TopOff exercise heads off virtual terrorists

Emergency workers respond to new and imagined threats

The terrorist attacks hit within hours of one another on a Monday morning in early April, killing hundreds and injuring thousands with mustard gas and pneumonic plague.

For three days, federal, state and local agencies fought to help victims and figure out who had attacked them and why.

Just when they thought they were getting things under control, the train station in England was bombed Wednesday.

No, you didn't miss the news reports. Those events occurred in a simulation: TopOff 3, the third full-scale exercise in the Homeland Security Department’s Top Officials series.

The drills, which ran from April 4 to 8, allowed first responders in New Jersey, Connecticut, Canada and the United Kingdom to test how prepared they are to face terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. Congress mandated the $16 million exercises to prevent and respond to such attacks.

TopOff 3 was the largest and most comprehensive terrorism-response exercise ever conducted, according to DHS documents. More than 10,000 participants from more than 275 government and private-sector organizations participated. It was also the first time a European country was involved.

This year's scenario was designed to evaluate how first responders handle simultaneous attacks in different locations. Participants had to strategically coordinate data and responses in real time, using a secure Web portal that enabled federal, state and local participants to share information. Procedures for incident management, intelligence transfer, media relations and the dissemination of information to the public were also tested.

After two years of preparation, TopOff 3 was the first simulation to follow the new National Response Plan and use National Incident Management System protocols, said Matt Mayer, acting executive director of DHS' Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness.

Another first, Mayer said, was that TopOff players had the chance to prevent two simulated attacks.

"We haven't heard anything specific, but we have a good feeling that things went fairly well" with TopOff 3, said Charlie Armstrong, chief information officer at the Customs and Border Protection agency, at Federal Sources Inc.'s Federal Outlook Conference April 12.

Results from this year’s exercise will take several months to evaluate, senior DHS officials said, and they will release a final report in September.

Exercises like TopOff are useful in preparing governments and first responders for unforeseen events, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security policy think tank. He said one drawback, though, is that the full-scale exercises are performed only once every two years. That means it will be years before all major target sites participate and all anticipated attack scenarios are tried, he said.

TopOff 3 encounters a few hiccups

Overall, TopOff 3, the congressionally mandated disaster preparedness exercise held earlier this month, went much more smoothly than TopOff 2, which was held in May 2003, said a senior representative from a participating information technology vendor who requested anonymity. Instead of pens, paper and faxes, he said, participants in the latest exercise used high-speed Internet connections to share information more quickly and efficiently.

Some of the few hiccups that occurred in New Jersey and at the TopOff command center in Northern Virginia came from slow or interrupted access to the Internet, the main conduit of information for TopOff players, the vendor representative said. Once officials fixed the problems of insufficient bandwidth and incorrectly programmed routers, he said, "it was almost boring."

One lesson of TopOff 3, he said, is that in a crisis, public and private organizations involved in emergency response must stay connected to the national information network. To do that, he said, they must have immediate access to the Internet and to support professionals who can help solve connection problems.

— Michael Arnone

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