Drill tests response to terrorism
On May 20, runners gathered in Portsmouth, N.H., for a 5K road race that originated at the city’s Port Authority. As registrants waited for the race’s start, a bomb armed with mustard gas exploded in a nearby van. Firefighters responded to an alarm pulled from the street, and, when they arrived at the scene, they encountered hundreds of injured and dying. Project TOPOFF – an exercise to simulate a terrorist attack and to assess top officials’ responses – was under way.
Orchestrated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the project was mandated by Congress in 1998. In addition to the chemical weapons scenario in Portsmouth, planners simultaneously launched a biological weapons drill in Denver. “They wanted to have a couple of things going on at the same time to try to stress the federal system,” says Ricky Plummer, fire chief for Portsmouth. “They wanted top officials in Washington to have to decide where to send resources.”
The DOJ and FEMA convened a group of federal, state and local government representatives to develop the concepts for the exercises and to assist in planning. The group included: * the Departments of Defense; Agriculture; Energy; and Health and Human Services; * the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; * the Federal Bureau of Investigation; * the National Security Council; * the Central Intelligence Agency; * the Environmental Protection Agency; * the General Services Administration; * governors’ offices; * mayors’ offices; * state and local emergency management agencies; * first responders; and * high-ranking local officials.
The sites for the project were selected in a May 1999 meeting of more than 150 state and local emergency response personnel. Denver was chosen because of its size (494,000 residents) and because it had recently participated in a federally funded training program for counter-terrorism. Portsmouth, which had not received the same training, was chosen because it is a small city (25,000 residents), close to both Maine and Massachusetts. It offered the perfect setting to coordinate multiple agencies.
In September, when Portsmouth learned that it would be a TOPOFF participant, Plummer began working with the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management to gather resources. “We had over 40 [sources of] mutual aid from cities and towns throughout New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts,” Plummer says. “Obviously, that had to be pre-planned. We had to talk to the different agencies and tell them, ‘We don’t know the date, but we may need a fire engine or an ambulance – or whatever – from your city or town.'”
Law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel were put on similar notice and assured that they would be paid for overtime, as well as for use of supplies and equipment. (Portsmouth received $983,000 from the federal government to finance the TOPOFF exercise.) Additionally, Plummer had to arrange for coverage of the Portsmouth Fire Department while his own staff took part in the drill.
To ensure that personnel responded to the events in a real-life manner, neither Denver nor Portsmouth was notified of the exact date of the “attacks.” Instead, the cities were given a 10-day window in which to expect the unexpected.
Then it happened. At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, the alarm sounded. “We responded with three engines, a ladder and two ambulances initially,” Plummer says. “But, when we got there, we found that we’d had an explosion. We had 200 people contaminated with mustard gas. Fifty-one were dead; 110 would have to be transported to hospitals in ambulances; and the rest were walking wounded.”
Following Portsmouth’s emergency management and mass casualty plans, Plummer stepped up as incident commander and began assessing the situation and amassing manpower. He rang up five alarms and declared a Level 3 mass casualty event (involving more than 150 victims). “We had 38 ambulances, about 40 engines and ladders, and over 200 firefighters and ambulance attendants from different areas,” he says.
Even though the attack was simulated, the chaos at the scene was overwhelming at first, Plummer says. “There was just an unbelievable amount of things going on at once,” he explains. Additionally, the victims (volunteers from community civic groups and businesses) were made up convincingly by professional make-up artists. “It was very real,” he notes. “They had arms missing, that kind of stuff. They played it out as if it had really happened.”
Emergency staff set up for triage, but, before victims could be transported to hospitals, they had to be decontaminated. (As they attempted to rescue the victims, several of the law enforcement and fire personnel were contaminated.) Seven state and federal hazmat teams were called in, as were representatives of the original planning agencies.
Severely injured victims were transported to four area hospitals via ambulance, while others were driven to the hospitals in school buses or in their own vehicles. As the hospitals became overburdened, Plummer turned to federal resources, which were able to provide a mobile hospital.
By Saturday evening, 2,600 local, state and federal personnel were on the scene at Portsmouth’s Port Authority. As victims were cleared from the site, workers continued to fight the fire, decontaminate the area, search for the missing and arrange for a place to take the dead. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided supplies and food to the workers.
The event ended Monday morning, when the situation was fully stabilized. “We worked pretty much 48 hours straight without any kind of a break,” Plummer notes.
Days after the Portsmouth drill, local participants convened to evaluate their performances. Weeks later, a similar meeting with officials from both Portsmouth and Denver took place in Washington.
“We really learned a lot,” Plummer says. “We learned that the mutual aid system works very well and that there are a lot of federal resources that are available. We got an idea of how to contact them and how long it takes for them to respond.
“We also learned how much manpower you need for something like this. Even though we had five alarms worth of people there, if it had lasted any longer, we would have needed even more,” he notes. “People were just exhausted, and, when they’re working in hazmat suits and that kind of thing, they can only work for so long without rest.”
In addition to clarifying manpower needs, the weekend drill pointed out some weaknesses in Portsmouth’s communications. “Radio frequencies were a major issue,” Plummer says. “We only have a couple of frequencies that we can use, along with all the departments. And they were so overloaded that we really couldn’t communicate where we needed to.”
Additionally, emergency personnel had not communicated effectively with the hospitals. “We had some minor problems letting the hospitals know how many people we were transporting and when they would arrive,” Plummer explains.
In the end, the experience has proven valuable not only to Ports-mouth but to other cities as well. The lessons learned will be used to hone the existing counter-terrorism training that is being provided federally to the nation’s largest cities. The training program will eventually be produced on videotape for broader distribution.
For more information on Project TOPOFF or on resources for counter-terrorism training, contact Gina Talamona, DOJ, (202) 514-2007 or Mary Walker, FEMA, (202) 646-3892.