Simulated Terrorist Attack Will Test Region's Response System

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hundreds of police officers, fire and rescue personnel, FBI agents and hospital workers will respond to a simulated terrorist attack in Northern Virginia to test the region's emergency response system Saturday morning.

"This is the largest full-scale exercise we've had in this region," said Mark Penn, Alexandria's emergency management coordinator and co-director of the day's events.

A "bomb" on the tracks north of Crystal City will result in damage to a rail car carrying hazardous materials, leaving multiple burn victims. A second simulated bomb will go off at a Park and Ride near the Dulles Greenway and Old Ox Road, and a third will detonate between the parking lot and the station platform at the Virginia Railway Express Rippon Station in Woodbridge. In Fairfax County, a police chase will end when a truck carrying bombs and chemicals overturns near Route 50 and the Fairfax County Parkway. Volunteers will act as victims in need of medical attention.

Exercises and play scenarios are the cornerstone of first-response readiness, and local jurisdictions are adept at working together on everyday emergencies such as car crashes and house fires, Penn said.

A widespread disaster presents additional challenges as incident commanders across the region attempt to assess patients' needs and allocate limited resources accordingly. In addition, they have to be able to coordinate with hospitals so some trauma centers aren't overloaded while others sit empty, and hospitals have to be able to deal with a surge of patients.

"There are very limited burn resources within our area," said Janet Engle, director of education and training for the Northern Virginia Hospital Alliance.

To address that shortage, about 300 nurses and doctors from area hospitals have received training in caring for burn victims. Saturday's exercises, which Engle is directing with Penn, are a chance to practice those skills.

There is also a chance to pilot a tele-medicine program, in which doctors with expertise in critical care can help administer treatment from afar using video, Engle said.

Saturday's exercise has been planned more than nine months. It will allow authorities to identify and address weaknesses in their ability to respond quickly and efficiently. Eighteen hospitals and emergency departments will participate, as will police, fire and EMS personnel and officials from the American Red Cross, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, school systems, public works and mental health departments.

"At the end of the day, everyone who participates . . . all come together and talk about what went right and what went wrong," Penn said.

With that feedback, members of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System steering committee -- including police, fire, EMS and hospital officials -- will tweak their plan for dealing with disasters.

Then they will schedule another series of tests to further refine the plan, which aims to address injuries and illnesses not just from terrorist attacks but also natural disasters and pandemics, such the H1N1 virus.

In the weeks preceding Saturday's full-scale exercise, authorities tested intelligence-sharing among local, regional and state entities. That was the final of three tests of the Northern Virginia Emergency Response System.

"We are all about establishing and strengthening relationships before anything happens, so we're not shaking hands at the scene of the [actual] event," said David Schwengel of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, a council of 14 member governments that supports the steering committee's work.

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