SAMHSA Participates in Disaster Response Exercise
By Jon Bowen
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.
|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.
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
"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
effortWe 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
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.
|SAMHSA's Brenda Bruun at the Agency's Emergency Response Center in Rockville, MD.
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
For more information about SAMHSA's Disaster Readiness
& Response Matrix program, visit www.samhsa.gov.
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