Only a handful of people out of about 200 participants knew in advance the scenario for the disaster drill conducted in June 2010 in Lake Charles, LA, said Robert Daughril, an EMS specialist with the Calcasieu Parish (LA) Office of Homeland Security.
"We limited the number of players on the design team to keep as much information as possible secret," Daughril said.
Leaders involved with numerous local, state and federal agencies joined with volunteers who responded during the drill conducted at the Lake Charles Civic Center and other locations. Officials on hand included the Lake Charles mayor, police chief and the director of the Calcasieu Parish Office of Homeland Security.
"We involved all areas of law enforcement, fire departments and everyone else possible in the drill," Daughril said. "It was a multi area terrorist event dealing with a hazardous materials release and a bombing situation."
Daughril was part of the five-member team who designed the emergency scenario. Beyond that, his responsibilities deal with emergency response to any events involving emergency medical services and health care.
"A lot of the exercises we have done focus on well spelled out goals and objectives which tell people what they need to do and they do it," he said. "This exercise was not so much about testing the SWAT teams’ ability to go in and kick doors down, but how to stop and look at the overall picture in terms of if you take this action, then this reaction will follow with an overall effect to the community."
Initially, the drill was conducted as a tabletop exercise involving hostiles capturing the local rail yard. However, the exercise then transformed into a full scale exercise conducted as an actual event involving a stolen tugboat towing a barge loaded with phosgene and vinyl chloride.
Hints indicating the nature of the event were being dropped through official channels days in advance.
"We get a daily report from the Baton Rouge Fusion Center, which is a think tank of state, federal and local law enforcement agencies that analyze incoming data to determine credible threats," Daughril said. "We started off with a report that the Fusion Center was getting increased chatter on the Internet about something happening in the upper Gulf Coast area."
To support that allegation, photographs of various critical infrastructure in the area – among them industries, fire stations, police stations and communications towers – were put together as a book, which was then placed at a boat launch near the local LNG plant and aboard an emergency response vessel used for oil spill response.
"We had people call in reports that someone was taking pictures of a certain facility," Daughril said. "When law enforcement got there they found the book. That information was sent to the Fusion Center, who analyzed the photos to determine the locations they were shot from and the time of year the photos were taken."
Several days later, the drill began in earnest with a reported explosion. Police and firefighters, responding to a report that a mysterious truck observed in the area several days earlier was back again, found an improved explosive device near a fuel storage area.
"While law enforcement was tied up about five or six miles south of the city limits, we had the barge and tug commandeered and driven to the middle of the lake," Daughdril said. Environmental terrorists who seized the barge were demanding that either chlorine producing facilities in the area be shut down or the cargo would be detonated.
First, marine and aviation assets were employed to locate the barge. Once found, negotiations commenced to free any hostages, bearing in mind that the barge carried flammable and toxic cargo.
"Law enforcement kept their distance," Daughdril said. "They didn’t rush the vessel. We had some smoke rising from the vessel. The people on board warned that they were giving us a sample of what they could do. Then they started moving toward the interstate."
As the exercise progressed, law enforcement simulated shutting down the interstate highway. At one point a hostage made a daring escape, leaping from the barge and swimming to shore where lawmen rescued her, then interrogated her.
SWAT teams moved into the area were warned that the people holding the barge had high powered rifles and would shoot to kill. Then, to heighten the realism even further, 25 pounds of ammonium nitrate was detonated to simulate a large explosion, Daughdril said.
"The ultimate goal was to get people to think outside the box," he said. "If we storm the vessel and the terrorists blow the thing up, what potential consequences does the community face? We had to plot where the gases might go and determine the blast radius."
With everyone working within their area of specialty, data was put together with the overall goal of mitigating the situation, Daughdril said.
Extending the table top exercise to a full scale operation was not cheap. Grant money was used to cover personnel overtime and fuel for vehicles. Still, much is learned by putting actual resources in play.
"When you do it as a table top exercise, it’s easy to just put people where you want them," Daughdril said. "The table top is not as involved as actually moving people. Having to move people in two simultaneous situations was a real challenge."
For example, post drill analysis determined that the helicopter in use by authorities operated too close to the scene and was vulnerable to terrorist gunfire. That kind of feedback is not available from a table top exercise, Daughdril said.
The only warning that anyone got about the short notice drill was the news media, he said.
"If people see a barge on the lake, they say ‘No big deal,’" Daughdril said. "But, when we did the explosion, there were a lot of calls to 911."