WASHINGTON: Public affairs officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of State, the Red Cross, and Canada, as well as state and local US authorities, will be testing their mettle as terrorism responders when TOPOFF2 gets underway in Chicago and Seattle this week.
Mock terrorist attacks will be staged in both cities as part of the congressionally mandated exercise known as Top Officials 2. During the drill, emergency personnel from all levels of government will spend the week responding to the explosion of two radiological bombs.
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced the exercise, describing it as a test of how the US would respond in a weapons-of-mass-destruction incident.
Public affairs staff will be charged with setting up joint information centers in both cities - and a headquarters in Washington, DC - immediately following the attacks. They will then manage the flow of information and coordinate with reporters from the imaginary Video News Network (VNN).
"We will be working with agencies involved in the initial response to collect what information they have, coordinate the information coming from the different source agencies, and then consolidate what can and should be put out to the public," explained DHS spokesman Chad Kolton. "That will include VNN reporters with questions, requests for interviews with officials - all the things you would have to deal with in a real-world setting."
Although much of the information will be known beforehand - "You can't have an exercise of this magnitude by surprise," offered Kolton -significant elements are being closely held by a select few in order to make the experience as realistic as possible for the communications staff.
The Red Cross will also play a fundamental PR role in the exercise, much as it did in the response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Dozens of Red Cross communicators will be on-site, complemented by a team of volunteers.
"One of our main responsibilities under a weapons-of-mass-destruction incident would be to provide the public with information from public health agencies, or warnings about sheltering in place or evacuation guidelines," said disaster communications manager Dana Allen.
In addition to the staged scenario, public affairs officers will be managing a throng of real-life reporters covering TOPOFF2. The exercise took place once before, in 2000, but media interest this time is expected to be considerably higher.
"The staff in Washington, DC will be straddling the two worlds," said Kolton.