Downtown ‘nuclear blast drill’ tests East Portland disaster resources

From the “Control Cell” at PDX, to a suburban hospital, to Portland’s 911 Center – and even to David Douglas High School – you’ll see exclusive photos and stories about the “TOPOFF 4” drill carried on across the greater Portland area, right here …

Getting a “peek behind the magic curtain”, we’re allowed to take a look at the “Venue Control Cell”, located in the main ballrooms at Portland Airport Sheraton Hotel.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For all of the publicity thrust upon the local media, most folks in the greater Portland area saw only brief snippets about the Department of Homeland Security’s largest disaster simulation exercise to date — “TOPOFF 4” — held in the metro area, during the week of October 15.

We went to a press briefing as the full-scale exercise began on Monday, and learned that three locations are involved in a single, overarching scenario taking place in Arizona, Guam, and Oregon.

We were issued an official TOPOFF 4 press credential, and learn that our ability to visit any of the events will be strictly controlled.

Jeremy Greenberg, the program manager with Department of Homeland Security, briefs the press on the day before the “bomb” explodes.

“The reason for doing this,” explained Jeremy Greenberg, the program manager with Department of Homeland Security, “is that it helps governments, at all levels, to prepare to respond to a single type of event.”

The “event” described by Greenberg was the explosion of a “dirty bomb” on the Steel Bridge in downtown Portland. Such a device, if detonated by terrorists, isn’t intended to do great physical damage – but instead, to spew a deadly cloud of radioactive material into the air. The actual “ground zero” for this exercise was moved to Portland International Raceway, where officials built a simulated Steel Bridge from scaffolding.

The three key concepts, said Greenberg, were “prevention, protection, and response recovery”. “During the day, we expect 4,500 participants playing, controlling and evaluating the exercise here in Portland. It runs 24-hours a day through Friday.”

From their hidden location, drill controllers purposely add in unexpected contingencies, to test the ability of agencies to respond to changing conditions.

Connections to East Portland
First, the “Venue Control Cell” – the hidden-away controllers who actually run TOPOFF 4 – was located in the grand ballroom at the Portland Airport Sheraton Hotel.

The room was lined with rows of conference tables, at which sat “event play controllers”, calling the shots during the exercise.

“These exercises are as realistic as we can possibility get,” said Greenberg, “whether manmade or natural. Having the opportunity to learn and evaluate our capabilities in peacetime is a phenomenal chance to see what works, what doesn’t and where we can correct ourselves.”

BOOM!
On October 16, all across Portland, in the scenario, the city reeled from the effects of a nuclear radiation-laced high explosive device detonation. City, county and federal agencies worked with frantic precision to deal with the physical damage – and more importantly – with the thousands of civilian causalities.

To those participating in the 2007 TopOff exercises, designed to test the area’s disaster response system, the simulated event was played out as if Portland were under attack by terrorist villains.

Wearing radiation-resistant protective garb are registered nurse Kate Arendt, James Sobocinski of Hospital Security, and emergency room technician Josh Spano. Their role is to evaluate “patients” as they come into Providence Milwaukie Hospital. The close-up shows Sobocinski holding his functional, 1950s era radiation detector.

Disaster radiates to SE Portland
Even though the bomb went off downtown, Milwaukie Providence hospital in Southeast was activated as a disaster medical response site.

“Any time there is a regional disaster, patients are disbursed so they can get prompt care,” explained Steven Fletcher, Community Relations manager with Providence Health and Services.

“The larger hospitals will get really busy and quickly fill up. They’ll triage patents, and disburse them to locations elsewhere, such as Providence Milwaukie, where they can receive immediate care.”

In the case of a widespread release of radioactive material, Fletcher added, citizens suffering ill effects from the blast site would be routed directly to the hospital. “We’re not a trauma center, but our fully-equipped emergency center can accept critically injured patents.”

This “patient” says she was in her house when the “bomb” went off. “I’m concerned about my dog. Can you help my dog?” They did.

Full emergency gear stored on site
The decontamination unit, medical ward tents, protective gear, and special emergency equipment used in this drill weren’t shipped in for this exercise, says Environmental Services Manager, Tina Seely a member of the hospital’s Emergency Preparedness Committee.

“All of it was purchased through grants, and belongs to the hospital. The equipment is stored on-site. When a disaster with mass causalities happens, it is all right here – we’re ready to respond within hours.”

