Last year, runners gathered in Portsmouth, N.H., for a 5K race that started at the city's Port Authority. As registrants waited for the race's start, a bomb armed with mustard gas exploded in a nearby van. Firefighters responded to an alarm pulled from the street, and, encountering hundreds of injured and dying when they arrived at the scene. Project TOPOFF, an exercise to simulate a terrorist attack and to assess top officials' responses, was under way.
Orchestrated by the Justice Department and the, the project had been mandated by Congress the year before. In addition to the chemical weapons scenario in Portsmouth, planners simultaneously launched a biological weapons drill in Denver. “They wanted to have a couple of things going on at the same time to try to stress the federal system,” says Ricky Plummer, Portsmouth fire chief. “They wanted top officials in Washington to have to decide where to send resources.”
Training, big and small
The DOJ and FEMA convened a group of federal, state and local government representatives to develop the concepts for the exercises and to assist in planning. The group included:
Department of Defense;
Department of Agriculture;
Department of Energy;
Department of Health and Human Services;
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms;
Federal Bureau of Investigation;
National Security Council;
Central Intelligence Agency;
Environmental Protection Agency;
General Services Administration;
Governors' and mayors' offices;
State and local emergency management agencies;
First responders; and
High-ranking local officials.
The sites for the project were selected in a meeting of more than 150 state and local emergency response personnel. Denver was chosen because of its size (494,000 residents) and because it had recently participated in the federally funded 120 cities counter-terrorism training program.
Portsmouth, which had not received the same training, was chosen because it's a small city of 25,000 residents, close to both Maine and Massachusetts. It offered the perfect setting to coordinate multiple agencies.
When Portsmouth learned that it would be a TOPOFF participant, Plummer began working with the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management to gather resources. “We had over 40 [sources of] mutual aid from cities and towns throughout New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts,” Plummer says. “Obviously, that had to be pre-planned. We had to talk to the different agencies and tell them, ‘We don't know the date, but we may need a fire engine or an ambulance — or whatever — from your city or town.’”
Law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel were put on similar notice and assured that they would be paid for overtime, as well as for use of supplies and equipment. In fact, Portsmouth received $983,000 from the federal government to finance the TOPOFF exercise. Plummer also had to arrange for coverage of the Portsmouth Fire Department while his own staff took part in the drill.
To ensure that personnel responded to the events in a real-life manner, neither Denver nor Portsmouth was told the exact date of the “attacks.” Instead, the cities were given a 10-day window in which to expect the unexpected.
The best laid plans
Then it happened. At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, the alarm sounded. “We responded with three engines, a ladder and two ambulances initially,” Plummer says. “But, when we got there, we found that we'd had an explosion. We had 200 people contaminated with mustard gas. Fifty-one were dead, 110 would have to be transported to hospitals in ambulances and the rest were walking wounded.”
Following Portsmouth's emergency management and mass casualty plans, Plummer stepped up as incident commander and began assessing the situation and amassing personnel. He rang up five alarms and declared a Level 3 mass-casualty event, which involves more than 150 victims. “We had 38 ambulances, about 40 engines and ladders and over 200 firefighters, and ambulance attendants from different areas,” he says.
Even though the attack was simulated, the chaos at the scene was overwhelming at first, Plummer says: “There was just an unbelievable amount of things going on at once.”
Additionally, the victims — volunteers from community civic groups and businesses — were made up convincingly by professional make-up artists. “It was very real,” Plummer notes. “They had arms missing, that kind of stuff. They played it out as if it had really happened.”
Before victims could be transported to hospitals, they had to be decontaminated. During the exercise, several of the law enforcement and fire personnel were contaminated as they attempted to rescue the victims. Seven state and federal hazmat teams were called in, as were representatives of the original planning agencies.
Severely injured victims were transported to four area hospitals by ambulance, while others were driven in school buses or their own vehicles. As the hospitals became overburdened, Plummer turned to a federally provided mobile hospital.
By that evening, 2,600 local, state and federal personnel were on the scene at Portsmouth's Port Authority. As victims were cleared from the site, workers continued to fight the fire, decontaminate the area, search for the missing and arrange for a place to take the dead. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided supplies and food to the workers.
The event ended Monday morning, when the situation was fully stabilized. “We worked pretty much 48 hours straight without any kind of a break,” Plummer notes.
Days after the Portsmouth drill, participants convened to evaluate their performances. Weeks later, a similar meeting with officials from both Portsmouth and Denver took place in Washington.
“We really learned a lot,” Plummer says. “We learned that the mutual aid system works very well and that there are a lot of federal resources that are available. We got an idea of how to contact them and how long it takes for them to respond.”
These resources include the U.S. Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, which is prepared to respond to a no-notice WMD incident with a limited capability response within four hours and with the total force within 24 hours. However, CBIRF arrived in Portsmouth six hours after notification, then spent the next 12 hours at the airport waiting for federal officials to decide what the team's role should be.
“We also learned how much manpower you need for something like this. Even though we had five alarms' worth of people there, if it had lasted any longer, we would have needed even more,” Plummer notes. “People were just exhausted, and when they're working in hazmat suits and that kind of thing, they can only work for so long without rest.”
In addition to clarifying personnel needs, the drill pointed out some weaknesses in Portsmouth's communications. “We only have a couple of frequencies that we can use, along with all the departments,” Plummer says. “And they were so overloaded that we really couldn't communicate where we needed to.”
Also, emergency personnel hadn't communicated effectively with the hospitals. “We had some minor problems letting the hospitals know how many people we were transporting and when they would arrive,” Plummer explains.
In the end, the experience proved valuable not only to Portsmouth but to other cities as well. The lessons learned are now being used to hone the existing federal counter-terrorism training that's being provided to the nation's largest cities.
For more information on Project TOPOFF, contact Mary Walker, FEMA, 202-646-3892.
Beth Wade is the managing editor of American City & County, a Fire Chief sister publication. A version of this article appeared there.