D.C. police officer Timothy Hennigan was on routine patrol in Southeast Washington when his cruiser's radio reported an ominous-sounding situation: A suspicious car was parked near a large water tower, and a man had been seen sprinting from the area.
Hennigan raced to the scene. Gates to the water tower site were open, and an idling car was parked directly under the structure. To Hennigan, it seemed like a setup for a terrorist attack: The car could be rigged with a bomb and positioned to cut off the water supply.
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Hennigan's reaction was exactly what D.C. police commanders had envisioned when they orchestrated the event, an unannounced anti-terrorism exercise held recently. Though Hennigan discovered it was a drill when he arrived at the tower, the pressure on him did not let up.
Over the next three hours, Hennigan, several of his colleagues and his supervisors were graded and trained during the drill, which tested such factors as their ability to evacuate residents and their skill at setting up a command post. It was one of more than 30 such exercises conducted by city police since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America.
The drills, which have been conducted in all seven city police districts, are intended to test how beat patrol officers respond to such emergencies. They have included varied scenarios: attacks on large events, assaults on mass-transit vehicles and others.
The police department's special operations squads include experts who have undergone regular and intensive training on how to recognize and respond to terrorist attacks. But officials know that patrol officers are most likely to be the first to respond to a strike, and they are getting additional training.
The drills are meant to evaluate officers and teach them how to prevent casualties, contain a crisis and preserve evidence in realistic settings, police officials said.
The maneuvers generally follow hours of classroom instruction on hazardous materials and terrorism preparedness.
"The drills force managers to juggle resources," said Cmdr. Cathy Lanier of the police Special Operations Division, which handles the exercises. "They have to think on their feet. There is nobody giving them the answers."
The department's top officials concede that logistics probably will prevent them from testing all 3,800 members of the force. But word of the drills is spreading throughout the department, and more officers are preparing to be called for the exercises -- which means they are better equipped to deal with the possibility of a real attack, the officials said. In some of the earlier drills, officers did not always have their bio-terror protective gear. Now, they rarely arrive without it, police officials said.
"We have been seeing them be far more prepared," said Lt. Steven Sund, a member of the special operations division. "We are definitely seeing improvement."
The drills feature a great deal of interaction between those being trained in the exercises and people playing various roles. The realism of the scenarios is limited. Street closings or evacuations, for example, are only on paper.
The drill at the water tower, carried out on a recent afternoon, included many challenges.
Within moments of arriving at the tower, in the 4200 block of Massachusetts Avenue SE, Hennigan spotted a group of officers wearing fluorescent green vests.