After the Attack: Agencies Collaborate to Develop Bio-disaster Recovery

July 2011
Topics: Emergency Preparedness and Response, Terrorism, Collaborative Decision Making
A four-day simulation experiment allowed emergency managers to role-play their restoration efforts following a simulated aerosolized anthrax attack.
First responders must be prepared for a variety of disasters.

Above the midnight bustle of Seattle's Pioneer Square, the drone of a single-engine plane goes unnoticed. Even the few revelers queued up outside the Trinity Nightclub and The Central Saloon who happen to glance up at the blinking lights of the plane fail to notice the aerosol mist trailing behind the craft. So 36 hours later, when the hospitals start filling up with young club-goers with muscle aches and trouble breathing, doctors assume that flu season was getting an early and eager start. But then the first tests come back with a chilling diagnosis: Anthrax.

By the second night after the attack, the National Guard has cordoned off a red zone centered on Pioneer Square. Medical triage stations dot the surrounding yellow zone. Hazard-suited teams from the Environmental Protection Agency swab the walls of dance clubs. Two weeks after the deadliest act of biological terrorism ever perpetrated on the United States, the hardest task remains: getting Seattle back to normal.

Restoration Role-Play

To test procedures and tools available to help local officials conduct the reclamation effort that would follow a bio-terror attack like the one described above, the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute, operated by MITRE for the Department of Homeland Security, hosted a four-day simulation experiment (SIMEX) in the summer of 2010 for the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration (IBRD) program. The IBRD SIMEX, conducted at MITRE's National Security Experimentation Laboratory, allowed real emergency managers from Seattle and the National Capital Region (comprising Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia) to role-play their restoration efforts following a simulated aerosolized anthrax attack. They also got the opportunity to test-drive new tools to support such a reclamation effort.

The purpose of IBRD, a collaborative program jointly funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Chem/Bio Defense Division and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, is to develop plans and technologies to restore urban areas, military installations, and critical infrastructure after a bioterrorism attack.

The IBRD program had a number of objectives in commissioning the SIMEX. IBRD wished to test the effectiveness of the consequence management framework it had established to coordinate emergency responses among different local response agencies. The simulation also provided an opportunity to put a suite of remediation decision-support tools designed by Sandia National Labs through its paces. And the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks, which combines representatives from federal-level laboratory networks, experimented with procedures designed to coordinate the environmental sample processing a bio-attack would require.

Just Right Simulations

Federal officials from DHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies were on hand to assist and observe as participants gathered for the first day of the SIMEX.

"We have been running these kinds of simulations for 10 years now," says James Diggans, a MITRE computational biologist who helped design the simulation. "They strike a balance between tabletop exercises—which are cheaper and easier to run, but are not as comprehensive—and the in-the-field-get-your-boots-muddy kind of exercises that take forever to organize and are really expensive. Our simulations are designed to be manageable and affordable while still providing the depth of detail that lets you immerse yourself in the challenge."

The Right Tools for the Job

The first task for the SIMEX participants was to put their local policies and procedures to the test in a dry run of the simulation. They would have to plan and schedule the complete restoration effort: assessing buildings for contamination, decontaminating them, testing them to be sure they're free of spores, and moving the occupants back in, all while adroitly allocating scarce time and monetary resources.

"We warned them it would be a frustrating exercise," says Diggans, "because they would be tackling a scenario they had little experience with and they'd have limited tools and even more limited resources to work with."

Once the participants completed the dry run, MITRE staff introduced them to IBRD's consequence-management decision framework, which was spelled out in a document called the Interim Consequence Management Guide produced for IBRD by Los Alamos National Labs. "The participants found the management guide very useful," says Diggans. "They appreciated how well thought out and clearly written it was. Everyone wanted a copy to take home."

Participants also received Sandia's decision-support tools. These tools included a "playbook" that formalizes the steps of the decontamination process, a Google Maps-like interface to help track contaminated buildings and areas, and an accompanying program that models the cost and time to clean them. Diggans says a SIMEX makes an ideal testing ground for these kinds of tools. "Designers get to see how participants interact with the tools under realistic circumstances. How are they used? Are they useful? Their observations provide context for how the tools should evolve and how they should be employed."

MITRE organizers learned that the tools were more effective in the hands of local-level response staff rather than as a general management and coordination tool. Sandia collected ample feedback from participants they will use to guide the design of the next generation of their tools.

Representatives from the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks also collected vital information from the SIMEX. "One of the challenges associated with remediation is the large volume of surface sampling needed to decide if any particular building or surface street is clean or still needs to be cleaned," Diggans says.

"During that process, you generate thousands of samples. There were worries that such a large amount of samples would overwhelm the national lab capacity. But the consortium learned that they had more than enough capability to handle the simulated scenario."

A Busy Week

Over the four days of the SIMEX, participants ran through the simulation a number of times. They first followed a scenario in which only one of the participating regions suffered an attack. They then tested how the competition for scarce resources would affect remediation efforts if both regions suffered simultaneous attacks. While local officials immersed themselves in the simulation runs, officials from IBRD and other federal agencies conducted a parallel simulation to test restoration-related issues at the strategic and policy levels.

Diggans reports that the event generated valuable feedback for improving and transitioning IBRD technology solutions to local and regional agencies. "By bringing local, regional, and federal participants together, they gained a greater understanding of the demands of recovery planning after a major incident. And because we carried out the scenarios during a SIMEX, everyone got the chance to evaluate plans and technology without disrupting daily operations. That's a valuable aspect of these large-scale simulations."

—by Christopher Lockheardt

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