HHS center put to test by terrorist exercise

From a sixth-floor converted conference room laden with communication technologies, the Department of Heath and Human Services monitored and responded to fictitious terrorist attacks earlier this month in Chicago and Seattle.

As 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 operating since last December, allows officials to trace the numbers of people who have died, the number of available hospital beds, the attack's effects and the resources deployed. Officials from several federal, state and local agencies, as well as first responders and health officials, were all connected though databases and videoconferencing.

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

Indeed, the recent drill was 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 command center, plasma-screen televisions lined the walls, capable of broadcasting the feed from thousands of television stations nation- and worldwide.

Officials from HHS and the Food and Drug and Administration, men- tal health officials, and even an in-house meteorologist sat at rows of desks equipped with computers and telephones.

Nearly a dozen screens projected maps, scenario data and teleconferences with officials from Seattle, Chicago, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

One screen projected a model of a possible chlorine release at Reagan National Airport, showing which direction the wind might take the cloud and what the chlorine content in the air of neighboring buildings could be. Meanwhile, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding was being wired, along with officials in Chicago and Seattle, into a teleconference with Thompson.

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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