The largest full-scale drill government agencies have ever staged to test their reactions to a terrorist attack has begun.
Twenty-five federal agencies, plus dozens of state, local and Canadian government agencies, and the American Red Cross are all participating in the $16 million, five-day exercise known as TOPOFF2 — because it's the second national exercise to test the preparation and coordination of the nation's top officials, on a regional and national level.
"When a disaster occurs, people do not call the White House. They call 911," said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, whose city was hosting the scene of the opening round of the attack.
Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Michael Brown said that the timing of the drill is opportune because of the barrage of tornadoes that have ravaged the Midwest, straining the country's emergency response agencies.
The drill also gives the newly formed Department of Homeland Security a chance to examine its organization, to see where the problems are and how to fix them, Brown said.
"I think it will certainly enable us to do things better in the future, we'll have a lot of lessons we will learn and take back to the Department of Homeland Security, and figure out what we can do just a little bit better next time, to better prepare the country," Brown said today at a news conference in Arlington, Va., before the drills began.
Participants have been provided a broad outline of how the fake terrorists will attack, but they won't know all the details.
As Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told a news conference May 5: "We push the envelope in these types of scenarios. We push decision-making at all levels — local, state and federal. … We look to uncover communication and coordination and other problems. … We also hope people have to make decisions on their feet and be prepared to adapt."
For the Liberation of Orangeland
Here's the outline of how the attack scenario was supposed to unfold.
Today at noon local time in Seattle, smoke billows from a burning car as a "bomb" explodes near a coffee shop. As local officials scramble to deal with as many as 100 casualties, they learn that radiation levels in the area have been heightened. This is no ordinary bomb, but rather a radiological dispersion device, or "dirty bomb."
In Washington, Ridge declares that the national terror threat threat level has gone to "Red," signaling that the country is under attack. A command center for the National Capital Region comprising the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia springs into action, as does the DHS command center in Ridge's offices.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the same terrorists, known as GLODO (Group for the Liberation of Orangeland and the Destruction of Others) are supposed to release a biological agent at five different sites, and people start to exhibit flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and aches. In the TOPOFF2 scenario, this is no flu; the germ the terrorists release is bubonic plague. When inhaled, the bacteria can cause the highly contagious and often deadly pneumonic plague.