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Simulation ‘great in theory’

A $16-million, federally-funded disaster simulation tested hospitals and first responders - and voluntary groups had unprecedented involvement.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 13, 2005

"We were able to test our communication system."

—Steve Patterson

A $16-million, federally-funded disaster simulation tested hospitals and first responders - and voluntary groups had unprecedented involvement.

The most comprehensive terrorism response exercise ever conducted in the nation was held last week. Called “TOPOFF 3” - for ‘top officials’ doing this type of simulation for the third time - the mock disaster involved about 10,000 people from 27 federal agencies. More than 200 government and private organizations participated, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The nation’s emergency response system was tested through two scenarios. First, a car bomb explodes on a crowded pier in New London, Conn., toppling buildings and spewing deadly mustard gas over people attending a festival. Second, police in Union, N.J., find an abandoned sport utility vehicle rigged with an atomizer. No traces of biological agents are found - yet hospitals are soon overwhelmed with hundreds of residents who develop flu-like symptoms.

The test was intended to challenge emergency response times, test personnel and push emergency management to its limits, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “We expect failure because we’re going to be seeking to push the failure. That is the best way to get lessons learned.”

TOPOFF 3 lasted five days last week. Was there failure? The administration will spend four to six months answering that question, analyzing the results of the exercise before releasing a formal report, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But at least one participant from a voluntary agency, five days after he participated in TOPOFF 3, called it a useful exercise. “We were able to test our communication system,” explained Steve Patterson, executive vice president of Virginia-based Angel Flight.

Angel Flight volunteer pilots routinely use their own planes to fly patients to distant specialized medical facilities at no cost to the patient. In a national emergency, they have the advantage of being able to use smaller airports for takeoff and landing, unlike larger commercial planes that rely on major airports.

Angel Flight often works with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, The Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and other response groups.

Angel Flight and its co-located partner, Mercy Medical Airlift, participated in TOPOFF 3 not by taking to the skies for real but by testing their emergency communications capability. Angel Flight has a homeland security component known as HSEATS (Homeland Security Emergency Air Transportation System). HSEATS was developed through a 3-year federal grant awarded to Mercy Medical Airlift in 2002.

The Angel Flight office serves as the national communications center for HSEATS. During TOPOFF 3, the center tested its radio equipment with volunteers from the Virginia Beach Amateur Radio Club. Calls were relayed to other Angel Flight regions based in Orlando, Boston, Dallas, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Testing a communications system might be less glamorous than putting volunteer pilots into the skies during a simulation - but it’s vitally important, said Patterson. And it’s also important to reach out to other volunteer groups during a simulation - before disaster strikes. “The most important thing you can do is collaborate,” he said.

Angel Flight and Mercy Medical Airlift are tied into the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) coalition, Patterson said, and also networked within state-level VOADs.

But you don’t have to have $13 million in government money to do a disaster simulation, he pointed out. “I would tell families and churches - test your own communications system, no matter how small you think it is. Take a look at your paperwork - your policies and your insurance. Take an exercise like TOPOFF 3 and drill at your own level.”

The Salvation Army also participated in TOPOFF 3. Salvation Army volunteers in Connecticut and New Jersey responded with canteen services - even while other Salvation Army crews were responding to real flooding hitting New Jersey towns along the Delaware River.

National VOAD representatives as well as state-level VOAD groups were involved in TOPOFF 3 as well, leading coordinating conference calls to share information, taking calls regarding donations and unaffiliated volunteers, and coordinating other activities.

At least some people believe small businesses now need more involvement in government-led simulations.

“The good news is that TOPOFF 3 was great in theory,” said John Copenhaver, chairman of the Disaster Recovery Institute International and a former regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “DHS will gain a better understanding of disaster response, communications and coordination among local, state and federal agencies.

“The bad news,” he said, “is that though the roles of area hospitals and emergency responders were pushed to the limit, the business community - especially small business - was largely left out. And it’s the effects of disaster on local businesses that have the greatest potential of damaging people’s lives in the long term.”

Small businesses make up 85 percent of all businesses in the nation, he said. “TOPOFF 3 would have been a great opportunity for selected businesses to participate and test their plans as part of this larger exercise,” said Copenhaver.

“As the Department of Homeland Security digests the fact that the three TOPOFF exercises pushed first responders, hospital staff and government agencies to their limits, they are still overlooking one of the most essential ingredients to disaster preparedness - the private sector business community.”

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