HHS monitors mock attacks

From a room laden with communication technologies, the Department of Heath and Human Services is monitoring and responding to the fictitious terrorist attacks this week in Chicago and Seattle.

While first responders and health professionals rushed to the scenes of a mock biological attack and dirty bomb explosion, HHS officials stayed connected from the command center in the department's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The exercise, known as TopOff 2 (Top Officials 2), began May 12 and included the departments of Homeland Security and State working with federal, state, local and Canadian officials. The drill is intended to analyze the response to a terrorist attack.

The command center, which has been up and running since last December, allows officials to trace the numbers of people who have died, the number of available hospital beds, the effects of the attack and the resources deployed. Officials from several federal, state and local agencies, as well as first responders and health officials, are all connected though databases and videoconferencing.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson called it "one of the most remarkable command centers in the county. We're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."

Indeed, the recent drill about possible terrorist attacks is just an expanded version of day-to-day operations at the command center, said Brent Guffey, senior systems engineer at HHS.

"We use [the center] every day. This is just another day for us," he said.

In the sixth-floor room, plasma-screen televisions line the walls, broadcasting TV stations from across the country and around the world. Nearly a dozen screens project maps, data from scenarios, and teleconferences with the officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and officials in Seattle and Chicago.

The command center also allows HHS officials to track diseases, such as the West Nile virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome, and follow storms using weather and mapping capabilities.

"This technology has been extremely effective," Thompson said.

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