Terrorism Drills Showed Lack of Preparedness, Report Says

New York Times


Published: December 19, 2003

ASHINGTON, Dec. 18 — A classified Bush administration report has found that the largest counterterrorism exercise conducted by the federal government since the Sept. 11 attacks was marred by communications problems, serious shortages of medical supplies and hospital rooms and confusion over where the residue of a radiological attack would spread, administration officials said on Thursday.

The five-day exercise last May in Chicago and Seattle, known as Topoff 2, tested the response of federal agencies and local governments to nearly simultaneous terrorist attacks using biological agents and a so-called dirty bomb, a crude radiological device.

Administration officials said they were disturbed by the report's suggestion that a continuing lack of preparedness by federal and local governments would result in unnecessary deaths in the event of a major terrorist attack. But they insisted that many of the communications and logistical problems identified in the exercise had been corrected in the seven months since the $16 million exercise was conducted.

A brief, unclassified summary of the report, which is expected to be made public on Friday and was made available to The New York Times in advance, cited "critical" problems in Seattle in trying to determine where plumes of radiological contamination from a simulated dirty bomb in the city had spread. As a result, officials said, rescue teams were uncertain for hours where they could travel without risking radiation poisoning.

The summary showed that in Chicago, the problems were often more basic, and that the exercise showed that the city and local federal officials lacked an "efficient emergency communications infrastructure" to deal with a terrorism attack — in this case, a simulated attack with pneumonic plague, a deadly and highly contagious biological agent.

Emergency communications during the Chicago exercise relied heavily on regular telephone lines and fax machines, jamming phone lines for hours and slowing information among rescue teams.

The summary said there was also confusion in Chicago and the vicinity over local stockpiles of medical supplies and antibiotics that could be used to treat exposure to the plague and other bioterrorism agents. The report found that some jurisdictions involved in the Chicago exercise had stockpiles of medicine, while others did not, and that medical supplies from federal stockpiles were not necessarily distributed on the basis of need.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which directed the exercise, noted that the simulation occurred only four months after the department had formally opened for business.

"This was conducted in the first months of the department, before many of the response systems that we now have were in place," he said. "The Topoff 2 exercise was intended to find and address vulnerabilities associated with our response efforts." As a result of the exercise, he said, "we have created new systems by which to communicate with federal, state and local officials."

A major problem identified in the exercise — the federal government's inability to provide quick, consistent reports on the path of radiological, chemical or biological agents released in a terrorist attack — is the subject of intensive study at the Homeland Security Department, officials said.

Other administration officials said that whatever the emergency response problems identified in Topoff 2, the exercise had gone far better than Topoff 1, which was conducted in Denver in May 2000 and which identified glaring problems in the federal government's preparations to deal with a catastrophic terrorist attack.

City officials in Chicago and Seattle acknowledged that the exercise last May had turned up deficiencies in local preparations to deal with a terrorist strike. But they praised the Homeland Security Department for the conduct of the simulation, and both cities, which volunteered to participate in the exercise, said they were far better prepared for a terrorist attack as a result.

"We learned some things," said Cortez Trotter, executive director of the Office of Emergency Communications in Chicago, noting that the exercise had led his city to make changes in its communication systems for handling top-secret information and in the method it uses to gather information on the number of hospital beds and medical equipment available for treatment of terrorist victims.

"I believe that Chicago is as prepared as any major city in American in dealing with terrorism, but certainly we found some areas in which we can improve," he said.

Clark S. Kimerer, chief of operations for the Seattle Police Department, said in a telephone interview, "We found, literally, hundreds of fixable things."

He said the results of the exercise had led the city to order a $1 million mobile command center that would allow senior emergency response officers to move throughout the city. He said the city was also planning to purchase a mobile kitchen.

"We found that getting food to rescue workers was a problem," Mr. Kimerer said. "The food that we did deliver was sometimes not quite edible in the state it was. There was some frozen meat on a stick that might interest the Centers for Disease Control."