- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

Dressed in black military fatigues, holding submachine guns and breathing from air tanks, police officers stormed narco-terrorists holed up in an abandoned building at Jones Point in Alexandria, Va., yesterday.

No one was really threatening to unleash a deadly biological toxin on the Washington area, but the Alexandria Police Department's special-operations team performed as if there were as part of a practice terrorism scenario.

The team raided a mock drug and biotoxin lab at the Jones Point Army Reserve base yesterday, coming away with mixed results in communication and organization.

The exercise was one of the first in the nation to use several local and federal agencies, including the city police and fire departments, the Virginia Department of Emergency Services, the FBI and the National Park Service, Alexandria Fire Chief Tom Hawkins said.

With small-scale terrorism incidents becoming the focus of national security concerns, the federal government is working with local agencies to prepare for such "nightmare scenarios," where a few persons can kill thousands with a weapon of mass destruction.

Yesterday's terrorism response drill was one of 13 exercises to be conducted in Virginia, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The drills test the readiness of police and fire personnel to deal with hazardous materials, including chemical and biological weapons.

"There are no surprises here," Glen Rudner, regional hazardous-materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Services, told the officers and firefighters before the raid. "This isn't here to trick you … or fool you, but to test you."

The police team "captured" one narco-terrorist, and three others "died" when officers set off a trap that released "deadly chlorine gas" inside the building. The thick haze was actually a product of water and vegetable oil.

The captured woman was brought outside in handcuffs, and firefighters in white plastic suits decontaminated her with spray from a fire hose. Typically, a person exposed to harmful chemicals must be stripped, soaped up and scrubbed.

Later, two members of the fire department's hazardous-material team donned large blue protection suits that looked like something out of TV's "The X-Files" and worked to shut off the "chlorine" gas leak.

They had trouble talking and hearing through two layers of plastic protection, and the suits made their movements awkward, but they managed to clamp the leak shut in about seven minutes.

The exercise showed authorities that police officers were rusty on using breathing equipment, a vital part of operations where harmful chemicals can be inhaled. Firefighters gave them a quick lesson before the raid.

The special-operations team also failed to notify the fire department's hazardous-material team about materials in the building for making Ricin, a biological toxin so deadly that inhaling 1/2,000th of a milligram kills a person in days.

"Our main thing is, we're looking for guys with guns, not evidence," said one special-teams officer during the post-raid critique. "We have a different perspective, but this training helps us, because now we'll start to think differently."

The idea of "unified command" one person directing all the agencies when jurisdictions overlap didn't work so well during yesterday's drill, several officials said.

"I felt there was never a unified command," said Joseph Hoffmaster, a battalion chief with the Alexandria Fire Department.

"We had no idea what was going on inside," one firefighter said.

Thomas Rohrer, the Alexandria Fire Department battalion chief who coordinated the exercise, was satisfied with the response.

"We knew there would be mistakes. That's what this is for. We all learned something today," he said.

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