Simulated Terror Strikes Hit Chicago and Seattle

SEATTLE, Washington, May 12, 2003 (ENS) - Government agencies began responding today to simulated biological terror strikes in Seattle and Chicago as part of a series of week long exercises designed to find out how well the United States is prepared to defend itself against such attacks.

The congressionally mandated exercise, dubbed TOPOFF 2 - it stands for Top Officials - involves an intricate web of police and firefighters, health experts and officials from all levels of local, state and national governments and Canada responding to a variety of threats, including a "dirty bomb" in south Seattle and the release of a "biological agent" in Chicago.

The exercises, which involve 19 federal agencies and the American Red Cross, are the largest of their kind conducted in the United States.

Nickels

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (Photo courtesy Office of the Mayor)
"Our first responders are the front lines of any terrorist attack or natural disaster," said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, just back after a week in Washington that included meetings with Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. "That's why it's critical that we're ready for any kind of emergency."

"All in all, 25 federal agencies, as well as the American Red Cross, will become involved during the five day exercise," Department of Homeland Security chief Ridge told reporters at a briefing last week. "Additionally, the government of Canada, including the province of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver, will be engaged in the exercises. The participation of Canada in TOPOFF 2 is in keeping with our commitment to conduct joint exercises."

The huge media buildup has some asking whether the element of surprise missing in the exercises might hinder their success.

"The area in Seattle has been closed for a couple of days. There is an element of spontaneity missing in all this," says Stephen Prior, research director of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia. "The same thing will happen when they get hit with pneumonic plague in Chicago on Wednesday. That's all in the media packet."

But that really is not the point, Prior adds. "TOPOFF 2 is the second of two congressionally mandated exercises nationwide. Unless you live in China, it's hard to keep a nationwide exercise quiet."

Seattle

Seattle is being hit with a simulated terrorist action (Photo courtesy Port of Seattle)
Prior says TOPOFF 2 is not about how to deal with surprise; it is about how do to deal with an escalating event. "In order to do that, we need to engage the leadership on a nationwide basis," he says. "The real goal here is to understand that any incident, whatever that incident is, homegrown or foreign, is a local event."

The first responders will be the fire chief and local law enforcement, Prior says. "What happens when they discover that there's radioactive material involved? It escalates. What happens when it escalates? How does the chain of command work? How does the who's-in-charge change? What information do they need to make the decisions? We lose spontaneity, but we gain the ability to measure a major and significant emergency national event."

Over the five days of the exercise, participants will be engaged in unclassified and classified round-the-clock exercise simulations. This afternoon local agencies in Seattle began dealing with a simulated radiological dispersal device test, or dirty bomb, near the Tully's Coffee roasting plant in an exercise that is expected to last 36 hours.

Chicago's events include a disaster drill at Midway Airport, the mass distribution of simulated pharmaceuticals and the staged arrest of suspected terrorists.

Chicago residents were informed that no explosives or harmful substances will be used, that locations where activity takes place are marked and secured, and that every precaution is being taken to insure that the effect of the simulation on the public is minimal.

Figures released for the week long exercise place the budget at $16 million, with $5 million going directly to Illinois and Washington to defray costs associated with their participation. The cities and states were chosen because they are large metropolitan areas that are geographically dispersed. Both volunteered to host TOPOFF 2 events.

For more information about TOPOFF 2, go to: http://www.topoff2media.net/.