A simulated counter-terrorism exercise is underway in the United States, as authorities test their readiness for a coordinated attack against the country. The drill began with detonation of a simulated "dirty bomb" at the port of Los Angeles, to be followed by other attacks in California and Virginia.
More than 4,000 people are taking part in the five-day drill on both U.S. coasts and in two Canadian provinces.
Bill Ford is a spokesman for Northcom and NORAD, the joint military commands that are sponsoring the drill. "The simulation is that the terrorist group has synchronized this to overwhelm the country, to send the country into shock. There'll be some flights that are coming in from Alaska to Oregon. There will also be an aircraft that will be coming in from Ireland to Ottawa, and depending on the correct response of our own NORAD people, they will either crash into a significant building in Canada, or they will be shot down," he said.
That will happen later in the five-day exercise.
The simulation started Thursday in Los Angeles with detonation of a so-called "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. If the attack were real, people within two kilometers of the blast would be subject to fatal levels of radiation, and winds could extend the danger further.
The first symptom for victims, says Mr. Ford, is nausea. "The next thing would be some lesions and loss of hair. And there are ways you can treat people, but once they have a massive dose of radioactive exposure, they're going to die," he said.
The scenario envisions thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries in the coordinated attacks.
At the Los Angeles port, the exercise began with a military bus carrying 60 to 70 personnel. Battalion Chief Ralph Terrazas of the Los Angeles Fire Department explains that they were passing a shipping container that exploded. "That's where the dirty bomb is located. When that goes off, they become patients with contamination from radiation. Our first responders will be called via the 911 (emergency telephone) system in realistic terms. We will respond in about six minutes, approximately. That's our average response time. From then on, we'll have fire companies, ambulance personnel, do reconnaissance and determine what kind of problem we have," he said.
Helicopters, fire trucks and ambulances reach the scene, as do rescue workers with protective suits, and oxygen tanks for breathing.
Patients are separated according to the extent of their injuries, explains fire captain Joe Castro. "We ask everyone that can move to move, and that's going to identify right off the bat who's ambulatory, who needs help the most, and who can walk and help themselves," he said.
On the other side of the country, in the East Coast state of Virginia, the simulation involves coordinated attacks on a cruise ship, bridge and tunnels, a suburban shopping complex and elementary school.
Officials say the exercise has been in the planning stages for months. In addition to testing emergency responders, it also assesses intelligence agencies to see how well they share their information. There may be some surprises in the drill, however, even for the planners. A so-called "red cell" team will introduce unexpected elements to the unfolding scenario in coming days.
The drill will also test the ability of dozens of agencies from the local to federal levels to coordinate their efforts, explains Ellis Stanley, general manager of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Department. "It is not a demonstration," he said. "It's not a show. It's to learn, and we're going to be looking for gaps - are the equipment needs that could help to alleviate some of the response efforts? Are there procedures that we need to change? Are there partnerships that we need to reassess? And are there rules that we actually need to look at - who has responsibility for what? And most importantly, how do we work together as disparate agencies? "
If this attack were real, officials say another major challenge would be preventing public panic. Evacuations may be needed near the blast area, but elsewhere, most residents would be safer taking shelter. Authorities say that in a real emergency, they need to convey their instructions quickly and clearly.