Why MARTA police are simulating a terror attack at Midtown Station

The exercise will test how emergency units react to crisis situations and help improve strategies
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MARTA emergency preparedness

Photograph courtesy of MARTA Police Department

If you hear explosions, don’t be alarmed. In fact, you might want to grab a bag of popcorn.

As part of Georgia’s largest emergency preparedness exercise, MARTA police will recreate a terror attack at the Midtown Station from 10 p.m. on Saturday to 3 a.m. on Sunday.

The exercise is called “Operation Midtown After Dark.” There will be explosions, smoke, gunshots, police lights, and actors wearing makeup to look like victims with blood, burns, and missing limbs. There will be road closures and MARTA interruptions. If all of this sounds like a movie, well, it might as well be—although it has a much larger purpose.

“This full-scale exercise allows us to test our mettle based on a year’s worth of preparedness and training,” says Lieutenant Aston Greene, manager of MARTA’s Emergency Preparedness Unit.

The annual simulation is designed to test how police and first responders would react to crisis situations. And it’s no joke. Using grant dollars from FEMA’s Transit Security Grant Program, professional special effects crews add elements to make the scenario as realistic as possible. The topic of the emergency situation is kept secret so every reaction is real and no one’s response is scripted. “We want it to be as natural and organic as possible so that we can really measure performance,” Greene says. Over the past decade, MARTA police have simulated hurricanes, tornados, pandemics, cyber security threats, and nuclear attacks. In the end, the entire simulation is recorded and analyzed to create a corrective action plan detailing which strategies worked, which didn’t, and how to improve them.

“Anyone can get on our system—it’s public. So we have to pay special attention to our ability to respond quickly. I can’t overemphasize how important training is to that end,” Greene says.

MARTA emergency preparedness

Photograph courtesy of MARTA Police Department

MARTA emergency preparedness

Photograph courtesy of MARTA Police Department

Because MARTA crosses into so many jurisdictions, emergency units from around Atlanta will join the simulation. This year, more than 250 emergency units will descend on Midtown to participate in the exercise. In the past, other city transit systems and even the FBI have joined to observe. What’s most important about the exercises: establishing relationships across departments.

“I can’t tell you how much value it is that when we do have an incident like the I-85 bridge collapse, that you are literally getting calls from the leaders of different agencies asking you ‘Hey, Lieutenant Greene, do you guys need any help?’” Greene says. “This exercise series for us is really a way of making sure that we have those relationships in place.”

On Saturday, police expect everyone in a 5-mile radius of the Midtown Station to hear loud noises. And we hope you’re not going out anywhere that late—to support the simulation, some road closures will start as early as 7 p.m. Saturday and will last as late as 5 a.m. Sunday. The exercise will also interrupt the red and gold lines staring at 9 p.m. on Saturday. Look here for a full list of reroutes and road closures.

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