TOPOFF 3 Preview: Finding the Gaps

Serious security planners know that without constant testing even the best-laid plans are merely educated guesses. The most perfect-looking security plan on paper may turn out to be built on false assumptions in practice.
This April, many of the homeland security plans and efforts put in place over the past year will be put to the test in the nation’s third TOPOFF exercise.
“Having been a first responder for many decades, I still look at things from that point of view, rather than as an armchair strategist,” said Rob Ross, former chief of the Middletown, Conn., Fire Department and currently chief coordinator for Connecticut of TOPOFF 3 training for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“And that means being skeptical of big ambitious plans. Since 9/11, we’ve seen all sorts of new partnerships formed between local, state and federal agencies—literally hundreds of them. They range from local fire and police departments on a town level to the highest echelons of federal security agencies. They all look great on paper and sound good at meetings, but what we’ve been waiting for is an exercise that makes it possible to actually test all the procedures and relationships we’ve forged to see if all our brilliant theories really work. You don’t want to first test your ideas in a real emergency. That’s not the time to discover, smart as they were, that you missed something fundamental. That’s where TOPOFF comes in.”
TOPOFF (short for “Top Officials”) is a congressionally mandated national, and increasingly international, exercise designed to test the abilities of first responders, local, state and federal agencies to respond to a simulated series of terror attack scenarios. As C. Suzanne Mencer, the retiring executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness for DHS, described it, “TOPOFF is the largest and farthest-reaching exercise in our national program. It is the one full-range exercise that challenges our entire emergency system as a whole in a highest-alert scenario situation. It involves everyone from cabinet-level secretaries to governors, mayors and city managers, to local fire, police and search, rescue personnel, and public health workers.”
Ross’s home state of Connecticut, along with New Jersey, has been chosen to co-host the newest TOPOFF exercises. This year’s TOPOFF, the third in the program’s history, will be the largest yet, with over 10,000 participants. It will involve simulation of a major chemical attack off the Connecticut coast near New London, and a biological attack in a densely populated area of New Jersey, as well as a wide array of undisclosed potential terror pre- and post-attack scenarios related to these “main events.”
The legacy and the improvements
The first TOPOFF exercise was conducted in May 2000 by the departments of State and Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That exercise consisted of three simulated attacks undertaken without prior notice to local and regionalresponders. These included a chemical attack in Denver, Colo., a biological attack in Portsmouth, NH, and a radiological attack in Washington, DC. About 6,000 people were involved, in all.
A second and significantly larger-scale five-day exercise was held in May 2003, this one involving over 8,000 people, including 25 federal, local and state agencies, and the government of Canada. In this exercise, the first coordinated by DHS, multiple attacks were simulated, including a dirty radiological bomb detonation, combined with a cyberattack in Seattle, and the release of a pneumonic plague (yersina pestis) in several Chicago metropolitan area locations. The emphasis, according to Mencer, was on “introducing elements of increasing complexity.” The basic scenarios in this exercise were known in advance to participants in order to incorporate planning into the process.
“TOPOFF 2,” said Mencer, “provided agencies at all levels of the system with a wealth of information and lessons to assimilate.”
Among the key take-aways from TOPOFF 2, according to an after action report by DHS published in December 2003 (, were the need for better clarification of emergency decisionmaking roles and responsibilities between jurisdictions. The report, for instance, noted confusion between participating agencies in coordinating and interpreting data on issues such as determining where and how far contamination had spread after the Seattle attacks, and in planning for the distribution of medical supplies and allocation of hospital rooms in Chicago. It recommended better clarification of authority and responsibility between Health and Human Services (HHS) and DHS in declaring public emergencies and authorizing funds and assets.
Another topic of concern was the need to better coordinate decisionmaking between federal and state authorities in responding to changes in the national alert status and how it would affect issues such as closure of schools, government buildings and functions, and roads. A related concern was better coordination between local officials and departments (e.g., police and fire departments) in deciding which areas to seal off for emergency access. The report cited an example of where fire trucks were blocked from access to a contaminated site due to a road closure by police.
Additionally, the after action analysis called for a new system to coordinate and control nodes of communication between response teams, and better integration of response plans and policies between states.
All of these concerns, and more, are being addressed in the upcoming TOPOFF3 exercises, according to Mencer.
“Two big things that came out of TOPOFF 2,” she said, “were the National Response Plan (NRP) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The NRP is an all-discipline, all-hazards plan that provides the structure and mechanisms to coordinate operations in a large scale incident. NIMS provides the framework for responding agencies and entities to work together to manage domestic incidents. Both these frameworks will be major focal points of TOPOFF 3.”
“The T3 full-scale exercises,” she added, “will be more comprehensive than either TOPOFF 2000 or TOPOFF 2. One difference is that there will be an opportunity to exercise the intelligence gathering and analysis functions more fully before the exercise. There will also be an expanded international role, with both the UK and Canada running simultaneous exercises linked by the common scenarios. Another new opportunity this timewill be to exercise the “terrorism prevention” function by incorporating intelligence gathering and analysis into the exercise design. For the first time in TOPOFF, for instance, players will be able to track enemy movements, piece together a puzzle of partial information and attempt to prevent potential attacks using real-world communications channels.”
The number of participants in this year’s drills, according to DHS, is expected to increase byover 15 percent to about 10,000.
New Jersey
For the state of New Jersey, the exercises are less about demonstrating what the state has already accomplished than about identifying the gaps, according to Peter Harvey, the state’s attorney general.
