Preparing for an urban WMD attack

The city of San Francisco ran a large-scale exercise Saturday to help train its emergency response agencies how to deal with a terrorist attack.

On Saturday, the San Francisco Fire Department, along with a group of other public and private agencies, ran a large-scale training exercise revolving around an urban weapons of mass destruction terrorist attack. Here, an emergency worker in a full hazmat suit examines the faux chemical that was supposedly found in the attack, which was said to be sodium cyanide, a poison that quickly affects peoples respiratory systems. On the ground behind, volunteers playing the role of dead victims lay prone. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

SAN FRANCISCO--"Weapons of mass destruction multi-agency exercise."

If I've ever covered an event with a more stark title, I can't think of it.

But there I was Saturday morning, along with several hundred firefighters, police officers, Army National Guard personnel, and members of other local, state, and federal agencies for a large-scale exercise designed to help train all these emergency responders how to deal with a major terrorist attack involving suspected chemical weapons or other bio-hazards.

As a bulletin announcing the exercise put it, the goal was for the agencies' personnel to "identify the emergency and work as one large team to protect and save lives and mitigate the hazards."

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Practically speaking, this was quite the undertaking. Upon arriving in the middle of San Francisco's usually crowded financial district, I encountered no traffic, but a wide variety of emergency vehicles and dozens upon dozens of people in almost every official uniform you can imagine.

This is not the first time San Francisco has run an exercise like this. Last year, the city ran another such scenario at the famous pyramid-shaped Transamerica building. This time, the owners of 555 California St., one of the city's largest office buildings, had asked the city to prepare an exercise in their building. And so for the last year, the city and the owner of that building and another nearby had been planning this day.

The scenario was this: a terrorist with a backpack full of sodium cyanide--a chemical used in gold mining operations that quickly attacks and shuts down the human respiratory system--unleashed it inside 555 California.

For the exercise, the fire department blocked off several streets in downtown San Francisco. These streets were clogged with fire trucks and many other emergency vehicles from several state and federal agencies. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

The attack instantly kills a number of people and injures others.

Because of the victims, the fire department is the first to arrive on the scene, and when the firefighters discover what's happened, they isolate the building's lobby and deny entry into the building by anyone else, and then quickly set up a mass decontamination system nearby. And then they call in the specialists.

This is, of course, the whole point: to bring in the many different types of specialists to deal with the variety of complexities a situation like this creates.

But to make it even more complicated, the scenario had more to it: emergency personnel also discover an improvised explosive device inside 555 California, and just when they're dealing with everything going on there, there's also a shooting in another office building nearby.

By the time the press was allowed into the scene, all this was under way. We got a quick briefing from SFFD public information officer Mindy Talmadge, who explained that the exercise, which cost about a quarter million dollars, was paid for with federal grant money.

One of the elements of the scenario was that no one actually knows at first what the terrorist has attacked with. It seems obvious it is some form of chemical weapon, but the specifics are still a mystery. Finding out and then disseminating that information is one of the goals of the exercise.

Volunteers playing dead victims lay on the floor in the lobby of 555 California Street, one of the largest office buildings in San Francisco. The scenario run on Saturday was that a terrorist had unleashed sodium cyanide inside the building, instantly killing many victims and potentially contaminating the surrounding area. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

"They knew it was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear) event," said Talmadge, "and that it was a terrorist event. They don't know what the chemical is. They have to decide based on what they find and what they heard."

In the scenario, the attack has happened on a busy weekday, but of course, it's actually a quiet Saturday and downtown is rather empty. There are some random pedestrians walking through the scene--which is closed to automobiles, but not foot traffic, since many local businesses were open--and it is sort of odd to see them passing through what is otherwise an extremely unusual and macabre scene.

"I doubt people would be walking calmly around" during a real emergency, Talmadge admits.

But of course, shutting down several blocks of the city's financial district on a weekday would be a pretty significant thing.

At a press briefing later involving the chiefs of both the fire and police department, I asked if there was any possibility of ever running this kind of exercise during a workday, since it would seem that it would be helpful for these emergency personnel to learn how to handle such a situation with countless people and vehicles around.

"It would be a challenge, but if the community wanted it, we would plan and find the resources to do it" and deal with the inconveniences, said SFPD Chief Heather Fong.

Another interesting part of all this is just how slow everything and everyone seems to be moving.

Even as the exercise was in full swing, everywhere you looked, emergency personnel were standing around in groups, talking, sitting on overturned newspaper boxes, and otherwise waiting for something to do.

