Can I help with the terrorism drill?

Can I help with the terrorism drill?

Can I help with the terrorism drill?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 5 2005 6:29 PM

Can I Help With the Terrorism Drill?

I wanna be a victim!

The federal government has launched a mock terrorist attack against New Jersey and Connecticut this week as part of the "Top Officials" (TOPOFF) series of training exercises. Officials estimate that about half of the 10,000 people involved in the drill are volunteer actors. For example, yesterday's simulated chemical weapons explosion in New London produced 500 "victims"—regular folks who pretended to be dead or ran around wearing bloody makeup. Sounds fun—where do we sign up?

Sadly, it's too late to participate in this year's drill, but there's always next time. The Department of Homeland Security holds congressionally mandated TOPOFF exercises every two years in different states to identify vulnerabilities in our national defense. (The first was held in 2000; during the last one, in 2003, "terrorists" attacked Seattle with a dirty bomb and Chicago with a biological weapon.) A few weeks ago, DHS announced the locations of the 2007 TOPOFF: Arizona, Oregon, and Guam.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Even if you happen to live nearby, you may need to know someone on the inside to get involved. Officials in Connecticut said they tried not to advertise too much for volunteers: About half were military personnel from the local naval base, and most of the rest were recruited by word-of-mouth. The families of public health workers, police officers, and firefighters were often the first to hear about the opportunity. In New Jersey, college students were heavily recruited. The American Red Cross also brought in some volunteers in both states through a network of nonprofit groups. Background checks were performed on all volunteers; those with felony convictions were turned away.

Once you've signed up, what do you do? In New London, volunteers gathered for a briefing a few hours before the mock attack. During the orientation, each "victim" was given a green laminated card on a lanyard and a yellow arm band that said "ROLE-PLAYER." The green cards described the nature of the injury each person was to have sustained. Contract makeup artists painted blisters and other wounds on people's faces. After the initial attack, volunteers were transported to local hospitals for mock treatments appropriate to their wounds.

Some participants were instructed to show up at hospitals later, playing the role of hypochondriacs with mysterious symptoms. Others pretended to be distraught family members searching for their loved ones. Whatever their roles, all volunteer actors received "T3" (for TOPOFF 3) T-shirts at the end of the day.

Some role-players get more than a T-shirt. Journalists who participate in a TOPOFF event get paid for their troubles. For each terrorism drill, the federal government hires professional freelance journalists to play the role of "journalists." They start training three weeks before the exercise begins and are encouraged to grill government sources for information on the mock crisis. During the exercise, they report on the attacks for a fake closed-circuit news network. This year, a PR firm hired six reporters for the drill using advertisements on JournalismJobs.com. Role-playing reporters must not be full-time employees of a real news organization, and they must agree never to write about the mock terror attack in any other context.

Explainer thanks Marc Short of the Department of Homeland Security and Roy Pietro of the University of Connecticut.