Full-scale national terrorism exercise

Mark H. McCain
Principal Consultant
Public Works Emergency Management Services
St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Emergency management in America once meant knowing the quickest route to the nearest bomb shelter. The dramatic changes that have taken place in this industry were particularly evident at the nation's largest functional homeland security drill that took place in Seattle, WA; Chicago, IL; Washington, D.C.; and Canada. Through the planning efforts of 19 federal agencies and more than 100 government departments, this five-day unclassified and classified functional exercise, operating 24-hours a day, kicked off on May 12, 2003. Those of us in public works are eager to see what follow-up action might be recommended for public works.

The Congress of the United States mandated that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State conduct a national exercise program that would address preparedness and leadership in a terrorist event at the highest levels of federal, state and local governments, and the private sector. The exercise (known as TOPOFF 2) consisted of simulated weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attacks that included a bioterrorism event in Chicago (Plague), and a hypothetical explosion containing radioactive material (RDD-Dirty Bomb) in Seattle.

The event was considered the largest full-scale exercise since September 11, 2001. Many talented public works community leaders were able to participate, discuss, plan, and respond to homeland security issues that went beyond our normal delivery of lifeline services and infrastructure protection.

The goals of TOPOFF 2 were to improve the nation's capacity to manage extreme events; create a broad national framework for the operation of expert crisis and consequence management systems; validate authorities, strategies, plans, policies, procedures, and protocols; and build a sustainable, systematic national exercise program to support the national strategy for homeland security. With this lofty goal, the public works industry learned that resources are soon depleted, technical assistance is frequently necessary, and special measures need to be in place for the protection of drinking water and wastewater systems.

More than 8,000 professionals worked in teams that were responsible for preparations leading up to the event, and managing the moment-by-moment activities within the incident. In Chicago a known terrorist group simulated the release of a biological agent (virus) with a 1-6 day incubation period, causing large numbers of people to become ill and some to die. This created a massive medical incident that taxed the response of local government leaders, local and state public health officials, public and private sector hospitals, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's emergency operations centers (EOCs) in Atlanta, GA and Washington, D.C.

At the same time there were simulations of a terrorist explosion containing radiological material in Seattle causing a mass casualty incident with two deaths and hundreds of injuries. Potentially thousands of responders and citizens were exposed to this unknown radiological material, with additional concerns for the environment. Fire, emergency medical and police personnel responded, only to be turned away from the scene until technically qualified personnel could assess the danger. This resulted in delayed treatment of the injured, and a delay in organizing the management of a large debris site.

A positive outcome from September 11, 2001 is that as a nation we find ourselves practicing these kinds of exercises much more now. With the activation of the National Response Plan (NRP) by the federal government, TOPOFF 2 illustrated that many specialized teams (Coast Guard, FBI, CDC, EPA, etc.) could be activated and dispatched to the scene to provide assistance. One outcome for public works officials is the need to understand the wide variety of working relationships which are necessary to protect critical infrastructure and lifeline services.

In the Seattle RDD portion of the exercise, public works agencies discovered two major issues that needed to be addressed. First was the identification of a methodology that assured the stabilization of transportation systems (freeway operations and mass transportation). Because of the nature of the exercise and the environmental impacts generated by the wind, Seattle found itself with a large number of interstate systems either partially or totally closed. Of interest, private sector corporations Boeing Aircraft and Starbucks Coffee, because of their vested interest, were keen observers of the exercise and response methodology used by the transportation leadership. King County Executive Ron Sims responded, "One of the things we realized very soon is how quickly you can tie up a regional transportation system with an event like this." These and other lessons learned will help guide communities and transportation officials as they plan a response to stabilize the community's transportation heartbeat.

Another major public works issue was dealing with wastewater systems of the metropolitan area of King County and the greater Seattle area. Because of the nature of the terrorist incident and decontamination of victims, the area required equipment and massive volumes of water that needed to be contained for proper disposal. Yet the reality of the incident resulted in the simulation of open discharge of radiological materials into the storm drainage and sanitary sewer system, creating major implications for the wastewater treatment facility. This in turn caused the leadership to generate non-traditional approaches to disposing of the highly radioactive material, creating probable implications for the river, sounds, and bays of the region. The ability to field-test equipment, theories and principles is one of the great benefits of these exercises.

Many of the issues brought forward during this exercise can be practiced and discussed with groups that have a vested interest in the consequences of terrorism within your jurisdiction; public works could take the lead. Observations of public works issues from this exercise:

  • Infrastructure Implications — Assess the amount of radiation contamination and/or the numbers of individuals affected by the biological agent, and estimate the number of deaths and injuries that agencies may have to deal with. What is the implication to your infrastructure?

  • Communications — Front-line communications and the need to resolve interagency conflicts to improve the ability to provide quick decisions. — Through enhanced public information
    — Coordinated communication allows top officials to share information and ideas efficiently
    — To resolve internal and external conflicts that may arise

  • The ability to assess the decision process as it applies to the closing of ports, harbors, airports, utility systems and transportation systems; physical and financial impacts to the economy and the community

  • Balancing the need for public works involvement in the care of victims and the management of debris, with the need to preserve a crime scene
Final observations and the after-action report (AAR) have yet to be published; however, the learning experience for those involved has created the foundation for the development and implementation of agency programs that will prepare the nation and your community for a time when they may need to respond to an act of domestic or international terrorism on American soil.

Mark H. McCain is the retired Public Works Director for the City of Columbia, South Carolina, a current member of APWA's Government Affairs Committee, and a past member of APWA's Emergency Management Committee. He can be reached at (843) 838-2787 or at svescape@aol.com.