TOPOFF exercise finds first responder communication gaps
Fire and rescue crews responded well to a simulated terrorist attack in eastern Connecticut last year but the drill revealed gaps in the way top officials share information and delegate authority, an independent review finds.
TOPOFF, the federally funded terrorism drill, simulated a chemical attack in New London, Conn., and a biological attack in New Jersey in April 2005. It was designed to test the limits of emergency response plans and see how top officials react.
A review by the University of Connecticut’s Homeland Security Education Center found that the state’s first responders — local police, firefighters and paramedics — reacted quickly and effectively, The Associated Press reports.
“The first responders got an A. As far as the top official part, maybe a B or B-,” said Roy Pietro, who oversaw the review. “Overall it was a B. We did good, but we didn’t get an A.”
He cited confusion over the authority and responsibility of agencies and noted that New London officials complained they were not receiving information promptly.
“You get all these people who don’t usually work together and it’s not always clear who’s in charge,” said Roy Pietro, who directed the review. “That’s where we struggle, from TOPOFF to Katrina, operating in that environment.”
Part of the problem, Pietro said, was that TOPOFF tested officials’ knowledge of the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System. The two protocols were designed to bring dozens of agencies under one leadership umbrella and were approved shortly before the drill.
James Thomas, the state’s Homeland security director, agreed with the review’s findings and said Connecticut has taken steps over the past year to improve communication.
The state Homeland security department is also developing radios that allow on-scene commanders to communicate across radio frequencies. But most of the improvements hinge on training, and Thomas said that’s been a priority.
More than 100 elected leaders and emergency responders have been trained to understand their management roles in a crisis, Thomas says.
Crews also have been retrained on the use of emergency communication equipment and reinforcing the levies along the Connecticut river. Next month, Connecticut plans to test its ability to distribute prescription drugs quickly during an epidemic, Thomas adds.