HILLSIDE, N.J. (AP) — The largest anti-terror drill undertaken to date in the United States started yesterday morning with police officers investigating a staged car accident on a college campus and health officials on the lookout for a mock biological attack.
“What seems to have been a typically innocuous event will have growing ramifications. It is going to end up testing our health and law-enforcement systems throughout the state of New Jersey,” said Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Counterterrorism. “It’s exciting to finally get this under way.”
Yesterday morning, officers swarmed around two sport utility vehicles and a sports car in a parking lot of a satellite campus of Kean University.
Reporters, briefed by officials as though a real attack were happening, were told that a phone tip led officers to a motor vehicle accident in which the car registrations did not match the vehicles. Meanwhile, doctors were expected to try to connect the incident to a “patient” who had been admitted to a hospital Sunday night with “flulike symptoms.”
The $16 million, weeklong drill is named “TOPOFF 3” for top state and national officials. In addition to the New Jersey attack, the drill is to include a fake chemical weapons attack in New London, Conn., which was to start yesterday afternoon.
All told, more than 10,000 people will participate, including in exercises that will involve officials in Canada and Britain.
The drills are being monitored by top Homeland Security Department officials from a command center in Washington, as well as regional centers in New Jersey and Connecticut.
The biological agent to be used in the fake attack was not announced; investigators at Kean University were expected to identify the substances after getting to the scene.
Although no real weapons or biological agents were being used, officials are to respond as if it’s the real thing: flooding the area with investigators and first responders in protective clothing, sealing off the area, preserving evidence, dispatching fleets of ambulances to hospitals and dealing with throngs of “victims” piling up outside emergency rooms.
More than 8,500 people participated in similar exercises in Seattle and Chicago in 2003 that simulated a dirty bomb explosion and a bioterror attack.
“It’s a test of how well people are communicating with each other and whether the right people are getting pulled into this exercise,” Mr. Shatzkin said.
Today and tomorrow, the drill will shift to local hospitals, where hundreds, if not thousands, of mock “patients” will show up in various degrees of medical crisis. Some will be treated in emergency rooms and admitted; others might undergo triage and outdoor decontamination in parking lots.
“We will intentionally stress our emergency response systems to the point of failure so we can repair them,” said Matt Mayer, acting executive director of the Homeland Security Department’s Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness.