By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 17, 2007 - As some 15,000 federal, state and local officials test their ability to respond to terrorist attacks in Oregon, Arizona and Guam during the largest-yet "TOPOFF" exercise, U.S. Northern Command is fine-tuning its own procedures for supporting a civilian-led response to a potential threat or crisis. Servicemembers and civilians from U.S. Army North kicked off Vigilant Shield 2008 on Oct. 15. The weeklong national-level exercise involves federal, state and local agencies across the United States and Guam.
Vigilant Shield is running concurrently with TOPOFF 4, the fourth in a series of congressionally mandated Department of Homeland Security exercises that involves top officials at all government levels, as well as representatives from the international community and the private sector. TOPOFF, short for "top officials," tests their effectiveness in working together as they respond to a simulated crisis.
The TOPOFF scenario began yesterday with mock coordinated "dirty bomb" attacks in Oregon, Arizona and Guam, with massive casualties and widespread contamination. Some 15,000 participants, including members of the National Guard, responded.
As Portland, Ore., officials were responding to the "blast site" -- a mockup of a major city bridge, complete with demolished cars, piles of rubble and actors posing as blast victims -- 22 members of the Oregon National Guard's 102nd Civil Support Team lent hazardous materials expertise to the effort.
"We will work together with first responders to see what the risk to the public is and what the dangers are," said Army Lt. Col. Steven Ferrell, team commander. "We do this in support of the first responders; we never take charge but instead take a supportive role."
Ferrell said the National Guard is helping ensure first responders in Oregon are as trained as possible for a large-scale disaster.
Meanwhile, about 200 Oregon Guardsmen who make up a joint task force are providing local authorities any supplemental resources they might need. "That could include anything from coordinating troop movements to assist evacuation efforts to providing logistical support, such as power generators or transporting water and supplies," said Army Lt. Col. Robert Mouw, deputy commander of 82nd Brigade Troop Command.
Mouw said the task force is "ready to respond to any mission the governor may give us."
As the scenario unfolded in Portland, officials in Guam were confronted not just with a radioactive bomb detonation at Cabras Island, but also an aircraft needing to make an emergency landing because it had hydraulic problems and an engine fire.
Guam's homeland security advisor, Dennis J. Santo Tomas, activated the Guam National Guard's 94th Civil Support Team along with the fire department, police, Department of Public Health and Social Services, Guam Homeland Security and the Office of Civil Defense.
Gov. Felix P. Camacho said Guam's geographic isolation and proximity to many international trouble spots make it critical that the territory be prepared to respond to threats to the safety of its people. "We will test our response capabilities, strengthen preparedness and learn what needs to be improved by simulating an actual situation," he said. "This exercise will be very valuable to responding to a real-life situation."
Meanwhile, Arizona is the first state to conduct a functional TOPOFF exercise – essentially a tabletop exercise focusing on coordinating decision making and communications during a simulated disaster. State officials said the exercise will serve as a model for future TOPPFF exercises.
As TOPOFF 4 runs its course through Oct. 19, U.S. Army North is conducting Vigilant Shield at its Fort Sam Houston, Texas, headquarters and in Portland and Mesa, Ariz. Using various homeland defense and civil support scenarios, the command is testing its own procedures for working with other participants in responding to a potential threat or crisis.
Brig. Gen. Francis Mahon, Army North deputy commander, explained that local and state governments would be the first responders to an emergency situation, followed by federal agencies. Army North, NORTHCOM's Army component, would support capability gaps, when asked by agencies leading the response.
Mahon called the exercise important to building national preparedness that lay groundwork for coordinated disaster responses. It's "a great opportunity for all of us to work together now, prior to a crisis," he said.