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When a threat emerges, “it should start and end with us,” Nebel said. “That’s our job, to make sure the threat never gets in the building.”
The unit was created in the summer of 1985, in part a response to the explosion of a bomb outside the Senate chamber in 1983.
A fit, young group of officers, among them eventual Assistant Chief Tom Reynolds, was selected to be part of an elite new guard. They would be outfitted with dress uniforms and responsible for responding to emergency situations and threats to the Capitol.
Reynolds remembers wondering, “What have I gotten myself into?” on his second day, when a Greenpeace demonstrator distracted his fellow officers by climbing a crane on the West Front of the Capitol.
The unit also had to “line up pedestrian visitors on the plaza to make sure they stayed safe from congressional traffic” and receive dignitaries, Reynolds said. He recalled receiving President Ronald Reagan from a helicopter after a trip to Russia.
Today, the more modernized unit still prides itself on coordinating with the Secret Service for presidential visits — State of the Union addresses and inaugurations are among their favorite days on the job — but also confronts post-9/11 threats to the Capitol, such as terrorism and chemical weapons attacks.
Officer Ryan McCamley, who has been a member of the First Responder Unit since 2006, has FBI training in crisis negotiation and recently volunteered for training with the Advanced Law Enforcement Response Team. ALERT helped respond to the 2001 anthrax attack and the ricin attacks in June; McCamley’s training prepared him to help collect evidence, support perimeters and decontaminate buildings.
“To me, it kind of combines the skills of a firefighter and a police officer, so I thought it was kind of interesting as a way to get new training,” he said. “Not a lot of law enforcement agencies have their own hazmat team. Also, not a lot of law enforcement agencies have to deal with the same kind of chemical attacks that the Capitol and the Hill have had since 2001.”
In addition to being alert for the first signs of trouble on the Capitol square, first responders must stay sharp for the thousands of tourists wandering around the grounds full of questions.
“D.C. is the only place in the world where people will approach a police officer from behind, without introducing themselves, and just start asking questions,” Officer Ryan Robertson said.
Robertson has taken it on himself to develop a mental library of answers, so when tourists ask — “Who’s on top of the Capitol Building? Who built it? Where’s the cornerstone? How tall is the Rotunda?” — he can answer quickly.
It’s made him a sought-after tour guide. During Police Week each May, he gives “dozens and dozens” of after-hours tours to officers visiting from around the nation, each as long as three hours. He’s also called on to show federal law enforcement officials and military command leaders the ins and outs of the storied marble halls.
“When I was a rookie, I’d get a break and I’d scour this building — get into every room, everywhere I could. It’s our building; we need to know it,” Robertson said.