FEMA Points To Flaws, Flubs In Terror Drill


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Jeff White
October 31, 2003, 08:58 PM
I thought Tom Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to fix this



Wall Street Journal
October 31, 2003



By Robert Block, Staff Reporter Of The Wall Street Journal

When Washington unleashed 8,000 emergency workers, federal agents and scientists on Chicago and Seattle in May to conduct the largest mock terrorist attack ever organized, officials expected some gaps in America's emergency-response capabilities.

Turns out those gaps are more like craters.

An internal government report of the five-day, $16 million Topoff2 drill says the U.S.'s emergency-response system is hampered by government agencies' failures to share information; uncertainty over the chain of command; and confusing new government procedures. The upshot: America may be not much better prepared to deal with a big terrorist attack than it was before 9/11.

"Fortunately, this was only a test," said the report, compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now part of the Department of Homeland Security. "However, if a real incident occurs before final procedures are established, such unnecessary confusion will be unacceptable."

The report added that because the drill was simulated, "the full consequences of the confusion" -- including the possibility of needless civilian deaths -- "were not observed."

The point of Topoff2 -- so named because top government officials participated -- was to assess U.S. readiness to deal with worst-case-scenario terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. According to the FEMA internal report, at some point during the simulated radiological dirty-bomb attack in Seattle and bioterror strike in Chicago, medical-emergency teams couldn't get vital equipment such as ventilators because no one knew which federal agency was responsible for them. In other cases, officials deployed equipment and personnel without telling anyone in charge.

Federal agents did not pass on vital intelligence because the intended recipients didn't have security clearances or secure telephone lines. And almost no one understood the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat-warning system. "Throughout the first two days of the exercise, disagreement (and confusion) resulted between local, state and federal agencies over whether DHS has implemented 'Orange' or 'Red,' and whether the level was applicable nationally or locally," the report said.

At the time of the exercise, officials were quick to praise Topoff2, mandated by Congress in 1998 to test America's ability to respond to a terrorist attack. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pronounced the drill a tremendous success. Since then, officials have toned down their enthusiasm: Michael D. Brown, a deputy of Mr. Ridge, told Congress recently that Topoff2 "revealed several areas for improvement."

What makes the criticism of the exercise particularly worrying for emergency-response experts is that it was one of the most heavily scripted drills ever staged. For five days starting on May 12, fake patients displaying flu-like symptoms began showing up at Chicago-area hospitals. At roughly the same time, a mock dirty bomb sent a plume of smoke into Seattle's sky.

Actors portrayed dead and dying civilians. Computer simulations ran in tandem with the staged events. A mock television-news network, INN, broadcast ersatz reports of how the fake public was reacting.

Conditions were meant to provide participants with the most realistic experience possible, so that they might be prepared for a real disaster. But Chicago hospitals were briefed days before the drill that they were going to be dealing with pneumonic plague, allowing them to put their labs on standby to prepare the right tests to recognize the outbreak.

In Seattle, officials knew weeks in advance the exact time and location of the "dirty bomb." President Bush, his chief of staff and his press secretary made their decisions about the simulated attack ahead of time, and surrogates stood in for them during the simulation, issuing "decisions" that had been prepared in advance.

One government observer at the exercise said that the confusion in Topoff2 was significant, considering the level of planning and prior notification that had gone into it. "The criticisms are among the worst I've ever heard, especially when you take into account the scope of this drill," this observer said.

This month, the Homeland Security Department released its initial National Response Plan, designed to unify emergency management. The plan was greeted with enthusiasm by some local police and firefighter organizations. But some management positions whose efficacy was questioned by the FEMA report -- for example, the post of principal federal officer, who represents the homeland-security secretary on the ground -- are at the center of the new plan. After seeing the Topoff2 analysis, James Lee Witt, the respected former head of FEMA, expressed concern. "It's my experience that any time you add more layers of bureaucrats into emergency plans, it's a hindrance," he said.

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WvaBill
October 31, 2003, 11:57 PM
Since terrorism is fluent, nebulous and unpredictable, I can understand the concept of creaing one huge monolithic bureaucrcy to deal with it.:rolleyes:

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