WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- The massive, weeklong exercise designed to test the nation's anti-terror reflexes finished Friday, as a preliminary evaluation was provided to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge by representatives of the 121 federal state and local agencies that took part in the $16 million operation.
"We've ended the exercise safely," Corey Gruber, the operation's associate director, told United Press International. Ridge met with 150 officials at a "hotwash," an immediate de-briefing where the agencies involved delivered their preliminary impressions.
The exercise -- dubbed TOPOFF2, for "top officials" -- simulated a radioactive "dirty bomb" explosion in Seattle and the covert release of a biowarfare agent in Chicago. It was coordinated by the new Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. State Department.
The exercise was designed to test the ability of federal, state and local authorities to respond to a two-pronged attack -- described by officials as a plausible scenario -- by a fictional foreign terror group dubbed Glodo, the Group for the Liberation of Orangeland and the Destruction of Others.
Now that the operation is over, officials have already begun evaluating their performance.
"We went through a very brief presentation from each agency (Friday), to get their initial impressions about whether they'd accomplished their objectives, and get some insights and comments about ways to improve the exercise design, and address some of the shortcomings we saw as a result of it," said Gruber.
"People are packing up their equipment, collecting their files and heading home for a well-deserved break," he added, speaking from the exercise command center in a hotel in Northern Virginia.
He said the most important difficulty identified by the exercise had been communication -- especially between different departments and agencies.
"It's not just an issue of equipment," he explained. "Every agency has its own terminology and protocols for communication. If you put 121 of them together, communicating the same information about a scenario, you'll find that each uses their own communications protocols, their own acronyms. ... Making sure that everyone has a common operational picture is very complex, a real challenge."
But he said these communications problems were different from the kind that dogged TOPOFF1 -- the first of a series of congressionally mandated exercises that took place in May 2000.
Last week, Ridge told reporters that coordination had been "complicated" during TOPOFF1 because of "multiple control centers, numerous liaisons and an increasing number of response teams ..."
"The communications challenges were different (then)," said Gruber, "because you had an event simulated in a small community like Portsmouth, N.H., which relies very heavily on volunteers and on aid from other communities ... It may look like it's exactly the same problem happening over and over again, but it's really very different..."
Since Monday, more than 8,000 officials have taken part in TOPOFF2 in Seattle, Chicago and Washington, testing their readiness to respond to multiple terror attacks that use weapons of mass destruction.
"Our preliminary assessment is that things went very well," Marianne Bichsel, the spokeswoman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, told UPI.
After the "live play" of the first two days, the rest of the week was spent on a tabletop exercise examining the after-effects and the impact of such an attack, she said.
"There's very few lives lost in the immediate explosion" of a radiological dispersal device (as a "dirty bomb" is more properly known), she said. "But the psychological and economic aftermath, the impact on tourism, on people's ability and willingness to go back to work, all that, is very profound. That's what the table top element was designed to investigate."
She said the results from that portion of the exercise would not be available until next week.
But she added the "live play" exercise had already identified some important weaknesses in the cities response capabilities. For example, when the mayor was given a map of the radioactive "plume" from the bomb, there was some initial confusion about what the map meant.
"It's one thing to have the plume model, but you need to be able to interpret it very quickly: What does that mean in terms of where the greatest risk is and which areas people ought to shelter in place and so on," Bichsel explained, "we had to take that mathematical model and use it to make policy decisions."
"One of the biggest challenges ... were the quick decisions about re-routing buses and other traffic," she added. "That was the subject of a lot of discussion and ongoing adjustments. It had to be course-corrected in midstream."
Gruber said the exercise was designed specifically to cause these kinds of difficulties so that they could be identified and tackled. "We introduced those sorts of problems into the exercise so that we get a chance to figure out how we're going to deal with them if -- God forbid -- it happens for real."
He added that analyzing and evaluating the results of the exercise -- which he called "an onerous task" -- would take until September, and would involve a series of interviews, meetings and conferences with the participants.
"We had hundreds of data collectors (on the ground) and they've collected all the logs and the records and the electronic messages and over the next couple of months, we're going to virtually reconstruct the whole exercise ... Oftentimes our first impressions aren't accurate."
Gruber said the exercise had been designed to test systems and personnel under the most adverse conditions.
"The first goal of this exercise was to look at the most extreme and complex events we might ever face. ... We wanted to make the stress on all the systems such that we would be really testing their capacity."
He called it "the best test you'll ever get outside of the real event."
Details of more than 800 separate developments -- referred to by the event planners as "stimuli" -- were contained in a 200-page script. Representatives of the 121 federal and other agencies involved -- sitting together in the northern Virginia center -- fed the "stimuli" back to their colleagues, who then reacted as they would do in a real emergency.