Inside the Pentagon courtyard last Wednesday, soldiers screamed and shuddered, the victims of a poison gas attack. Outside, Arlington fire trucks lined the Pentagon parking lot, waiting for the call they knew was coming.
They were all actors, victims and heroes in a simulated terrorist attack dubbed “Operation Misty Court,” a simulation intended to let Arlington’s fire department look at strengths and weaknesses of its response to possible threats.
Soldiers in battle fatigues served as simulated victims, the level of their injuries dictated by tags they wore around their necks. Many took the opportunity to ham it up. As smoke from a hidden canister lay over the courtyard, some sat on the ground, rocking back and forth, holding their heads and grimacing.
Others wandered aimlessly around the Pentagon’s grassy central courtyard. “Have you seen the girl in the red shirt?” one private asked, over and over. “Have you seen my daughter?”
A few lay motionless on the ground, red makeup smeared on their faces. They feigned fatal injuries, said Jim Schwartz, Arlington's assistant fire chief, victims of the explosive that released saran, a possibly lethal nerve gas, during an awards assembly.
AFTER A FEW MINUTES, Pentagon medics appeared, prepared for battlefield triage. Seven minutes after the attack, two Arlington fire trucks rolled into the courtyard and firefighters began hosing down “victims.”
Typically, Arlington responds faster, Schwartz said. “But this is not the same response as a regular fire,” he added. As he spoke, more smoke sprayed into the courtyard from a second hidden canister.
Different firefighters wore different levels of protection, some dressed in regular fire clothing with oxygen masks. Others wearing yellow latex chemical suits, complete with hoods, called a “level-B suit,” Schwartz said.
They carried extra equipment as well, working with Alexandria and Fairfax firefighters to establish a decontamination zone in the Pentagon’s South Parking Lot. As over 100 soldiers were evacuated from the courtyard, firefighters swept across the lawn again and again, checking for residual deposits of gas with a chemical sniffer.
Gradually, only the “dead” victims remained. As their share of “Misty Court” wound down, they propped themselves on one elbow, watching the proceedings from a lawn seat.
AS EVACUATION PROGRESSED, the exercise moved to the parking lot. The fire department established a triage area, checking victims’ injuries before sending them on to local hospitals.
The parking lot was just another part of the staging area for the mock attack, Kevin Fannin said, a move away from the courtyard. “That a contaminated area, and a crime scene, so we want to move out of there.”
Fannin, an exercise from the US Justice Department’s Office of Domestic Preparedness, was one of the director’s of Wednesday’s mock attack. It was the last stage for Arlington in the “120 cities” program.
“Arlington’s the100th-largest city in the nation, believe it or now,” said Arlington fire Chief Ed Plaugher. “That’s the reason we weren’t the first city on the list.”
Sponsored by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the program provides funding and training for terrorism response in the country’s 120 largest cities.
The road leading up top “Misty Court” was long, Fannin said, starting years before Sept. 11. Arlington fire personnel went through training on chemical, biological and nuclear attack responses, and officials role-played chemical and biological attack scenarios, completing those last November.
Earlier this year, the county received a $300,000-grant to buy equipment for chemical attacks - testing equipment, chemical suits and other protection equipment — as preparation for “Operation Misty Court.”
“The complexity of an exercise at the Pentagon posed problems,” Fannin said. “But it also made it realistic. It appears to have gone off well.”
“I THOUGHT it went extraordinary,” Plaugher said. Drills like “Misty Court” are a test of where the department is in responding to real attacks, and also a way to look for gaps in the system.
Both of those needs were met last Wednesday, he said, and Arlington “also got a bonus,” beefing up its relationship with the FBI, the Pentagon and federal and local police agencies.
“Does that mean it went perfect?,” Plaugher said. “No. If it went perfect, why should we even hold the exercise?”
Ironically, Arlington has room for improvement because of Sept. 11. After the attack, the Pentagon increased monitoring in the building, “some very nice equipment to help protect the workforce,” Plaugher said. “We really need to learn to work well with that equipment.”
For instance, he said, monitors set off alarms this Monday, resulting in a partial evacuation of the Pentagon. When fire fighters responded, they found an innocent source for the alarm – paint fumes from a maintenance crew.
Arlington can and will learn to tell the difference between innocent fumes and dangerous attacks, Plaugher said. Monday’s alarm notwithstanding, he said, “the whole package is really starting to come together.”
It was not the first “120 Cities” drill in the area, or for Arlington. Washington’s fire department ran its drill in 1998, dubbed “Operation Rock & Roll,” simulating an attack at a rock concert in the District. It wasn’t even he first such exercise at the Pentagon, assistant chief Schwartz said. “We had a very large one two years ago, called Cloudy Office,” he said, simulating the release of a chemical in the office of the Defense Secretary.
HOSPITALS WERE the second line of defense for “Misty Court,” which also served as a test of the response capabilities of five hospitals in the inner suburbs.
Casualties, volunteers from the Red Cross and the Defense Department, showed up in the emergency rooms at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, Northern Viginia Community Hospital, Inova hospitals in Alexandria and Fairfax, and the military hospitals in Washington.
The staff of Inova Alexandria Hospital participated in the simulated disaster drill. The hospital received 15 mock patients who were decontaminated for possible exposure to saran gas. According to hospital officials the four-hour drill provided an opportunity to test disaster preparedness at the hospital.
Most came on their own, to simulate the reaction of victims in a real attack, and also to keep the region running – no ambulances were involved in the “Misty Court” drill.
At the Northern Virginia Community Hospital, casualties walked in without warning, sitting in the emergency room for treatment. One of the first challenges, said Jay Shriver, was figuring out who was involved with the mock attack.
Shriver, associate administrator of the hospital, said that once hospital realized who the “Misty Court” actors were, they were separated from the rest of the patients waiting for treatment – a way to keep chemical contamination from spreading, he said.
“They were taken to showers and asked to scrub themselves with germicidal soap, then examined by a physician,” he said. “All personnel dealing with them were enclosed in ‘peep’ suits,” or personal protection equipment.
At Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, the drill went off well, said Yorke Allen, the hospital’s director of emergency medicine. But it still shed some light on hospital procedures.
Virginia Hospital Center, Northern Virginia Community Hospital and Inova Fairfax looked at their disaster response plans after Sept. 11, he said, and made sure they were all on the same page. They now have the same kinds of protective gear, and reaction plans are the same from hospital to hospital.
THOSE PASSED WEDNESDAY’S drill with flying colors. But, Allen said, “Some of the assumptions we made when we revamped our disaster plan – we have to go back and tweak those.” That means taking a new look at security, at personnel requirements and at region-wide planning.
“We need far more people dressed to care for patients,” he said. “We need to significantly increase the security detail from within. We need to convince Arlington police that the first response is to go to the scene, but they also need to send some right to hospitals [for traffic and crowd control]. We know in an event like this, there is significant potential for hysteria.”
Last month, Allen said that the region’s hospitals might not be prepared to cope with another terrorist attack. “Misty court” was reassuring, he said, that local hospitals had made advances in their ability to treat victims of chemical attacks.
“If you look at where we were last fall, and where we are right now, we’re light years ahead of most other regions in the country,” Allen said. “We have to be.”