Yesterday morning, the FDNY, NYPD, Port Authority Police, Office of Emergency Management and additional agencies converged on the World Trade Center PATH station in lower Manhattan to participate in a full-scale exercise—Operation Safe PATH 2009— to test their response to an improvised explosive device detonation. While PATH service was suspended and the immediate area were closed off to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, over 800 emergency responders, plus 150 volunteers who portrayed victims, participated in the drill, which involved two (simulated) explosions that occurred on a NJ-bound PATH train about 1000-1200 feet into the tunnel.
The Office of Emergency Management and Port Authority oversaw the exercise, which has been in the works for many months. The response was staged, so the agencies weren't being evaluated on response time. The main goal, OEM Commissioner Joseph Bruno explained, was "to evaluate is the ability of all these agencies to work together," and, in the scenario, communications from the train were damaged. Additionally, the responders had to deal with two things simultaneously: The life saving operations as well as the investigation of the explosion. Indeed, police officers were interviewing the volunteers who portrayed PATH passengers and were made-up to look injured.
Port Authority Executive Director Christopher Ward declared, "You can never be too prepared." And Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler said, "If we're going to make mistakes we want to make them here, we want to learn from them, we want to build them into our plans, so when there is a real situation we respond appropriately and all the kinks in the system have been worked out."
Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer, who is in charge of Counter-Terrorism for the FDNY, said that one innovation the FDNY used in the exercise were lightweight, aluminum rail carts. The carts fit right on the tracks, enabling firefighters to transport victims who might not be able to walk themselves. Similar carts were used in the London Underground after the 2005 bombing; this is the first time the FDNY has used them. The FDNY also set up video cameras, on the PATH tracks and in the station, feeding a live picture to a FDNY command truck and the Mayor's office.
This is the largest drill held at the WTC site, but the OEM has conducted others, including one at Penn Station in 2007 and one involving 2,000 participants at Shea Stadium in 2004. The agencies will review the response and determine the various strengths and weaknesses. Deputy Police Commissioner of Counter-Terrorism Richard Falkenrath said the NYPD would discuss the exercise internally but added, "I did see some things that surprised me. There are things we still need to work on." Still, Bruno believes response is in a "totally different place" than on September 11 and that the city is more prepared.
When asked if the Air Force One flyover prompted the OEM and Port Authority to make sure PATH commuters and downtown Manhattan residents knew about the drill (ads, signs, PATH announcements, and more were used to get out the word), Bruno said of course, "We would not want folks to wake up here and see all this equipment and wonder."
However, some people trying to take the PATH to NJ didn't realize there was a drill. A girl, headed to get her prom dress, called her mother to find out what was happening (a fire marshal later told her it was a drill) while a group of young men who spent Saturday night (and Sunday morning) partying in Manhattan waited for PATH service to resume while cracking jokes. One asked, "Were the Ghostbusters here? Did they have this under control?"