Bioterror Drill to Test Weaknesses of Conn., N.J. Health Response Systems

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Health and law enforcement officials will show up for work on Monday morning knowing something big is about to happen, but unsure of exactly what.

By the time most of the state is settling in to begin the work week, these officials will begin participating in the largest counterterrorism drill ever held in the United States.

Named "TOPOFF 3" for the top-level state and national officials behind it, the drill will simulate a bioterror attack in Union County, the ripples of which will quickly spread to Middlesex County and beyond.

At the same time, the $16 million exercise also will simulate an attack involving fake chemical weapons in New London, Conn.

The drills will be monitored by top U.S. Homeland Security officials from a command center in Washington, as well as regional centers in New Jersey and Connecticut.

Although no real weapons or bio-agents will be used, officials will respond as if it's the real thing: flooding the area with investigators and first responders in haz-mat suits, dispatching fleets of ambulances to hospitals across the state, and dealing with throngs of "victims" piling up outside emergency rooms.

Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey stressed that the exercise should not alarm the public, invoking the panic touched off by Orson Wells' 1938 "War Of The Worlds" broadcast of a fake Martian invasion in Grovers Mill, N.J. among people who didn't realize it wasn't real.

Even the state's health commissioner, Fred M. Jacobs, is playing along but dealing with the drill as he would if a real attack happened.

"I'm going to go to work Monday morning like it's any other Monday morning, and then we're going to be hit with this scenario that's known to the planners but not the players," he said.

The exact biological agent to be used in the fake attack will not be announced in advance; investigators responding to the incident scene- the campus of Kean University in Union - will have to identify the substances once they get there, just as they would have to do in real life.

From there, they'll have to take appropriate steps including sealing off the immediate area, getting those exposed or already ill to hospitals, and preserving evidence necessary to determine who dispersed the deadly substance.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the drill will shift to local hospitals, where hundreds if not thousands of mock "patients" will show up in various degrees of medical crisis. Some will be treated in emergency rooms and admitted; others might undergo triage and outdoor decontamination in parking lots, depending on what officials deem appropriate for the situation.

Officials won't be happy unless things go badly wrong.

"We will intentionally stress our emergency response systems to the point of failure so we can repair them," said Matt Mayer, acting executive director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness.

"This is not an opportunity to say how great we are," added state Attorney General Peter C. Harvey. "It's an opportunity to find fractures in our system, stress points in our system that don't work so well."

In New Jersey, all 21 counties and 82 hospitals have roles to play, as do state police, hazardous materials teams, emergency management personnel, and police, fire and emergency first-responders, such as emergency room staff.

A virtual television news network will help officials test how they would get information to the public during a crisis.

Mock attacks two years ago simulated a dirty bomb explosion in Seattle and a bioterror attack in Chicago. They uncovered communication problems and confusion among emergency responders, and shortages in medical supplies and hospital rooms.

All told, more than 10,000 people will participate in this week's drill, including exercises that will involve officials in Canada and England as well as the United States.