Members of the San Francisco Fire Department sit down inside their hazmat suits awaiting the order to enter the building in which the chemical attack was said to have happened. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

One man from the 95th Civil Support Team--a federal agency that specializes in WMD situations--in a blue hazmat suit that was pulled about halfway up his body, was intently looking at a device in his hands that had an orange antenna and looked a little bit like a Wi-Fi router. He said it was an air monitor and was used to measure what was in the air nearby.

At the same time, a fireman in a bright yellow hazmat suit was brandishing another device, this one looking like a circa 1984 cell phone. He said it was a gas detector used to determine what gases might be in the area.

All in all though, most of the people milling around, many in hazmat suits, others in a variety of official uniforms, were looking bored and like they wanted something to do.

But this is according to plan. That's because one thing that seems very important to everyone in charge here is that in the course of trying to help out the victims of the attack, the emergency responders don't themselves become victims.

An emergency worker prepares to go into the building to test the chemical weapon in order to determine what it is. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

And that means moving slowly and methodically.

According to SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White, one of the main goals of this scenario is to the members of all the various agencies that would be involved in the response to a real attack together so that they begin to know each other.

"It's difficult to have the level of seriousness (you would have) in a real situation" in an exercise, Hayes-White acknowledged, "but it's a good lesson for us."

She said that prior to September 11, emergency personnel were trained to charge right into buildings where something had gone seriously wrong. But the lessons of the post-September 11 world is that it is important to know exactly what the situation is before sending vital personnel in unprepared.

Still, Hayes-White admitted that it is hard for highly trained responders to just stand around and wait for as much as two hours--which is what was happening Saturday.

"They might be feeling a little frustrated and a little awkward about standing around," she told me. "But we want to keep everybody safe. And it's sometimes difficult to simulate that."

After awhile, we went back inside the lobby of 555 California where the man from the 95th CST and another from the police department, both in serious hazmat suits, were investigating what was clearly supposed to be the chemical agent causing all the ruckus.

With the "victims" still lying prone on the floor nearby, the two methodically worked on the chemical in an attempt to identify it.

The idea here is that until now, no one knew what the chemical was, and therefore how to respond to it. Soon enough, however, word came that they had identified it as sodium cyanide, and quickly the word went out over the radios.

The men take three samples of the chemical, one that is put away, never to be opened, one to be tested and a third for a re-test, if that's necessary.

And it's tricky work, largely because the men are trying to work with cotton swabs and other small items while wearing thick gloves. Indeed, as they work, they drop their swabs on the floor at least once.

They are also working with a small computer that a member of the 95th CST tells me is called an Ouera, and is used to analyze the chemicals found at the scene.

"It tests whatever the substance is," said Sgt. Maj. Daniel Morales of the 95th CST. "We take the sample over to our mobile laboratory. And if they're not able to determine what it is, they'll take it over to Lawrence Livermore" National Lab.

Eventually, the two men in hazmat suits are done, and they leave. They walk across the street where they are put through what is called technical decontamination. This is a process involving a careful and thorough scrubbing down of their suits, and then each part of the multiple layers they are wearing. The idea is to ensure that nothing touches their skin until they are completely clean.

Two emergency personnel in full hazmat suits examine the chemical that determined to be sodium cyanide. Of course, this was an exercise, so there was no real chemical weapon. But the exercise was about helping members of several public agencies learn how to handle a potential WMD attack. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

The exercise will continue for several hours, but the major activity is over now.

Since this wasn't the first time San Francisco has had an exercise like this, it's natural to wonder what the city learned from doing it again.

Hayes-White said that, among other things, she felt that the various agencies had found some improvements in the way they were communicating with each other during the exercise. And of course, such communications are vital since with several hundred emergency personnel on the scene, it's crucial that everyone know what is going on and what they should be doing.

But Hayes-White also stressed that much about the day would only be known afterwards at a series of reviews of the exercise

For me, it was very interesting to watch this evolve.

Given that such an attack would almost certainly happen during a busy weekday, it's hard to feel like this exercise, held on a quiet weekday is anything like what the real thing would be like.

I think, ultimately, the real point of this is what Hayes-White alluded to: the need for the various agencies to learn how to work together and to build a collective command structure in the event something horrible like a WMD attack actually happened.

And to be honest, anything that these agencies can learn about how to proceed during what Fong called an "inevitable" attack is worthwhile. Let's just hope these agencies have the time to carry out a few more of these scenarios and learn a few more lessons before that happens.

 

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