National Exercise Program Fast Facts

Here’s a look at what you need to know about the National Exercise Program, the…

National Exercise Program Fast Facts

Here’s a look at what you need to know about the National Exercise Program, the US system for emergency preparation drills. These exercises are mandated by Congress to test and strengthen federal, state, and local government ability to respond to potential catastrophic events.

a group of people walking on a sidewalk: A US Secret Service K-9 team works along the second, temporary fence on the north side of the White House March 18, 2015, in Washington.

© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A US Secret Service K-9 team works along the second, temporary fence on the north side of the White House March 18, 2015, in Washington.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Exercise Division (NED) oversees the National Exercise Program (NEP).

The first series of drills were called TOPOFF, which ran from 2000 to 2009.

The second series was called National Level Exercises (NLE), and ran from 2009 to 2012.

The National Exercise Program began Capstone Exercises in 2012.

TOPOFF Operations

TOPOFF – is short for TOP OFFICIALS. Governors, mayors, city managers, top federal and state officials, and others play active roles.

Sponsored by the US Department of Homeland Security Office for State and Local Government Coordination.

Designed to involve all levels of government as well as emergency service responders including police, fire, public health workers and others.

States volunteer to participate in TOPOFF; two are chosen for each cycle.


May 20, 2000 – The first TOPOFF drill is mandated by Congress in 1998. It lasts ten days and cost $3.5 million.

The exercise features a bioterrorism attack in Denver, a chemical warfare attack in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and other activities in Washington.

In New Hampshire, a mix of garlic and Gatorade is substituted for a bomb armed with mustard gas.

Some lessons learned include: quick medical supplies depletion, hospitals filling to maximum capacity quickly, communication breakdowns (telephone lines), insufficient manpower, and poor decision-making skills.

State officials say the drill taught them that rescue personnel need better training and protective gear.


May 12-16, 2003 – Takes place in Chicago and Seattle.

TOPOFF 2 is a “five-day, full-scale exercise and simulation of how the Nation would respond in the event of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack.”

TOPOFF 2 is the first large-scale counter-terrorism exercise since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Created by the Department of Homeland Security, the weeklong set of drills cost an estimated $16 million.

More than 8,500 people from 100 federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the American Red Cross and Canadian government, are involved.

The Seattle event is a dirty bomb, while the Chicago event is the release of a deadly biological agent.


April 4-8, 2005 – Takes place in Connecticut and New Jersey. Approximately 10,000 participants from 27 federal agencies, state, county, and local officials and more than 150 private sector and non-government organizations take part. In total, over 275 government and private organizations participate. Interrelated events take place in Canada (TRIPLE PLAY) and Great Britain (ATLANTIC BLUE).

The Connecticut event simulates a chemical weapons attack in New London; the New Jersey event simulates a vehicle-launched bioterror attack.

TOPOFF 3 carries a budget of approximately $16 million.


October 15-19, 2007 – Takes place in Portland, Oregon; Phoenix, and the US territory of Guam.

The event is based on a scenario in which terrorists detonate a simulated “dirty bomb” in Guam, with similar, coordinated attacks later taking place in Phoenix and Portland, Oregon.

TOPOFF 4 involves more than 15,000 federal, state, territorial, and local participants. Of that number, approximately 4,500 are involved in the activities in Oregon.

This is the first TOPOFF event to include the participation of a US territory.

Dirty bombs, formally known as Radiological Dispersal Devices, are conventional explosives that release radioactive material upon explosion.

National Level Exercises

2009 – It is announced that TOPOFF exercises will continue under a new name, Tier 1 National Level Exercise (NLE). These are conducted annually in accordance with the National Exercise Program (NEP). The exercises are still designed to provide all levels of government an opportunity to prepare for crises ranging from terrorism to natural disasters.

National Level Exercise 2009 (NLE 09):

July 27-31, 2009 – Takes place at federal headquarters facilities in Washington, and in federal, regional, state, tribal, local and private sector facilities in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and California. Additionally, Australia, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom participate.

The NLE 09 scenario begins in the aftermath of a national terrorist event outside of the United States, and the exercise centers on preventing efforts by the terrorists to enter the United States and carry out additional attacks.

