In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, emergency management departments across the country have gotten into the habit of playing make-believe to test their responses in case another disaster should occur in their cities.
Jersey City was the latest area to be put to the test last Thursday, Aug. 14, when a pretend dirty bomb containing the nerve gas Lewcite exploded during a simulated athletic event at the Caven Point Recreational Field, setting into motion the various interagency procedures that are required in such an event.
"When [the bomb] went off, we had a call go to police headquarters," said Deputy Mayor Eugene Drayton, who is also the director of the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management [OEM]. "At that point, they send in the first two officers to the site and it was all mayhem."
Put together by the San Diego-based Titan Corporation, a company founded in 1981 to provide an array of national security services and products, the full-scale drill incorporated police, fire and emergency medical services from across the state. Also involved were police departments from local transportation companies like New Jersey Transit and federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"It came together really, really good," Drayton said. "We are more prepared now than we were on 9/11 and just as prepared as anybody else in this nation at this point. I hope we never have to go through another thing like 9/11, but I think we're ready to respond. One thing I have to say about the police department, fire department and the emergency medical system is that they're a great group of people, [from] the leadership right on down to the manpower. It just gelled so well."
The four-hour exercise was intended to test new, initial field-level responses to a chemical attack by law enforcement, rescue personnel and area hospitals. It is the third and last exercise in a series of drills sponsored by the homeland security department's Office of Domestic Preparedness.
The exercise revolved around a fictitious scenario where approximately 150 spectators - civilian actors, some of whom were Jersey City police cadets - were watching a game when the explosion detonated, releasing a then-unknown substance. Several actors posed as victims who were killed and the rest played at being affected by the chemical.
The agencies involved were then charged with containing the scene, treating the victims, and determining what caused the injuries while protecting the area from the possibility of a secondary device.
Both Titan Corp. employees and representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Transportation Commission monitored Jersey City's performance.
"It took a little time to set the scene up," Drayton said. "I had my perimeter set up and I demarcated places that weren't legal for play, and [Titan] spread the incident outside the perimeter to test our response. They did everything properly. What was great about the drill was how everyone came together. It was a great thing to see."
Representatives from the police and fire departments were also pleased with their agencies' performances, saying their facility at working together is one of their greatest assets in handling large-scale crises.
"The police and fire did a great job working together," said Deputy Police Director Edgar Martinez. "That's basically what you need - everyone working as team. And everyone's familiar with the aspects of what different agencies are responsible for. [There were] no vulnerabilities."
Hospital officials also expressed satisfaction at their performance, reiterating the importance of teamwork in making the drill a success.
"Everyone prepared well, which resulted in a smooth transition to the new [response] format," said Karen O'Keefe, Jersey City Medical Center chief operations officer and drill incident commander. "We then experienced a real challenge at the end of the day with the blackout. Again, everyone stepped up to the plate. Most impressive was the human chain formed by employees in the stairwells to deliver dinner trays to our patients on the unit."
Other hospitals who participated in the exercise were: Meadowlands Hospital and Medical Center in Secaucus, Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken and West Hudson Hospital in Kearny. Bayonne's McCabe Ambulance Service and the Amb-U-Care Ambulance Service were also present at the exercise.
But what's being done?
Although the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made anti-terrorism training a popular concern, Thursday's drill was the culmination of a domestic preparedness training program instituted before 2001. In February 2000, Jersey City was given a battery of "train-the-trainer" courses and conducted a chemical weapons tabletop exercise. The city also held a tabletop exercise on biological weapons in April 2002.
Training and tabletop exercises, however, only go so far, officials said. Real-time disaster drills like the one at Caven Point are what truly test a city's capability in handling terror incidents.
"It is important that Jersey City tests its capabilities to respond to a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction," Fire Director Jerome Cala said in a release. "Having witnessed the events of 9/11 and having participated in the aftermath of 9/11, it is obvious that the resources of Jersey City will play a major role should an attack take place here, in Hudson County or anywhere in the metropolitan area."
Jersey City firefighters have been sent as far away as New Mexico to receive anti-terror training, Drayton said. There are also plans to send two police sergeants and two firefighters to a "train-the-trainer" program at the New Jersey State Police Academy in Sea Girt.
The county also holds training and information seminars. In July, the Hudson Regional Health Commission sponsored a bio-terrorism training event at the Jersey City Public Library that aimed to dispel bio-terrorism myths and teach residents how to spot symptoms of a biological attack.
Involving the community at large is also an important component in disaster preparedness. Various municipalities across Hudson have formed planning councils that bring civilians and city officials together to talk about current anti-terrorism initiatives and promote awareness of terrorism-related issues.
But some members from one such group in Hoboken, the Citizen Corps Council [CCC], say the sporadic meetings are not enough to get the council's work done. One problem, said a CCC member, is that most of the members of the council hold two or three other important positions within government, making getting together particularly difficult.
Drayton said his 40-member council in Jersey City is comprised of church ministers, city administrators and civilians.
"I bring them together twice a year to see where we are," Drayton said. "Things change in this world, and we try to stay on top of things."
Mayor Glenn D.Cunningham is proposing to do what officials say is unprecedented: create a municipal division of homeland security that would mimic the national department's functions.
"We've already contracted a consultant to do a feasibility assessment of our infrastructure and our hard and soft targets," said city spokesman Stan Eason. "[Also included is research in] structuring a division of that sort which would most likely incorporate a number of fire and police officials and OEM officials. It wouldn't just be civilians in that division."
"This is a microcosm of the national Department of Homeland Security, but it incorporates all sectors of the city's agencies," he added
Funding for the proposed division would be administered through city coffers, Drayton said.
As it stands now, Jersey City's current OEM operates on no budget and consists of an Emergency Operating Center [EOC] at 715 Summit Ave. Staffed with only one part-time clerk, the EOC consists of approximately 12 phones with direct lines to agencies like the county sheriff, the county OEM office in Secaucus, JCPD, JCFD, JCMC and Public Service Electric and Gas.
"Whenever there's an emergency, I use the Department of Public Works, the incinerator authority, the fire department and the police department," Drayton said. "When I call in an emergency they automatically come together."
The way the city is currently reimbursed for its OEM expenses is in compiling overtime and equipment expenses and sending them to Federal Emergency Management Agency. Other grants have been awarded in the past for some equipment and training, but there is no steady stream of state or federal funding that helps Jersey City in its OEM.