Banner Advance Home Navigation Bar Advance Home Issue Index Read past articles Weekly Calendar

April 4, 2005

UConn Leads Planning For
Response To Terror Attack Simulation

When things start to go wrong this week during a massive simulated terrorist attack involving thousands of workers and volunteers in Connecticut, New Jersey, Canada, and England, Roy Pietro will know he did his job.

Pietro is so serious about creating realistic challenges that overtax officials and emergency workers during the exercise that, if everything is running smoothly at any point during the four-day training program, he and his colleagues say they will throw a wrench in the works.

“We want to push them to their breaking point,” says Pietro, executive director of the Workforce Development Institute in UConn’s College of Continuing Studies and director of Connecticut’s Homeland Security Education Center, who has coordinated planning for TOPOFF 3 (Top Officials training program) since work began on the huge drill 18 months ago. “The idea isn’t to do a great job, then slap everyone on the back. The value of the exercise is to see where the weak spots are and find out what areas have to be strengthened, in case there’s ever a real attack.”

The Congressionally mandated national terrorism exercises are designed to identify vulnerabilities in the nation’s domestic preparedness system by staging a mock attack, and involving thousands of first responders and officials in the drill.

This week’s exercise, based in New London, will test local, state, and federal officials who will simulate a chemical attack in the New London area. At the same time, a biological attack will take place in New Jersey. Computer-simulated attacks will occur in Canada and England.

Planning, coordination, and training for the hundreds of emergency services personnel involved in the drill was done by Pietro, Neal Olderman, a former federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) worker, and Robert Ross, a retired fire chief from Middletown, and supported by several other faculty in the College of Continuing Studies. It is the first time since the TOPOFF drills began that a university has laid all the groundwork for such a drill.

Olderman and Ross both work for the College of Continuing Studies, in the Homeland Security Education Center, which was created in September 2003.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” says Pietro. “Each month for the past year and a half, we’d meet with 80 to 120 people, all representing different federal, state, or local emergency management agencies, from the FBI and CIA to ATF and FEMA, the state Department of Public Safety, DEP, state police, state health department, local police and fire departments, homeland security. Many planners didn’t know each other, or did not have an established track record of interagency collaboration. Some of them were conflicting agencies.

“It was not a rubber stamp group,” he adds. “It was sometimes a painful process. You really had to have a good, logical idea, well articulated, if it was going to get through this group and be included in the process.”

Through it all, Pietro, Ross, and Olderman and other Continuing Studies staff also held classes and exercises for first responders and senior officials, signed contracts, and paid bills. UConn has budgeted approximately $1.3 million for the TOPOFF exercise series, as part of the $3.2 million federal sub-award it received from the state Department of Public Safety in 2003 to oversee first responder training and exercises.

Connecticut was awarded one of the TOPOFF exercises, only the third to be held since the training drills were mandated by Congress in 1999, in part because the application indicated that the state has a close partnership with UConn, which has a strong workforce development program. Pietro says UConn’s key role in TOPOFF 3 will likely enhance that program.

“We’ve developed relationships with people from New London to Washington, D.C.,” he says. “They’ve seen what we can do and attended classes we’ve taught. I’m sure we’ll see some of them again.”

Pietro also has developed a homeland security concentration within the master’s degree in professional studies. The proposal will be presented to UConn’s Board of Trustees April 12. If approved, Pietro says the program will begin in September.

The mock terror attack will start early on April 4, when the call will go out that a chemical attack has occurred in New London. Police, fire, and emergency services personnel throughout the area will be alerted and respond. Another bomb will explode shortly after, worsening the situation. Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Connecticut’s Congressmen and other legislators will be notified and will weigh in on the situation. All 32 hospitals in Connecticut, including the UConn Health Center, will be put on alert and will prepare to accept thousands of injured people. Communications systems will be taxed.

Besides hundreds of emergency personnel, there will be hundreds of volunteers serving as role-playing victims, feigning a range of injuries, both chemical and from flying debris. A large debris pile, complete with crushed cars and a bus, simulating a collapsed building, has being erected at Fort Trumbull, where much of the action will take place. The exercise site will be secured by law enforcement officers to limit access to the local, state, and federal first responders and senior officials who are being tested in TOPOFF.

Secrecy, required to maintain the credibility of the attack, has also been a challenge, Pietro says.

“At TOPOFF 1, there was too much secrecy,” Pietro says. “The planners had no idea what a lot of the agencies involved did, so they didn’t know what they should do, who to call, and how to route the communications. Then, at TOPOFF 2, so many people knew what was going to happen and when, that it wasn’t challenging enough. We tried to strike a balance between the two.”

So far, few details have emerged, and very few first responders know what they’re in for.

While the bulk of the action will occur on April 4 – Pietro calls it D-Day – other agencies and players will be called to action during the rest of the week. Later in the day on April 4 and on April 5, search and rescue teams will be pressed into service, and state and federal investigators will begin searching for clues during a “who done it” phase. By Thursday, environmental workers will be involved in site remediation.

“It’s a difficult thing,” says Pietro. “We’re taking a four to six-week event and collapsing it into four days. I think we’re going to learn a lot.”