valley. The two federal entities co-manage the Shared Use Area, which has been home to the huge local off-roading event that has drawn as many as 50,000 competitors and spectators from all over the world since 2007.
The challenges faced by Combat Center, BLM and HammerKing officials were off the charts this year as they prepared for the 2019 event held Feb. 1 to 9, 2019.
In addition to a 35-day federal government shutdown that furloughed BLM employees during the final weeks of planning, and an influx of thousands of new spectators arriving to watch the inaugural Toyo Desert Invitational, they had to contend with a live-fire, force-on-force battle between U.S. and British Marines conducted roughly 1,000 meters from the portion of the 235-mile course located inside the base boundary.
Three-tiered Range Safety plan
"This year [planning] has a been a lot different," Gary Santiago, the Combat Center's lead Range Safety officer, said Tuesday, Feb. 5 as he took a break from monitoring race activity in Hammertown, a 56-acre encampment on Means Dry Lake that houses KOH headquarters, garages serving nearly 500 racing and rock-crawling teams, a public square with a stage and Jumbotron, media and VIP tents, WiFi hotspots, nearly 130 vendor and food booths, and restroom facilities.
"How do we do the two literally side by side?" Santiago and others asked themselves when they learned there would be live-fire air and ground training conducted so close to the course over six days beginning Friday, Feb. 1 and ending Wednesday, Feb. 6.
The plan to mitigate potential problems, known as deconfliction, included time and distance requirements, as well as public safety personnel placed at key points along the base boundary, Santiago said.
KOH races kick off at 8 a.m. each morning, so Santiago's team scheduled British Commandos to begin their three-hour fire and maneuver scenarios at 5:30 a.m. so they would be 1,500 meters (just under one mile) east of the course when the first cars crossed into the training area around 8:15.
The team distributed coordinates to military units, safety personnel, KOH officials and race teams "to make sure everyone on the ground stays out of the impact area and everyone stays safe," Santiago said. "They know where they need to stay."
To keep spectators and unauthorized personnel out of the training area while it was hot, military air sentries and road guards, Combat Center Conservation Law Enforcement, Provost Marshal, Range Patrol, Range Safety and Special Reaction Team officers as well as law enforcement rangers from California State Parks created a human shield along the base boundary with the Shared Used Area.
"We're happy with the way it's worked out," Santiago said Tuesday. "The fact that it is going off without a hitch shows the level of cooperation between the different entities."
On Friday, he said that having air sentries, road guards and extra law enforcement personnel in place was essential to keeping spectators and others off the base. Once the Commandos ended their live-fire exercise on the range adjacent to the course, air sentries and road guards were pulled from the area, and the number of personnel patrolling the boundary was decreased. That resulted in more than 60 spectator and other incursions onto the base in a matter of hours, highlighting the need for additional personnel on the ground.
Two separate boundary breaches on Thursday, one by a vehicle and one by an aircraft, required Range Safety to shut down live-fire training on ranges several miles from the course.
Santiago estimated the deconfliction plan, which will be fine-tuned for next year, required more than 100 hours of collaboration between agencies and race organizers in the final three weeks leading up to the event. Thousands more hours of internal and interagency coordination occur throughout the year to ensure HammerKing Productions can go forward with the event.
"With initial success comes expected success," Santiago said. "Next year's evolution will be no different."
BLM coordinates permits, emergency services
Neil Hamada, assistant field manager for BLM's El Centro office, said he and seven event management team members from the El Centro and Barstow field offices, and BLM's district office in Moreno Valley worked during the furlough to finalize HammerKing's special events, land use and commercial filming permits, and to process more than 100 vendor permits so HammerKing President/CEO Dave Cole and his team could begin setting up Hammertown and the race course in mid-January.
"BLM supports OHV recreation," Hamada said. "We also are responsible for making sure it's done safely."
Throughout the year, BLM officials worked with the Marine Corps and Department of the Navy, California State Parks, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and County Fire to coordinate public safety and emergency medical services that operated in the Shared Use Area during the 2019 KOH event.
They also brought together a monitoring team of BLM law enforcement personnel from as far away as Redding and Susanville, Calif., to ensure that HammerKing Productions adhered to its operations and safety plans. Monitors also oversaw commercial and vendor activities such as trail rides and vehicle demonstrations held throughout the Shared Use Area during KOH week.
"There's a lot of coordination that occurs" among all of the agencies, Hamada said. "Without coordination and cooperation, this wouldn't be able to happen."
As 2019 KOH ends, 2020 planning begins
Kristina Becker, Government and External Affairs Deputy Director, who serves as the Combat Center's primary liaison for King of the Hammers, agreed with Hamada.
"It was a very successful event," she said of the collaborative effort between government agencies and HammerKing Productions. "We had a new demographic of people with the new race, and were able to do a lot of educational outreach. The Combat Center team worked cohesively to make sure everyone had fun and stayed safe."
Planning for next year's event is already under way, Becker said. GEA, the internal coordinator for the Combat Center, will host an internal after-action meeting after the Presidents' Day holiday, which will be followed by a meeting between all of the agencies.
"Each year brings new challenges. Through working together, our organizations have been able to consistently support this event, making it seamless for the spectators," she said. "We appreciate this partnership opportunity and look forward to another great year!"