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Mock Terrorism Exercises

Two small boats moved into place along Florida’s east coast, preparing to attack a ship at the Mayport Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. Meanwhile, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office carried out a search warrant on a home, where they found information and evidence that indicated terrorists were planning to use explosives and toxic chemicals in attacks on water treatment facilities across Florida. Officers responded, and as they did, evaluators took notes on the officers’ actions.

The attack was part of Florida’s seven Regional Domestic Security Task Forces’ annual mock terrorism exercise. Dubbed “Project Freedom II,” it drew on the efforts of 3,500 people from 40 local, state, federal, and private agencies, involving eight locations in four counties. Sharon Gogerty of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said that the Emergency Operations Center in 12 counties were activated and 13 hospitals participated in the exercise.

No matter the size of the department, Event Coordinator Jeff Alexander, says that every agency has the ability to create its own mock terrorism exercise, even if they don’t have the resources of larger departments.

Understanding why Florida has become an example for other states when it comes to putting on mock terrorism drills means understanding where Florida stood after the 9/11 attacks and what it did to remedy those problems.

Right after 9/11, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Division of Emergency Management concluded that nearly all of the 68,000 first responders in the state were without proper training to respond to terrorism attacks. In fact, most states were not prepared for such an event.

But in the wake of this new information, Florida created seven Regional Domestic Security Task Forces. The task forces were designed to coordinate domestic security efforts and to make certain all regions of the state were properly trained and equipped for large emergency situations.

“The idea behind the task forces is that resources can respond to incidents more quickly if they are staged in regions,” Volusia County Emergency Management Director Jim Ryan said. “This helps us to know the staff and equipment that’s available, where it is, and how long it will take to get to the incident.”

Each region answers to a multi-agency oversight board and is in charge of coordinating training, responding to health and biological threats, coordinating law enforcement disaster response teams, monitoring terrorist groups, collecting and disbursing intelligence, and participating in the criminal investigation should there be an attack. The basic idea of the task forces is designed to share intelligence and resources.

Putting Knowledge to the Test

To test northeast Florida’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack, the Northeast Regional Domestic Security Task Force held two days of exercises. The events centered on the different agencies’ ability to communicate with each other as well as their ability to circulate information about the terrorist attack.

As part of the scenario, suicide bombers snuck into the Mayport Naval Air Station on the first day and attempted to attack a cruise terminal. The U.S. Coast Guard, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reacted to the danger as event evaluators watched the events unfold from the shore. The evaluators listened on radios to the type of information that was being given from the law enforcement officers and took notes based on the way the officers handled the situations that were presented to them.

When the Marion County Sheriff’s Office heard of the Coast Guard attacks, the department served a warrant on a house thought to be involved in terrorism. Once inside, officers discovered explosives and information suggesting toxic chemicals may be used in attacks on water treatment facilities. The Florida State Emergency Operations Center was notified and requested that all law enforcement agencies visit every water treatment facility in their area.

Early the next morning Nassau County EMS arrived at a pond where six fishermen were having respiratory distress. “It is attributed to a dump of hazardous materials later determined to have been surplus chemicals dumped by the terrorists after infecting water treatment plants,” Gogerty said.

At 9:00 am, in Jacksonville, a commercial passenger jet was “shot down” by a man with a Manual Portable Air Defense System (shoulder launched missile) during the plane’s landing approach at the Jacksonville International Airport. The scenario stated that the plane crashes and is engulfed in flames. “A witness calls 911 and reports seeing a man shoot the missile at the plane,” Gogerty said. At this news, the Florida Highway Patrol began looking for the fleeing man.

Officers spotted the suspect and followed his vehicle north. Fearing the chase might cross state lines, police officers contacted South Georgia authorities. “It’s a communications’ test to see if all the information about the vehicle (being chased) makes it through the appropriate agencies,” Alexander, the event coordinator, told the Florida Times Union.

Farther south from Jacksonville, Marion and Alachua County officers were investigating separate water treatment facilities when they found signs of water tampering. An explosive device was discovered by the officers at each of the plants. As part of the scenario, employees at an Alachua County chemical storage plant report a disruption in the facility’s inventory to law enforcement officials. Later as a police officer and shop manager enter the building, an explosion occurs and a fire begins in the warehouse.

As part of a final incident, an air ambulance sent to the airport to assist with the transport of patients from the shot-down plane crashed on its return to the Naval Air Station. Each of the situations in the mock terrorism exercise had to be responded to accordingly. The actions of the agencies involved at each scene are watched, sometimes taped, and ultimately documented by evaluators.

Alexander said that by doing these kinds of hands-on exercises, the agencies get the chance to work with each other and not with simulated agencies or people—thus creating a more realistic situation.

