When a sharp explosion rang out across a grungy Seattle warehouse district this week, and moon-suited firefighters rushed to rescue actors spattered with fake blood, it started the biggest homeland-security "war game" ever staged in the US - and underscored the importance of mock exercises in helping the nation gird for any new terror attack.
Just as NATO used to roll its tanks across Europe in fictional battles with Soviet troops, domestic war games are proliferating in the post-9/11 era. Soon, first responders and local officials in cities across the country may be battling mock dirty bombs or bio-terror attacks. Critics worry about straining precious resources. Yet already the exercises have helped define or refine key terror-fighting lessons:
• In the wake of a bioterror attack, for instance, officials might be tempted to impose quarantines. But drills suggest they're risky - and can spark civilian violence against authorities.
• A mock smallpox attack helped persuade policymakers that millions of vaccine doses needed to be manufactured - and that healthcare workers should be preemptively protected from any outbreaks.
• Volunteers are sometimes more crucial to providing a good response than, say, gun-toting national guardsmen. For instance, legions of trained volunteers would be key to distributing medicines after a bio-terror attack.
All in all, "There's no better, more cost-effective way to train and educate all the stakeholders involved in responding to terrorism," says Phil Anderson, a homeland-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
This week's federally funded exercise - called TOPOFF2 - is expected to cost $16 million. It involves local and state officials, some 14 federal agencies, the Red Cross, and about 8,500 people.
The simulation fictionalizes a two-pronged attack - in Seattle and Chicago - by GLODO, the Group for the Liberation of Orangeland and the Destruction of Others.
In Seattle, the terrorists detonated a "dirty bomb" within view of the Space Needle and the giant orange cranes at the city's seaport - real-life examples of Seattle's high-value terror targets. Volunteer "victims" had to be decontaminated - sometimes with frigid water from fire hydrants - before being whisked to hospitals.
The dramatic action even incorporated a few high schoolers.
At a community center in a nearby neighborhood, high schooler Anh Nguyen is a "victim" who's clad in a white jumpsuit, having just been decontaminated - which, for the exercise, entailed standing in a kiddie pool while workers pretended to "scrub" her. She was told to play a single mom who can't speak English. Her 5-year-old daughter - played by her real-life high school friend Chau Nguyen - has to translate. The role-playing simulates the confusion and chaos that emergency workers have to navigate in such events.
In Chicago, some 160 hospitals are ready for a rush of victims from GLODO's release of a plague virus.
Given the pressure - from the press and the public - to show how ready they are for terror attacks, officials talk about "lessons learned," not mistakes made. One lesson: how complicated transportation issues are.
The faux radiation in Seattle forced several bus lines to be rerouted, which affected mass transit in several counties.
But that's nothing compared with the mass panic a real dirty bomb or bio-attack could spark. Indeed, one official buzzphrase this week is "shelter in place," which signals officials' desire to avoid setting up a quarantine yet still have people stay put.
Quarantine history includes serious violence. In Muncie, Ind., in 1893, residents resisted a smallpox-induced quarantine. Violence broke out, and several officials were shot.
With quarantines, "you have to decide whether you're going to shoot a grandma in her pickup who's trying to leave the city," says Randall Larsen, head of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security.
At a recent bioterror drill in Chicago, by contrast, officials decided against quarantine. Instead they used the media to put out a slogan that aimed to keep people in their homes: "Stay at home, stay alive." Officials then decided to mobilize postal workers to deliver medicines to affected neighborhoods.
Another key issue: Coordination between federal and state governments. In a 2001's Dark Winter smallpox drill, federal authorities wanted to set up quarantines. But Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who played himself, retorted, "My fellow governors are not going to permit you make our states leper colonies."
In fact, many exercises are prompting a recalibration of responsibility that put state and local officials more in charge. As Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said this week, "When a disaster occurs, people don't call the White House, they call 911."
The drills are also boosting knowledge about logistics. Medicines in the federal pharmaceutical stockpile, for instance, arrive at a disaster in massive boxes - and need to be separated into individual doses. Volunteers are key to getting this done.
As drills become more common, experts warn about making them too scripted - and thus not realistic enough. "You learn the most by making mistakes," says Ray Decker, who tracks homeland security at the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Ideally, he and others say, drills should take place with little or no notice given to authorities - and few scripted elements released beforehand. "To the extent that you can limit the information," says Anderson, "the quality is going to improve."