“TOPOFF 3 is not meant to be a one-shot test where you get a passing grade and then you’re done,” said Harvey. “It’s meant to complement and test what each state and department and town is doing on its own. The goal is not for a state to pat itself on the back and say: ‘Wow, look how great we’re doing.’ The key to a successful exercise is finding out what you hadn’t thought of before.”
Harvey explained that his state actively sought to become a center of this year’s drills because, in many ways, it provides an ideal microcosm of national and global security challenges against terrorism.
“New Jersey’s really a unique crossroad in the war on terror,” Harvey observed. “We’re the most densely populated state in the US and we’re smack in the middle of what might be called the zone of danger. Think of it: The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was initiated out of Jersey City, and 16 of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Passaic County at some time. Our colonial pipeline provides 80 percent of the heating oil for the entire northeast. We have the largest container port on the East coast, the 11th-largest airport and the largest number of chemical and pharmaceutical plants in the most concentrated area of anywhere in the US. So if you’re talking about a target-rich environment and an area of sensitive strategic importance for the regional and national economy, it’s hard to overstate how critical we are.”
Among the concrete benefits of participation in TOPOFF for New Jersey, Harvey said, will be the chance to put key elements of the state’s ambitious Domestic Security Preparations Task Force through the paces in a high-pressure environment.
“Over the past three years, we’ve developed a number of innovations which we believe are at the forefront of state homeland security actions,” he explained.
One task force initiative that will be utilized during TOPOFF 3, according to Harvey, is the Northeastern New Jersey Urban Area initiative, a cooperative effort including the state’s departments of law and public safety, and responders in a six-county area representing more than 44 percent of the state’s total population. The tests are also expected to prominently involve the state’s MEDPREP Terrorism Advisory Preparedness committee, the first state program in the nation with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bioterrorism rapid response system to provide medical expertise for suspected bioterrorism events.
TOPOFF 3 will also involve the private sector to an unprecedented extent, a perfect occasion, Harvey believes, to test the public-private industry partnerships the state has attempted to foster with major firms in all the state’s leading industries. Ern Blackwelder, senior vice president of BENS (Business Executives for National Security) in charge of its Business Force New Jersey initiative, agrees.
“In previous TOPOFFS, private industry was more of a passive observer,” Blackwelder said. “This time, though, there’s been an extensive formal involvement of private companies in both advance planning and actual exercise activity.”
“We really look forward to this,” he added. “The exercises will pay attention to a number of key areas where private/public partnerships can make a huge difference. In a biological attack, for example, information flow from businesses can give crucial early warning by relaying sickness rates, absentee and other data to public health agencies. Businesses can also be a critical conduit for disseminating timely information about travel restrictions, where treatment is available to employees, their families and communities. Businesses can also directly assist the government in the event of a mass disease outbreak. One of the areas we’ll be looking at closely is the role of the private sector in distributing and dispensing medical and other critical supplies, and in mobilizing and setting up staff for mass evacuations. TOPOFF will show us where we stand in these areas. Finally, I think TOPOFF will for many of our participating firms be the first time they can look at cross-industry cooperation and communication in an emergency.”
Key goals for the state of Connecticut during the exercises, according to Roy Pietro, executive director of the state’s Homeland Security Education Center at the University of Connecticut, are improving intelligence analysis, maritime vulnerability, communications interoperability, public information dissemination, incident management, regional team building, mental health contingency planning and business continuity.
Connecticut’s Homeland Security Education Center, a partnership between the state’s Department of Public Safety and the college’s Workforce Development Institute, will lead statewide coordination for the drill, which will center on a simulated maritime chemical weapons attack in the port town of New London. The attack, Pietro said, will test the preparedness of southeastern Connecticut in particular, and contiguous communities along the I-95 corridor. It also will be invaluable, he said, as “an action learning experience for team decisionmaking and problem solving across the boundaries of departmental and agency silos.” 
“Before we started prepping for TOPOFF last summer,” he noted, “many departments and agencies felt that a lot of the work they’d be doing was in a vacuum. But over the last six or seven months, there’s been a real quantum leap in collaboration skills. That’s as important—maybe more important, ultimately—than the exercises themselves.”
Planning for the events included senior managers from over 100 multi-jurisdictional agencies, including the FBI, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, FEMA, the Transportation Security Agency, Customs, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the State Department and DHS.
“The exercises will start with New London and surrounding towns, but quickly expand statewide,” explained Pietro. “This will be the first exercise with a strong maritime orientation,” he added. “A lot of attention’s been paid to closing vulnerabilities at our ports and in our cargo transport, but this will be the toughest test yet of where we really are.”
One of the more interesting twists in TOPOFF 3, Pietro believes, is that, although the basic scenario is known in advance, the exercise is designed to unfold in complex and unpredictable directions.
“The first TOPOFF exercise in 2000 was criticized for allowing no notice at all,” he said. “That kind of cold test has its advantages, of course, but it also made it difficult to really assess specific planning systems. TOPOFF 2, on the other hand, was criticized for being too scripted. What is being attempted this time, though, is a balance between having a handful of ‘trusted agents’ who know the details of the scenario, and a strong element of the unknown in what other scenarios, related and possibly unrelated, will emerge.”
TOPOFF 3’s “open systems” approach, according to Mencer, is consistent with the evolving vision of TOPOFF as more than a static, self-contained exercise with a closed loop of five days or a week. The goal, she said, is to make the April exercises a platform for continuous learning.
“We’ve designed the exercise not onlyfor specific immediate response to an emergency,” she said, “but to meaningful problem solving related to long-term recovery and remediation. The issues identified during the full-scale exercise (FSE) will be played out further in post-FSE events.” HST

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