Major Terrorism Preparedness Test Begins

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.

Over the next several days, the "victims" of the biological attack will start showing up at Chicago-area hospitals (66 in all) and gradually tax their resources. The physicians and other hospital workers engaged in the exercise must first make diagnoses, then carry out tests, then have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm their fears. Meanwhile the initial "victims" have been "contaminating" others.

There's an international component, as well. Canadian government agencies will get involved both because of the proximity of Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Seattle attack, and because some of Chicago's plague "victims" will start arriving at Canadian airports.

The end of the exercise will come with the FBI capturing the "terrorists" late Thursday or early Friday.

A New Landing of the ‘Martians’

At his news conference, Ridge went to some pains to emphasize that TOPOFF2 is just a drill, and that no actual weapons will be used; no real person will be injured.

However, he also stressed that although the exercise is "based on a hypothetical situation," it does reflect "plausible threats to the United States." Nevertheless, in order not to alarm members of the public, Ridge's department, along with state and local officials in Illinois and Washington state, were publishing notices in the local newspapers to explain the purpose of the drill.

The nightmare scenario for officials would be a repeat of the panic that resulted in 1938 when Orson Welles' radio production of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds stampeded listeners who had missed the disclaimer at the top of the broadcast and thought Martians had truly landed. When Ridge was asked how he could avoid "a War of the Worlds-type public reaction," he replied, to laughter: "Well, first of all, we're discouraging people such as yourself from using that expression."

TOPOFF1, the first such national exercise, took place in May 2000 and involved a biological "attack" in Denver and a chemical one in Portsmouth, N.H. Ridge told reporters that valuable lessons were learned from that exercise, including that "multiple control centers, numerous liaisons, and an increasing number of response teams only complicated coordination." He said participants also realized that "threat information and a common threat picture need to be shared in a timely manner."

Since that time, many emergency structures have been enhanced in the post-9/11 atmosphere.

Ridge noted that the administration has begun "to infuse state and local health systems with nearly $1.5 billion in grant money to bring bioterrorism preparedness to its highest level in history." He hopes that this week's exercise will demonstrate whether the money and planning have helped officials prepare for the next terrorist attack.