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Why It Matters to Us and You
Destruction in TOPOFF drill in Portland, Oregon
The destruction caused by the simulated "dirty bomb" explosion in Portland, Oregon.

The victims were play acting. The blood was fake. The explosions were just for show. Even the ensuing press conferences were staged.

Still, we took it all very seriously. 

It’s called TOPOFF 4—short for “Top Officials 4,” since it involves the highest levels of government and is the fourth event of its kind.  It’s the largest terrorism exercise in the United States, meant to test the nation’s collective mettle in responding to a terrorist attack.

The fabricated scenario. Terrorists snuck radioactive materials into the U.S. … then launched three nearly simultaneous strikes using “dirty bombs”—first in Guam near a power plant, then in Portland, Oregon, and in Phoenix, Arizona. Unlike conventional nukes, the bombs—called radiological dispersal devices—release radioactive materials into the surrounding areas, wreaking all kinds of health and rescue havoc. 

Our role. As the lead U.S. agency for terrorism investigations, it was our job to run the overall law enforcement piece, including the investigation in each venue. Along the way, we brought to bear our suite of capabilities—evidence recovery experts, SWAT teams, HAZMAT specialists, intelligence analysts, crisis managers, IT specialists, surveillance experts, bomb technicians, WMD specialists, forensic scientists, victim-witness professionals, and media coordinators.

At a Glance:  TOPOFF 4
- Congressionally mandated, led by the Department of Homeland Security
- Takes place from October 15-24, 2007
- 15,000 total participants from across government
- For more information, see the TOPOFF 4 website

                                View images from the exercise 

For us, the lessons learned and experiences gained are invaluable: 

  • Making connections. At each site, we’ve formed new and stronger partnerships with everyone from first responders to military officials to local police, thanks to the extensive preparations and training beforehand and the work during the events themselves. All of which makes for smoother, more seamless information-sharing and coordination down the road. 
  • Practicing prevention. These exercises, for the first time, included a prevention element.  Several weeks ago, we began receiving intelligence (all fictional, of course) about the coming attacks. Our job was to pull it together, analyze it, and share it in real-time with decision makers, investigators, operational/tactical responders, government organizations, the private sector, and our overseas partners (the U.K., Canada, and Australia took part)—just like we’d do to prevent a real terrorist incident. Along the way, we ironed out some information-sharing wrinkles with our colleagues. 
  • Putting plans in play. It’s great to have plans—even better to put them to the test. The exercise gave us the chance to assess to the nth degree our crisis response and counterterrorism plans and to gauge our ability to stand up and run fully-functioning command posts and joint operations centers to lead the investigations and intelligence operations. Not to mention the extra experience we got in dealing with contaminated materials. Using what we learned, we’ll go back and refine these plans.

"The opportunity to deploy all of our various capabilities in a real-time exercise is a great training tool," says Special Agent Rich Kolko, head of our National Press Office. "TOPOFF 4 provided an outlet to bring together our experts in one place, get them in sync, and test their ability to communicate the vast amount of information developed during the event." 

Operational and educational. In the end, everything we learn and improve as a result of TOPOFF makes us better able to investigate AND prevent attacks—so, most importantly, we can better protect your communities. 

To learn more about "dirty bombs"—from the science to the dangers—please see an informative fact sheet prepared in part by the Department of Homeland Security.

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