Putting Together a Mock Attack

Alexander, who coordinated the past two years’ exercises, provided some helpful advice on organizing an event and he suggested that any department can put together similar mock terrorism exercises. He also noted that the grandeur of the exercise is not what is most important. Alexander said that one of the most important aspects of the training is that departments work together so that should a real terrorist attack occur, everything won’t be new to the agencies when they respond.

The first thing he advises any agency to do is to develop a committee open to anyone who wants to participate, from local companies to emergency responders. Alexander said that north Florida begins planning for an event about six months in advance and each committee meets every other week. Other departments may need more or less time to plan depending on the scope of the exercise.

The planning committee is made up of smaller committees, each in charge of a different area of the exercise. The communications committee is in charge of working out the details of how each agency will communicate with each other, while the scenario planners work out the exercise events and what objectives will be covered the day of the exercise. Next, the media committee is in charge of interacting with the media, sending press releases and answering the media’s questions regarding the event. Media are invited on the day of the events and a spokesperson stays with them to answer questions as the exercise unfolds.

The canteen committee is in charge of food and water, while the safety committee is in charge of the safety plan for each site. The documentation committee is in charge of keeping track of all the exercise plans, scenarios, basic rules of play, the key things that have to happen, schedules and safety plans—any kind of paperwork that is generated. The evaluation committee is in charge of evaluations after the event.

The victim coordination committee is in charge of keeping track and handling the victims. Victims are played by actors and the dead are played by dummies. Finally, there is the miscellaneous logistics committee, which is in charge of signs, port-a-potties, and other various items that don’t fit anywhere else.

Alexander said that the planning aspect of the exercise allows members of each group to learn each others’ capabilities and assets. “The process causes the different agencies to talk about how things would actually work out,” he said. Police departments may come up with one idea, but when that idea is presented to the fire department they may say the idea won’t work with the equipment they currently have, Alexander said. “The planning process is enormously beneficial,” he said.

Because every agency doesn’t have the man power to devote to an eight to twelve hour exercise, the exercises are condensed. While first responders do not know the scenario beforehand, they do know that they are about to be participating in a mock terrorist attack. Because of the artificialities of the exercise, things like travel time and deployment time are reduced. Many of the first responders are moved in toward the event location to reduce travel and response time. This improves safety and allows responders to focus on the incident rather than driving to it, Alexander said.

Once the exercise begins and first responders arrive, they immediately have to evaluate the situation and deal with victims. The victims have life-like wounds painted on them and are told how to behave and act before they get to the scene so their symptoms are appropriate for their particular problem.

During the exercise, evaluators listen to the radios to make sure information is flowing smoothly and everyone involved is doing his job properly. Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Carr, a Coast Guard spokesman, told the Florida Times Union that even though the groups are being evaluated, there are no winners or losers in the exercise. He said that a successful terrorist attack would help expose potential weaknesses and possibly change the way responses are handled in the future. “We want to make our mistakes on the practice field,” Carr told the paper. “Everybody learns.”

Besides the evaluators on the field, the Northeast Florida Regional Domestic Security Task Force also had a camera crew filming the events. Mulligan said that the tapes will be distributed at a later date to each of the regions for review.

“We spent about $200,000 on planning staff, documentation, and staging the exercise,” Alexander said. But he also noted that “a simple exercise that focuses on one of the response elements can be done with little cost” to an agency.

Working Together

Mulligan said that one of the byproducts of the exercises is the chance for the different agencies to create contacts with one another and have the ability to pool from each other’s resources. Across Florida, other regions did their own mock terrorist attacks, and had similar feedback.

“Exercises like this instill confidence in emergency responders and give them a chance to meet face-to-face with other agencies and support groups before an actual event,” said Al Tolley, a Daytona Beach Police Public Information Officer. “This way they won’t enter an emergency ‘cold’ and will work more efficiently together.”

Mulligan couldn’t agree more. “Bringing all these entities together to communicate, to work with one another, to know each other better and how each one’s polices will interact in the event of a real emergency is paramount,” Mulligan said.

The mock terrorist exercises have helped make the tourist state better prepared for a possible terrorist attack. One reason is that departments are learning from the mistakes of New York by bringing the different agencies together to learn each other’s capabilities and compatibilities. “No one county has all the resources in case of a terrorist attack,” Mulligan said. “It is incumbent for all of us to work together.” In light of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath on the Gulf Coast, such training may prove useful for more than just a terrorist attack.

Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer/photographer based out of Jacksonville, FL. She worked for a time in public relations and has done freelance work for a daily newspaper for seven years. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, May 2006

Rating : 9.1

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