Top Officials 2 (TOPOFF 2) was a Congressionally-mandated, national terrorism exercise that was designed to identify vulnerabilities in the nation's domestic incident management capability by exercising the plans, policies, procedures, systems, and facilities of federal, state, and local response organizations against a series of integrated terrorist threats and acts in separate regions of the country.
TOPOFF 2 was the largest and most comprehensive terrorism response exercise ever conducted in the United States. The exercise scenario, which was played out from May 12 to May 16, 2003, depicted a fictitious, foreign terrorist organization that detonated a simulated radiological dispersal device (RDD) in Seattle, Washington, and released the Pneumonic Plague (Yersinia pestis) in several Chicago metropolitan area locations. There was also significant pre-exercise intelligence play, a cyber-attack, and credible terrorism threats against other locations. The exercise brought together top government officials from 25 federal, state, and local agencies and departments, and the Canadian Government to test the domestic incident management in response to WMD terrorist attacks in the United States.
The first TOPOFF exercise, TOPOFF 2000, was a single, no-notice, exercise co-chaired by the Department of Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in May 2000. Unlike TOPOFF 2000, TOPOFF 2 was designed as an "open" exercise in which participants were introduced to the exercise scenario prior to the exercise through a cycle of activity of increasing complexity that included:
The purpose of the open exercise design was to enhance the learning and preparedness value of the exercise through a "building-block" approach, and to enable participants to develop and strengthen relationships in the national response community. Participants at all levels stated that this approach has been of enormous value to their domestic preparedness strategies.
The TOPOFF 2 Exercise provided several opportunities to test the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS): it was the first time (real or notional) that the HSAS Threat Condition was raised to Red; it represented the first time for agencies to experiment with the actions associated with the Threat Condition of "Severe," or Red; and it allowed for examination of the implications of raising specific regions or localities to Red. In addition, local jurisdictions raised their own threat levels to Red. The exercise highlighted that additional refinement of this advisory system is needed.
During the exercise, several declarations of emergencies and disasters were issued. Local and state jurisdictions in both exercise venues invoked their authorities to declare emergencies, and requested federal assistance under the Stafford Act. These requests ultimately led to a Presidential Declaration of Major Disaster in Washington and a Presidential Declaration of Emergency in Illinois. The bioterrorism attack in Illinois was especially challenging as its impact involved multiple counties, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. In addition, the Secretary of Health and Human Services declared a Public Health Emergency in the state of Illinois under the authorities of the Public Health Service Act. This occurred before the Presidential Declaration of Emergency, enabling the activation of several response assets.
The exercise was the first opportunity for the newly created DHS to exercise and experiment with its organization, functions, and assets. For example, the DHS Principal Federal Official (PFO) concept was first implemented during the exercise, which provided the opportunity to examine the role of the PFO during an emergency response.
During TOPOFF 2, there were multiple federal, state, and local agencies that had responsibilities for collecting data. The data were then sent to one or more locations to be compiled and analyzed. Once the analyses were complete, information was provided to top officials to assist in their decision-making. However, there were critical data collection and coordination challenges that had significant impacts on the response to the RDD attack in Seattle and impacted the ability to get timely, consistent, and valid information to top officials.
The activation, requests for and deployment and distribution of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) were extensively played during TOPOFF 2. The exercise tested the ability of all levels of government to make decisions, allocate resources, coordinate and communicate, and inform the public regarding this critical SNS resource. The state of Illinois tested its ability to break down and secure the antibiotic stocks. Local jurisdictions tested their abilities to distribute supplies of antibiotics to their first responders and citizens. Overall, the request, receipt, breakdown, distribution, and dispensing of the SNS during the exercise were completed successfully.
During TOPOFF 2, 64 hospitals in the Illinois venue participated in the exercise, making it one of the largest mass casualty exercises ever undertaken. This aspect of the exercise presented an unprecedented opportunity to examine the coordinated efforts of the medical and public health communities to react to and control the spread of a disease outbreak, specifically an outbreak initiated by a bioterrorism attack. Because of the large number of participating hospitals, challenges regarding communication and the management of resource requirements were significant.
In incidents when victim survival is dependent upon the timeliness of medical treatment, first responders typically initiate victim rescue and removal as rapidly as possible, while incident commanders manage responder safety with an ongoing risk-benefit analysis. However, when faced with an emergency that potentially involves a WMD, first responders face a greater potential of becoming casualties themselves. Given the uncertainty surrounding the simulated RDD explosion during the exercise, many of the responders artificially had the knowledge that it was a radiological incident and the incident commander had to take precautions to ensure that the responders were safe.
TOPOFF 2 was an innovative, useful, and successful exercise and was the first national combating terrorism exercise conducted since DHS was established. As a result, TOPOFF 2 provided a tremendous learning experience for both the new DHS and the federal agencies now working with DHS during a response to domestic incidents. In addition, the experience in Washington and Illinois provided important lessons regarding federal, state, and local integration. These lessons are valuable to other states and localities as they work to train, exercise, and improve their own response capabilities.
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