Preparing for a Dirty Bomb

"Our location near New York City means we have to be prepared to respond to a terror attack," explained Commissioner Joe Williams of the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services. His agency obtained a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to implement the three-day drill.

In the drill scenario, a pretend raid led to the capture of senior members of a fictitious biker gang called El Diablo. The gang was described as being involved in drug manufacturing, drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, prostitution, illegal gambling and extortion. The raid was designed to take down senior-level gang members and stop the criminal activity.

As the drill approached, participants were fed information similar to what they might discover from the media. They learned about the hijacking of radioactive material being transported from a nuclear power plant in Tennessee to a food-processing plant in South Carolina. Participants were told that all of the members of the security detail and three hijackers were killed during the hijacking. The hijackers were later identified as members of El Diablo.

As the scenario unfolded, three employees from "Sal's Boat Dock" in Virginia Beach, VA, were treated for radiation exposure. But investigators were unable to recover any radioactive material at that scene. Twenty-four hours before major drill operations began, participants were notified of a fictional bombing. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were deployed at federal courthouses in Illinois and Virginia. Opening arguments in the El Diablo trials were scheduled to begin that morning in federal courthouses in those locations. As a result of those attacks, the Department of Homeland Security brought the nation to threat level red, announcing that a terror incident was imminent.

Drill operations began the next day with the activation of the Suffolk County IMAT team. They were tasked with preparing the area to respond to a dirty bomb. Several fictional WMDs exploded at the "Yaphank Federal Courthouse." Suffolk County Fire Academy training buildings were staged to depict the scene.

First responders were met with a scene of destruction. Vehicles were burning and victims were pinned inside cars. A truck used by the terrorists was crashed into the courthouse. Victims were strewn inside and outside the facility. A fire raged in one part of the courthouse complex. Radiation detectors indicated that the site was contaminated. The Brentwood Fire Department was the first fire department on the scene. Hazardous materials teams from Brookhaven Township and Islip Township quickly followed. Decontamination lines were established as victims underwent triage and were transported to five area hospitals.

As the magnitude of the incident became apparent, the first responders were joined by fire departments from Nassau and Suffolk counties, hazmat teams, EMS, law enforcement, the Department of Health, the Department of Transportation, the New York State Office of Emergency Management, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. A unified command was established with representatives from each major agency.

"Being able to talk to each other was probably the single most important issue," said Chief Richard Stockinger, deputy director of the Suffolk County Fire Academy. He led the team that managed the drill and oversaw the operation. Stockinger explained, "Each fire department was issued an 800-megahertz radio, obtained by the county with grant money. Those radios are only for a major emergency. The officer in charge is supposed to take that radio with them."

Participants were trained to use the new NIMS protocols calling for "plain talk," rather than codes or signals. "In Nassau County, code 10 is a house fire," Stockinger explained. "Here in Suffolk, it means call the police." The two counties are adjacent to each other. In a real emergency of this magnitude, they would work side by side to respond.

According to Stockinger, when it comes to working together, "training is the key. Even though we work together in mutual aid incidents, in larger incidents, more training is essential. It helps you understand what your responsibilities will be, over and beyond what you normally do."

Planners from the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services are especially concerned about having one radio frequency that enables all of the area's emergency responders to communicate with one another during a major event. Many of Suffolk County's 109 fire departments are going to high-frequency bands to avoid stepping on each other's communications.

"They are solving their everyday operational problem," Williams said, "but possibly creating a much bigger problem in the event of a major catastrophe. That's why drilling with the 800-megahertz radios was so important."

In addition to participating in the planning, instructors from the Suffolk County Fire Academy also served as controllers, directing events as the drill unfolded. Evaluators monitored the activities. After the drill, a report was sent to the Department of Homeland Security. Training together helped participants from more than 70 agencies get to know each other's resources. That will enable them to share better during a real event.

"This was a great drill," Williams said. "The purpose of a drill is to test your plan and learn. This did both. It tested our plan. But we also learned some valuable lessons out of it."

LIZ VOGEL is public information officer for the Suffolk County Fire Academy in Yaphank, NY.