"I know an effort has been made to warn the citizens that this is not War of the Worlds, that it is an important and serious exercise, but ultimately something that is not occurring in real life," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
TOPOFF, which ends April 8 and is expected to cost $16 million, is the third in a series of preparedness exercises that were mandated by Congress through which the United States tests its ability to prepare for and respond to a pretend or simulated terrorist event. There are approximately 10,000 participants from 27 federal agencies and more than 200 government as well as private sector organizations participating in TOPOFF 3, which makes it the largest exercise of its kind in history dealing with counterterrorism. State and local authorities are given scenarios that reflect potential real-life terrorist acts, and are expected to respond as if the event actually occurred, sending "victims" to hospitals and cleanup and rescue teams to the sites designated as ground zero for the events.
The team that is participating in TOPOFF 3 includes cabinet secretaries, international partners, governors, mayors, city managers, local fire and police, search and rescue personnel, public health and public communications officials and the private sector.
"The point of the exercise," said Chertoff, "is not only for each of us to test our own preparedness and response, but to work as a whole to coordinate our entire effort and to see how that coordination and collaboration works."
He called the exercise "another example of the way in which we constantly see that dealing with the issue of terrorism or any other catastrophic or potentially catastrophic event is a matter of partnership. No one entity, no one level of government, or even government as a whole, does it all by itself. We all have to work together, from the private sector through the public sector, individual citizens, all the way up to people here in Washington."
Chertoff noted that both Canada and the United Kingdom are participating in TOPOFF 3. Thirteen other countries, including Mexico, are participating as observers.
Chertoff stressed repeatedly at a press conference that the event was a simulation, and that the locations and the particular scenarios were not chosen based on any specific intelligence.
The scenarios, said Chertoff, "reflect kind of a compilation of threats that we've seen over time, plus an ability to kind of project out what might occur, if, in fact, there were a terrorist attack."
TOPOFF 3 will build on the lessons of the prior TOPOFF exercises, as well as the government's and responder community's general experience in putting together a National Response Plan, a National Incident Management System, and a whole comprehensive set of tools for dealing with the issue of hazards.
"I want to make it clear that we are going to push our plans and our systems to the very limit," said Chertoff. "So, in this sense, we're actually going to go beyond what we might really expect to test our operational assumptions and our policy assumptions in the most stressful possible environment. And that's how you really tell if you are prepared. You stress the system to the point at which it comes to failure or actually exceeds failure… That's our philosophy here."
"So," he added, "we expect failure because we're actually going to be seeking to push to failure, and that is, in our judgment, the best way to get a 'lessons learned' from what we do here over the next week."
State and local officials responded as if it were the real thing, sending ambulances to hospitals and flooding the area with staff in HAZMAT suits.