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Seattle to participate in terrorism-preparedness exercise

Local, state and federal agencies will test how prepared they are for a terrorist attack Monday.

Seattle will participate in a massive national exercise called TOPOFF2, an acronym reflecting the participation of the government's senior and top officials.

Co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, the exercise is congressionally mandated and designed to test how the different levels of government respond to a simulated terrorist act.

The exercise -- which begins Monday at noon -- lasts for 36 hours and takes place at a vacant area on the 2900 block of Airport Way South near the Tully's Coffee roasting plant in south Seattle. The test is the first large-scale counter-terrorism exercise since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

State, county and city agencies will respond to a simulated explosion from a dispersal device containing radioactive material -- otherwise known as a "dirty bomb" -- while agencies in Chicago will face a covert biological attack.

"We jumped at the chance," Gov. Gary Locke said at a press conference Monday. Locke added that he was approached by the federal government approximately a year ago about

Seattle's participation in the exercise. "TOPOFF2 will demonstrate the important integration of our local, state and federal response plans, procedures and capabilities.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the real threats and to test our response capabilities," Locke said.

The simulated incident will have police officers, firefighters and health experts at the scene in uniform or protective gear, engaging in police patrols, rescue operations and other duties.

Officials declined to reveal specific details of what will actually happen, but participants know the Seattle event involves a "dirty bomb" with make-believe victims seeking medical treatment. Volunteers and professional actors will play the roles of victims, who will be rescued, diagnosed, decontaminated and treated.

"The exercise will enable officials and response personnel to practice different courses of action, gain and maintain situational awareness, and deploy appropriate resources," said John Pennington, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As part of the exercise, some fake environmental monitoring will take place in the Alki neighborhood, Magnolia, Ballard and parts of the Downtown area, according to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Residents may see people dressed in hazardous-material suits simulating the collection of environmental samples in these neighborhoods. Officials stressed that citizens passing through the designated neighborhoods should not be alarmed or feel threatened by terrorism.

"Participants and their vehicles will be clearly identified as part of the TOPOFF2 exercise," Nickels said. He added he is not worried about the exercise causing panic because of the event's extensive publicity.

Locke emphasized that there are no threats of terrorism to Seattle.

"The time to test is before such threats arise," he said.

According to King County Executive Ron Sims, King County will host more than 107 organizations working with the city to learn and practice emergency preparation.

"TOPOFF2 is designed as an exercise to shape out the bugs," he said. "Once the exercise is over, we will know what we did right and what we did wrong, and we will promptly make changes.

"The winners of the exercise will be the citizens."

The exercise is the most comprehensive terrorism-response exercise ever undertaken in the United States, officials said. Three years ago, the first TOPOFF exercise simulated bio-terrorism, the release of toxic agents and the detonation of radiological devices in Washington, D.C., Denver and Portsmouth, N.H. The exercise will be the first full-scale simulation to take place in Seattle and Chicago.

The state, city and county will share an estimated $2 million in federal funds to offset the costs associated with participating in the exercise, according to Marianne Bichsel, senior communications and policy adviser to the mayor. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA will direct federal participation of the exercise.

According to officials, hundreds of evaluators have been scheduled to watch the exercise

and report their findings for a later study. The lessons learned from the study will most likely be used for natural disasters such as earthquakes, as well any possible terrorist attacks.

"This comprehensive exercise will help Seattle become the most prepared city in America," said Nickels. "We have already benefited from this exercise by acting on a hypothetical event which gives us the opportunity to test our readiness and at the same time identify ways to improve response in the future."

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