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Mock terrorist attack tests response capacities.

Practice, Practice, Practice. That's one of the important "lessons learned," from the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, as reported by NLC's Working Group on Homeland Security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Practice on a very large scale took place during the week of April 4-8, as emergency responders and top officials tested their capabilities in responding to a coordinated terrorist attack. About 10,000 participants from more than 275 local, state, tribal, federal and private sector agencies worked together to respond to simulated, simultaneous, and multi-point attacks taking place in Connecticut (a chemical incident) and New Jersey (biological incident).

The Top Officials 3 (TOPOFF 3) full scale exercise was the most comprehensive terrorism response exercise ever conducted in the United States. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness, TOPOFF 3 was the third exercise in a congressionally mandated program.

In addition to the participants acting as victims and responders in the terrorist attack scenarios, DHS invited observers to New London, Conn., Northern New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., to watch as the attack scenarios unfolded and evolved, eventually impacting tens of thousands of people in many states, Canada and the United Kingdom.

As NLC's point person on homeland security and a member of the DHS State and Local Senior Advisory Committee, I observed operations in Washington, D.C., where officials coordinated information and communications among participating agencies and players.

In Washington, 247 observers were briefed several times each day over the five-day exercise as the events progressed. Observers represented many federal and state agencies, congressional staff, first responder groups, several international visitors and the private sector.

A Virtual News Network TV reported throughout the day and an event-specific website provided continuous updates from all of the venues.

The operations center, based in a Crystal City, Va., hotel, included participants from a multitude of federal agencies connected electronically to state and local agencies and people who were responding directly to the challenges of the simulated events. DHS also coordinated tours for observers to visit other operations centers in Washington and Virginia, where, in addition to their everyday homeland security responsibilities, workers participated in the exercise.

Another 200 observers in Connecticut and 170 in New Jersey followed events from those areas.

Participating in days three and four of the exercise, I was able to watch the expanding impacts of the initial attacks, including a fake bio terror incident in New Jersey's Union and Middlesex Counties, where pneumonic plague was launched from a sport utility vehicle with a commercial sprayer. The illness ultimately spread to 28 states and two other countries, At the same time, Connecticut officials were dealing with a simulated weapons attack on a New London waterfront, where a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle in the midst of a popular community festival, spreading sulfur mustard throughout the area.

These incidents were followed by exercises in the United Kingdom, experiencing simulated bombings in the London financial district, and Canada, where officials responded to simulated incidents of pneumonic plague initiated in New Jersey. This gave planners from all three countries the opportunity to collaborate in the exercise design and work toward shared objectives.

To meet the shared objectives, TOPOFF 3 focused on four critical areas: incident management; intelligence/investigations; public information; and evaluation.

TOPOFF 3 also marked the first comprehensive use and testing of the DHS recently released National Response Plan. This is an all-discipline, all-hazards plan that establishes a single, comprehensive framework for the management of domestic incidents. It provides the structure and mechanisms for the coordination of federal support to state, local, and tribal incident managers and for exercising direct federal authorities and responsibilities.

DHS plans to issue a lessons learned document in September.

The off-site tours of the Homeland Security Operations Center and the Transportation Security Operations Center included briefings on intelligence gathering and sharing among agencies and levels of government. These operations centers were created in the aftermath of September 11 terrorist attacks, and carry out the vital intelligence and information gathering and sharing responsibilities on a an round the clock basis that make our nation more safe and secure.

A tour leader at the transportation center, pointing to a sculpture in the lobby of the two-year old facility that contains a twisted steel beam from the 73rd floor of the World Trade Center and chunks of charred and broken cement from the Pentagon, said, "We know why we come to work here each day."

As the first responders in the exercise attended to the logistical, health and medical and infrastructure challenges of TOPOFF 3, it was also a challenge for observers to remember the mock nature of the events, Throughout the experience I was reminded of the "first call" role of our cities and towns in responding to all kinds of disasters. It made me proud to observe the dedication and commitment of the thousands of people in our local communities who used this exercise as an opportunity to hone our skills and work together in a coordinated response effort.

In Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoffs welcome to the observers, he wrote, "... you will witness cooperation between organizations at every level of government and across a number of critical business sectors in protecting our homeland against the threat of terrorism ... There is no question that our coordination, precision and practice today will save countless lives tomorrow, if our nations are ever again attacked by terrorists,"

As an observer, I believe the TOPOFF 3 Full-Scale Exercise proved his point.

Karen Anderson is a past president of NLC and mayor of Minnetonka. Minn.
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Author:Anderson, Karen
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 18, 2005
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