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Playing Terrorist

After 9/11, the terror-simulation business has boomed. What kinds of scripts are they writing for New York?


The ability to sow confusion is a big part of terror. Within the city’s truly heroic response to 9/11, the narrative was one of epic confusion, the fog of war brought to a sunny day in Manhattan. The Fire Department’s scar tissue from its losses in the towers four years ago was vividly displayed last Monday on Chambers Street, which was blocked for two hours by hundreds of firefighters demonstrating their support for Chief Peter Hayden’s City Council testimony in protest of the city’s new emergency-response protocols. Ultimately he bowed to the document, which ceded FDNY control of catastrophic radiological or chemical attacks to the NYPD. But Hayden, who was in the North Tower command post as the FDNY commanders famously did not receive the intelligence from an NYPD chopper that the tower was buckling, said his piece. “I’m confused,” he testified, “my firefighters are confused, and the police officers in the street are going to be confused, and there is going to be a compromise of safety.”

Training our responding agencies to function within the fog of war has become an urgent priority. Designing and staging mock terror attacks—reality shows, essentially, for whole urban and national bureaucracies—are growth industries. At the national level, the exercises run under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. The largest of these are the biannual TOPOFF (Top Officials) exercises with scripts running in the hundreds of pages and Cecil B. DeMille–size casts of thousands, including Cabinet-level participation and stand-ins for the president.

New York City’s own mock-terror mastermind, the man who, for the last three years, presided over the design and implementation of all New York City war games, is Edward Gabriel, the Office of Emergency Management’s deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness. Gabriel, a feisty, mid-forties pug of a fellow who was an FDNY EMS chief for 28 years, was the hinge between contractors, the venues, and the many city agencies that participated in the last two exercises. To design what in the emergency-response community is known as the “play,” or the narrative of an exercise, Gabriel worked with a group of scriptwriters. For March 2004’s Shea Stadium exercise, of which the central plot point was a large bomb planted in the stadium during a baseball game, one of Gabriel’s principal co-authors was James J. McDevitt, director of Homeland Security programs for Titan Corporation, a frequent collaborator with both the city and the federal government. “Each participating agency provides a trusted agent,” says McDevitt. “Working with them, we then figure out what sorts of narratives would best test those agencies. Of course, to keep the play fair, as in a real terrorist attack, none of the agencies knows the exercise narrative beforehand.”

“Obviously, we ‘kill’ a lotta people in these exercises,” says Gabriel at his desk in OEM’s bunker near the Brooklyn Bridge. “We have to imagine that any large assembly of people in New York automatically makes our major arenas, baseball stadiums, and convention centers targets. Our job is to make this play as realistic as possible, so at Shea, we had a thousand victims in the stands, we had areas roped off so there was constricted access, we had debris, we had moulage, which is the makeup for the wounds. I even had smoke machines out there. These are not clean scenes, you know.”

Gabriel and McDevitt designed an exercise in which 50 people were killed immediately (one of the first orders of business was to remove them to a field morgue) and 200 critically wounded—these people had to be triaged and evacuated. The play’s directors had the power to kill responders. “If rescuers got too close to the bomb site too quick, we gave them cards. Bang, you’re dead,” Gabriel says, smiling—gallows humor is often the mien of a terror simulation. A well-designed terror exercise is one in which chaos is meticulously arranged against the responders. One thousand ambulatory Mets fans, some more hysterical than others, were on hand simply to be, in Gabriel’s words, “pains in the butt”—in other words, to get in the rescuers’ way. The entire exercise, including the parking and access routes to the crowd, was restricted as if the stadium were full.

“The staging of the rescue efforts alone was a huge logistical problem for the rescuers. We clogged the parking lots with cars and the main stairwells and ramps with people, some of them walking wounded, some of them evacuating,” says Gabriel. “What did the fire and EMT people learn? Well, they learned that they were going to encounter, in an event of this size, victims and non-victims needing assistance; some of them were gonna be hysterical, grabbing at you. They’re what we call the ‘worried well,’ and they take up time. But if you’re a responder, you have to get your assets to the critical areas. So, how are you gonna manage that when it’s for real?”

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