Mason Students Observe and Report During Mock Attack in Fairfax
By Buzz McClain
Disclaimer: None of the dramatic devastation described here actually happened. OK?
Mason senior Richard Kellermann opened his laptop on the second floor of the Johnson Center one day last week only to see an image of the very building he was in, and it was on fire. A column of black smoke rose from the east side of the JC and people, apparently dazed and wounded, straggled in and out of the frame on the screen.
Meanwhile, panicked students posted notices that the Patriot Center was smoldering, and the Mason Pond Parking Deck had collapsed. “Where are the fire trucks?” they wanted to know. “People are injured, what should we do?”
Some noted they smelled chlorine gas. One sent the message, “cars burning at Pat Cen #stayaway #fire.”
Meanwhile, in a high-tech command center north of Tysons Corner, representatives from local, state, and federal law enforcement and disaster agencies monitored the devastation on dozens of computer screens on two floors of the MITRE 1 building in McLean.
They also monitored the social media that was streaming from students’ laptops from various locations around the campus, not just to locate survivors but to gauge the emotions of the victims as well. Did they feel safe? Confused? Angry? The students’ responses were vital to the data.
In fact, how the students felt about the violent and deadly attack was the point of several “dirty bombs” detonated on the Mason campus by the “Anti Pierce Group,” a band of terrorists offended that the university would permit “Simon Pierce” to speak in a public appearance. The MITRE Corporation, a federally funded nonprofit research and development agency, was testing the hypothesis that during a calamity—a citizen uprising, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack—public input via social media could improve the outcome of the response.
Mason proved to be a viable—and cooperative—ground zero.
The “bombs” went off the week of October 1, with role playing and virtual mayhem taking place from Monday until Friday. Some 125 Mason students, recruited on campus by the lure of less than $100 and the chance to win an iPad, participated in a simulated experiment that involved police and fire departments, Mason’s Environmental Health and Safety Office, the National Guard, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other agencies.
A week earlier, students were instructed in their training session to keep their participation in the experiment quiet. There was a fear that should someone blurt in a public forum about a dirty bomb on a college campus, real havoc would ensue.
“A concern from the very beginning was avoiding a War of the Worlds effect,” in which fiction is mistaken for reality, says Kathryn Blackmond Laskey, associate director of Mason’s Center of Excellence in Command, Control, Communications, Computing, and Intelligence (C4I Center), which performs research in military information technology and partners with academic departments to offer courses and programs in C4I.
Mason was selected, says Laskey, “because our location near Washington and MITRE makes it easy to assemble all the necessary players. A college campus is a good location for an experiment like this; it’s a relatively self-contained community. And our student body is quite diverse and representative of the American public.”
The mayhem witnessed by the students was rendered in computer graphics, not video footage or 3D animation. Messaging about the disaster was controlled by gathering student input via “Chirp,” a private version of Twitter. “Chirps” were read and responded to from MITRE as command center officers gathered data and issued instructions to students and first responders, whose efforts were complicated by radiation, natural gas, fire, improvised explosive devices, and “bad actors” who provided incorrect information to thwart rescues.
Interestingly, monitors in the command center noted that some of the students were providing false or incorrect information based on what they were seeing; an official says they had anticipated that.
For the most part, the chirps were direct and descriptive.
“There’s a suspicious looking individual over by student housing. He’s been ducking through the woods, and around buildings. #GMUpolice,” one student chirped.
“I’m at Planetary Hall,” wrote another. “I saw a man in a ski mask moving towards Fenwick Library. Anyone see where he went? He was staring at the building.”
“2 suspicious looking backpacks are on campus, outside Mason Hall & Fenwick, Black Jansports, same size, stay away from them!”
“Possible explosion in Fairfax near the government buildings. Explosions heard and flashes seen in the sky.”
“Just left the Injury station at Fire truck #3 and I heard more loud explosions off to the NW of campus.”
And on it went, morning and afternoon, for nearly five days (the Secret Service temporarily shut down the experiment during President Obama’s campus visit). The officials at MITRE’s command center data-mined and analyzed the thousands of chirps for their emotional content while others radioed instructions to “virtual” responders arriving to the campus to assist the estimated 1,000 casualties. Eventually, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard.
Kellermann, a finance major whose Chirp handle was @NoVaKnowledgeNow, says he was “intrigued by the money at first, but now I’m interested in seeing the results.” He’s also impressed by the scope of the experiment, and its potential usefulness going forward.
“As I’m watching how they’re handling situations, I certainly believe the experiment is going well and that this data we are providing will certainly assist command centers in the future,” he says as the JC continues to smolder on his laptop. “I’m glad I’m able to assist in a research experiment that could one day change how we handle emergencies and possibly save lives of people in future emergencies.
“It must be like being part of the first 911 [call center] tests.”
To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.