Hundreds of people sat at rows of tables monitoring computers in the ballroom of a historic Chandler hotel on Tuesday. On the walls, large television screens flashed news from a TV network called the Video News Network.
One headline read, “Breaking News: Emergency responders report large explosion near Phoenix,” while another said, “Portland blast similar to Guam in use of radioactive Cesium-137, officials say.”
The mock chaos was part of a weeklong Topoff 4 exercise — a complex federal security drill — in Arizona, Oregon and Guam that was run by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
The exerciset will end Friday. Topoff 4 is short for Top Officials 4 and takes place every two years, allowing local, state and federal leaders to test responses to disasters that could occur after a terrorist attack or an act of Mother Nature.
In Arizona, officials are faced with a series of hypothetical situations surrounding the explosion of a radioactive dirty bomb at the Loop 101/Loop 202 intersection in Tempe.
In the scenario, a driver had set off the bomb after being pulled over by an officer, immediately killing 50 people and sending a radioactive plume southeast over the Tempe and Chandler areas, said Gov. Janet Napolitano during an afternoon media briefing outside the state’s emergency operations center in Phoenix.
Napolitano, addressing questions about delivering such dark news to the media, said she appreciates the chance to practice the drill but, “I hope I never have to give that press conference.”
The Tempe “explosion” followed a Monday afternoon simulated blast near a power plant in Guam and a bridge explosion Tuesday morning in Portland, Ore.
In control centers in Phoenix and Chandler and in emergency operations centers in other Valley cities, authorities implemented disaster plans without actually deploying first responders who the public would see on the streets.
For federal officials, the exercise is a test of emergency response and recovery following a terrorist attack.
Locally, the exercise also helps prepare for security and emergency planning needed for the Super Bowl coming in February to Glendale, said Michael Widomski, a Washington, D.C.-based Homeland Security spokesman.
Widomski said the exercise is an educational tool that forces officials to determine what kind of radiation they are dealing with, where radiation dust is heading, what they need to tell the public, and who needs to be evacuated.
“It’s really testing every level of government because there are so many questions they’ll be facing,” said Michael Murphy, Homeland Security spokesman for Arizona.
The 11 a.m. dirty bomb in Tempe followed a morning of faux activity that included an 8:45 a.m. gas-line explosion outside a Pima County adult detention center, a 9 a.m. 12-vehicle wreck in Tucson and, at 10:30 a.m., an individual with a backpack being detained at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
The Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency would be deployed if the dirty bomb simulation were real, said Philip Kern, a state health physicist for the agency.
Kern said the agency has hand-held and mobile equipment that could test air samples to determine where the radioactive plumes are traveling and how large of an area needs to evacuate.
Officials have also said the Arizona exercise will test interagency preparedness, evacuation, decontamination, search and rescue, ability to conduct criminal and environmental investigations, and large-scale recovery.