The temporary emergency ward fills with “patients” – some are considered acutely ill or injured; others are considered to be suffering from emotional distress, in the emergency scenario.

Lents emergency communication center activated
The following day, we’re permitted to visit the now-heavily-fortified Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), located just east of the Tri-Met bus yard off SE Powell Boulevard, in the Lents Neighborhood.

We’re met at the door by BOEC’s public information officer, Todd DeWeese.

“It is business as usual on the 9-1-1 side,” DeWeese tells us, as a group of reporters crowd around. “We have real-world dispatching going and, at the same time, a smaller center dispatching for the TOPOFF 4 disaster simulation.”

Looking unruffled, DeWeese says BOEC “actually has the easiest part of the drill. We do this every day. Whether simulated or real – we’re trained to accurately take in information, then, dispatch the required services.

“TopOff is good practice. This helps locate the communication problem spots that might crop up during a real emergency situation. This brings all of the agencies involved – hundreds of them – together in this drill. We have different levels of decision-makers here, in this building,” DeWeese says.

Mayor Tom Potter sits in the BOEC Disaster Policy Council room, our first stop on the tour.

At different times during the exercise, the mayor, transportation director, fire chief, police chief, city attorney, and city auditor direct the handling of the disaster occupy the room.

The Emergency Communications Center is the information exchange center that POEM sets up to deal with large-scale, city-wide disasters.

Next, we tour the Emergency Communications Center.

Ordinarily, this large room is used as the training center for BOEC staffmembers. But, for the purposes of the TopOff exercise this week, it was the disaster drill’s main coordination center.

Portland Police Bureau’s spokesperson, Sgt. Brian Schmautz, confers with his counterparts in the Emergency Communications Center during the training exercise.

“This room is activated by POEM,” explained the bureau’s spokesman, Kerry Dugan. “All of the equipment used here is stored on-site, so it is ready to go. It takes about an hour to get it operational; it’s refined over time, based on the type of disaster or situation we face.”

Here in the Liaison Office, information officers for agencies help disseminate important information to the public.

Next, we walk downstairs to the Emergency Communications Liaison Office. It serves as an “information switchboard” during disasters.

“We have public information officers down in this room – it supports the upstairs communications room,” says Dugan. “We have liaisons here from transportation, the Oregon National Guard, Red Cross, NET teams – and amateur (“ham”) radio operator volunteers. If we need to reach someone at any agency or bureau, these people can get in touch with them quickly.

Having a blast at David Douglas High

Agencies involved in the David Douglas High event evaluate the mass-causality screening exercise held at the school.

On September 18, a mass-screening event takes place at David Douglas High School.

“It looked like a thousand people standing in line in a room – followed by a photo-opportunity featuring the Governor, Mayor, Defense Secretary Chertoff and other officials,” the school’s Principal, Randy Hutchinson, tells us when we arrived on scene.

“Here, we are set up to take care of 1,000 people who were exposed to a cloud of radioactive people who were exposed to a ‘dirty bomb’ explosion near downtown Portland,” said Hutchinson.

David Douglas High School principal Randy Hutchinson, here with some of the school’s 1,100 students who participated in the TOPOFF 4 mass-causality screening exercise.

These “patients” would have been indirectly contaminated – or thought they might be contaminated – and were directed to be checked at a processing center, that was set up in the school’s south cafeteria, he added.

The Principal says 1,100 students – about a third of the David Douglas High student body – participated in the drill. “All this, and we managed to educate the other two-thirds of our students.”

Many of David Douglas High’s Health Sciences Career Path students helped triage the participants. “Some of our kids also served as interpreters for a variety of languages that are spoken in this area,” added Hutchinson.

Says drill is worth the effort
Will the time, money and effort expended on this massive disaster drill pay off? The Portland-area officials with whom we spoke say it probably will.

Providence Milwaukie Hospital’s Fletcher reflected the sentiments we heard across East Portland: “This exercise is as good for us as it is for the federal, state, and local responding agencies.

“It helps us better prepare ourselves in case the unthinkable happens. We’re going to be reviewing this drill during the next few days. We’ll be finding out what we did right, and what we can do better at – so, if it happens in real life, we’ll be able to take care of our citizens.”

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler had to “face the press” and report on how the “dirty bomb” was affecting county services – and his agencies’ response. He did very well, by the way …

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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