Terrorism response exercise kicks off

More than 200 federal, state and local agencies and 10,000 people are set to participate today in the five-day Top Officials 3 national terrorism response drill.

The event will simulate a chemical attack in Connecticut and a bioterrorism attack in New Jersey. TopOff is the largest terrorism response drill conducted in the United States. Emergency agencies in Great Britain and Canada will be participating as well.

One of the hallmarks of this third national TopOff emergency preparedness drill is its greater involvement of non-governmental agencies and businesses, according to a department news release.

TopOff 3 "increases international and private-sector participation in prevention and investigation," the department said.

For example, as part of TopOff 3, the Securities Industry Association and the Bond Market Association will test emergency notification procedures with market participants and regulators.

"During the exercise, market participants will report the status of market infrastructure and activity with regulators, and explore how the simulated terror scenario might affect market operations," the associations announced March 31. The results will be given to the Homeland Security Department.

In New Jersey, 84 hospitals are slated to test their readiness, and in Connecticut, the tally includes 32 hospitals. The exercise will take place April 4-8 and will cost $16 million.

Real weapons will not be used, yet the response will be mounted as if they had been. The idea is to exercise the incident command system and the National Response Plan to see if they build a smooth and effective response.

Based on experiences with the first TopOff, held in 2001, and TopOff II, held in 2003, the agencies expect to encounter many glitches in executing their preparedness plans and to learn many lessons from the events.

The governors in New Jersey and Connecticut have put out messages to the public urging them not to panic, this is only a test.

Yet some details about the drills, and particularly about the vulnerabilities exposed, are expected to remain undisclosed to the public for security reasons.

"This full-scale exercise offers agencies and jurisdictions a way to test their plans and skills in a real-time, realistic environment and to gain the in-depth knowledge that only experience can provide. Participants will also exercise intelligence gathering, which is critical to preventing terrorist attacks," DHS said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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