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SAMHSA News - May/June 2005, Volume 13, Number 3

SAMHSA Participates in Disaster Response Exercise

photo of a TV showing VNN and TOPOFF 3 exercise
A fictitious news station, VNN, breaks the story that sets the TOPOFF 3 exercise in motion on April 4, 2005. With strategic maps, a statement from Connecticut's governor, and continuing newscasts, the exercise tested the Nation's ability to respond to a terrorist attack involving biological and chemical weapons.
Imagine this scenario: A large explosion during a waterfront festival in New London, CT, injures 240 people and releases mustard gas on hundreds more during the explosion. At the same time, 48 people in New Jersey have reported to hospitals showing symptoms of pneumonic plague. Then it's confirmed. A coordinated terrorist attack is under way on U.S. soil. At the frontline of response, SAMHSA and other agencies at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prepare for immediate action.

Fortunately, the "attack" was only a simulation, part of TOPOFF (Top Officials) 3, the third in a series of exercises mandated by Congress to test the Nation's ability to respond to a terrorist attack involving biological and chemical weapons. The TOPOFF 3 exercise took place in early April and involved 275 Federal, state, and local agencies.

"SAMHSA was represented on all teams for TOPOFF 3," said Seth Hassett, M.S.W., Chief of the Emergency Mental Health and Traumatic Stress Branch at SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). SAMHSA's involvement included participation in the HHS Secretary's Emergency Response Team (SERT) in both Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as in the HHS Secretary's Operations Center.

"Any time people are involved in a disaster, HHS will be there," said SAMHSA Emergency Management Coordinator Daniel Dodgen, Ph.D. "SAMHSA's overall role is to serve as the lead in the behavioral health effort—We are the lead for substance abuse and mental health services in disaster response."

SAMHSA was involved in a number of activities in TOPOFF 3, specifically because the exercise simulated a public health attack. The National Response Plan for terror attacks includes a public health and medical component, and SAMHSA's participation is integral to this effort. "SAMHSA participated as a full partner with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in representing HHS during the exercise," Dr. Dodgen said.

photo of Brenda Bruun
SAMHSA's Brenda Bruun at the Agency's Emergency Response Center in Rockville, MD.
The SAMHSA team was deployed in a number of locations, in a variety of roles. Dr. Dodgen, assigned to the New Jersey "Control Cell," coordinated the HHS response from a central location where staff from various agencies worked to ensure that the exercise played out as planned. Other members of the SAMHSA team included CAPT Carol Rest-Mincberg, who collaborated with CDC staff to enhance mental health support; Mr. Hassett in Washington, DC, at the HHS Secretary's Operations Center; Brenda Bruun at SAMHSA's Emergency Response Center in Rockville, MD; and Mikisha Brown and others in Connecticut and New Jersey as part of SERT.

Everyone involved in TOPOFF 3 was aware that the events were simulated, but Dr. Dodgen noted that Agency personnel were focused on getting the job done well during the 5-day exercise. "People take these exercises very seriously," he said, "because this is our chance to learn how to maximize our preparedness."

What was the exercise like? "It was a very intense and exhausting experience," Dr. Dodgen remarked. "However, it was also a great opportunity to further our goal of integrating mental health and substance abuse into the overall public health strategy for preparedness and response."

For more information about SAMHSA's Disaster Readiness & Response Matrix program, visit www.samhsa.govEnd of Article

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SAMHSA News - May/June 2005, Volume 13, Number 3

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