The exercise focuses exclusively on terrorism prevention and protection, as opposed to incident response and recovery.

National Level Exercise 2010 (NLE 10):

May 17-18, 2010 – NLE 2010 engages federal, state and local partners in a series of events to demonstrate and assess federal emergency preparedness capabilities pertaining to a simulated terrorist attack involving an improvised nuclear device. As part of NLE 2010, all federal agencies within the NCR participate in Eagle Horizon 2010, an exercise that requires federal departments and agencies to demonstrate their capability to perform mission essential functions in the event of a major emergency.

National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE 11):

May 2011 – Takes place at command posts, emergency operation centers and other locations, including federal facilities in Washington and federal, regional, state, tribal, local and private sector facilities in the eight-member states of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC). The eight-member states are: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri.

NLE 2011 simulates a major earthquake in the central United States region of the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ).

March 30, 2012 – The 2012 National Preparedness Report, which covers preparedness activities in 2011, is published.

National Level Exercise 2012 (NLE 12):

NLE 2012 is the first NLE that tests the existing plans and procedures to address the challenges in anticipating and responding to cyber incidents that have “virtual and real-world implications.”

NLE 2012 simulates a series of significant cyber incidents involving physical impacts on infrastructure, that require coordination among all levels of the US government; various federal departments, agencies and cyber centers including the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) and the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT); states; the private sector; higher education institutions and international partners.

March 28-29, 2012 – Exercise 1 involves the representatives sharing classified and unclassified information and building a Cyber Common Operational Picture (COP).

April 25-27, 2012 – In Exercise 2, participants focus on and evaluate the draft National Cyber Incident Response Plan (NCIRP). They also test the nation’s operational capabilities among the governmental entities, the private sector partners and international partner nations.

June 4-7, 2012 – Exercise 3 addresses Whole Community cyber and physical response coordination, including a Cabinet meeting.

June 19-21, 2012 – Exercise 4 evaluates the continuity capability of federal departments and agencies during a significant cyber event.

March 1, 2013 – The 2013 National Preparedness Report, which covers 2012 preparedness activities, is published.

Capstone Exercises

2012 – The National Level Exercise (NLE) changes its name to the Capstone Exercise.

2013 – The Capstone Exercise changes its format to a two-year cycle.

March 30, 2014 – The 2014 National Preparedness Report, which covers 2013 preparedness activities, is published.

2014 – The Capstone Exercise includes the following multi-event exercises: The Alaska Shield 2014, Ardent Sentry 14, Nuclear Weapon Accident/Incident Exercise, Eagle Horizon 2014, and Silver Phoenix 2014.

2014 – The Eagle Horizon 2014 exercise, which tests the government’s response to potential attacks on public spaces like the DC Metro subway system, is canceled by the White House for undisclosed reasons. There are plans to resume the exercises with Eagle Horizon 2015.

2015 – The White House releases a list of planned exercises for Capstone 2016. The names are Cascadia Rising, Ardent Sentry 2016, Vigilant Guard 2016, Eagle Horizon 2016, Ultimate Caduceus and JLOTS.

April 20-21, 2015 – Eagle Horizon 2015 takes place throughout Washington.

May 2015 – A series of Continuity Exercises are conducted to assess response to such emergencies as earthquakes, nuclear accidents and chemical attacks. The exercises are called Vibrant Response 2015, NUWAIX 2015 and Ardent Sentry 2015. The FBI Marble Challenge 2015 is meant to replicate the complex process of locating and defusing a nuclear device on a timer.

March 30, 2016 – The 2016 National Preparedness Report, which covers 2015 preparedness activities, is published.

May 2016 – A series of Capstone 2016 exercises take place across the federal government in a series of five events.

January 2017 – The 2017-2018 National Exercise Program begins.

August 28, 2017 – The 2017 National Preparedness Report, which covers 2016 activities, is published.

May 2018 – More than 90 Federal departments and agencies participate in preparedness exercises to study and evaluate lessons from major US hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

November 14, 2018 – The 2018 National Preparedness Report, which covers 2017 activities, is published.

2019 – The 2019-2020 National Exercise Program begins.

January 2020 – The 2020 Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) Doctrine is published.

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