Preparing for Major Terrorism Exercises Three Cities

By on April 27, 2013
By David Ruppe Apr 23, 2013, 9:31 PM

The federal government has begun preparing three U.S. cities for large-scale, 10-day terrorism-response exercises scheduled this month.

Beginning sometime between May 7 and May 29, local, state and top level federal authorities will respond to simulated weapons of mass destruction attacks in three cities — Denver, Portsmouth, N.H., and the Washington, D.C.-area.

Denver or Portsmouth will face either a simulated biological or a chemical weapons attack. The D.C. metropolitan area will respond to a radiological attack drill — which could range from simply an exposed container of radioactive material to a small nuclear detonation.

Looking for Realism

The congressionally mandated exercises are intended to examine how well local, state and federal authorities are prepared to respond to and together deal with the consequences of a weapons of mass destruction attack.

“The goal of the exercise is to assess the nation’s crisis consequence management capacity under extraordinarily stressful conditions,” the Department of Justice said in a statement released Thursday.

Specific dates and characteristics of the exercise are being withheld from participants, to make the tests as realistic as possible.

Volunteers and professional actors will play the roles of victims, who will be rescued, diagnosed, decontaminated and treated over the 10-day period. A “virtual news network” will be created that will broadcast on the exercises every hour on the hour.

But the exercises will not be too realistic, authorities say. No weapons or agents will be released and, to minimize the risk of public panic or real-life accidents, emergency responders will not be speeding with lights and sirens blaring to the scenes of attack.

“We’re doing as much as we can by way of outreach through the media to ensure that all of the residents in the jurisdiction or the cities that we’re exercising in know that they’re occurring, knowing that they’re safe from harm,” said Doug Johnson, the Justice Department’s spokesman for the exercises.

Congress has provided $3.5 million for the Denver and Portsmouth exercises, which are called “TOPOFF,” reflecting the participation of senior officials. The exercise in the D.C. area, involving district and Prince Georges County, Md., authorities, is called National Capital Region 2000, or NCR-2000 for short.

All Levels Involved

The three exercises are expected to involve all key personnel who would respond to an attack: federal agency personnel and state and local emergency responders, including police, fire and emergency medical personnel.

Though terrorism response exercises are conducted routinely across the country, “this marks the first time that an exercise of this scope, with the participation of top-level federal, state and local officials, has ever been conducted,” the Justice Department said.

Mayors, city managers, state governors are expected to participate, as are some senior federal officials: Attorney General Janet Reno, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

Justice and the FEMA will be the lead federal agencies in the exercise.

Numerous other federal agencies were involved in the planning exercises, including: the U.S. Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the FBI; the CIA; the National Security Council; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the General Services Administration.

Not Yet Prepared

Following two major incidents of domestic terrorism in the 1990s, the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings, Congress and the Clinton Administration made national preparation for dealing with terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction a high government priority.

Congress has appropriated about $10 billion annually in recent years for combating terrorism — up from around $6.5 billion in 1996 — and various federal agencies have been training local authorities in scores of cities across the country to deal with a major attack.

But federal efforts have been criticized on a number of fronts, particularly: for not devoting enough money to fully equip local and state authorities across the nation; for not clearly delineating the authorities of various federal agencies; and for failing to adequately assess where the money could best be spent.

“One of the major deficiencies in federal efforts to combat terrorism is the lack of linkage between the terrorist threat, a national strategy, and agency resources,” Congress’s investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, said in an April 6 report.

Gauging the Threat

The GAO has stressed that exercises such as TOPOFF and NRC-2000 can be useful in developing a national strategy and targeting resources.

A similar, secret exercise recently conducted in Cincinnati showed that local hospitals, police and other services were woefully unprepared for such a disaster, the Washington Post reported Friday.

That Pentagon table-top simulation, one done on paper or computer, suggested authorities were unprepared to handle the hundreds of thousands of casualties and large numbers of dead bodies, facing a shortage of hospital beds and emergency personnel, inadequate equipment and training, the Post reported.

It also highlighted major legal issues, such as whether the government has the right to quarantine contagious people, the story said.

But the GAO and other independent experts have played down the likelihood of a successful chemical or biological attack killing large number of people in the United States.

“Terrorists would have to overcome significant technical and operational challenges to successfully make and release chemical and biological agents of sufficient quality to kill or injure large numbers of people without substantial assistance from a foreign government sponsor,” it said.

Governments would be reluctant to sponsor such an attack, experts have argued, because of the risk of massive retaliation by the U.S. government.

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