With less than 6 months until the London Olympics, British police, fire and ambulances tested their abilitity to deal with a terrorist attack during the games. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.
LONDON -- The bells of St Clement Danes Church on The Strand chimed on the hour at 10 a.m. Gray clouds hung low over traffic-filled streets and the cold chilled to the bone.
So a pretty typical February day in central London.
It became untypical at around 11, after two young men walked out of nearby Aldwych underground, or subway, station. A few minutes later, a public announcement instructed everybody to leave the building. The trickle of commuters leaving the station became a torrent. Some of them were irate, demanding an explanation from subway workers and police. Others held their heads or limbs, seemingly wounded and in shock.
Sirens screamed and a helicopter hovered above. Police vans, ambulances, fire trucks and a large green tent for the wounded clogged the narrow lane outside the station. Dozens of first responders -- fire fighters in helmets and black-and-yellow outfits, ambulance workers, police officers and delighted-looking bomb-sniffing dogs -- milled around on the street.
The bad news: Word was that an explosive device had partially detonated deep in the Tube.
The good news: It was all part of a two-day drill on Wednesday called Operation Forward Defensive involving thousands of emergency personnel and volunteers.
Dozens of journalists and officials were observing an exercise of how emergency services, London City Hall, transport officials, Olympic organizers, the government and counter-terrorism units would react to a terrorist attack during this summer's games. According to the scenario, there had been an "incident" in Oxford Street Station, a major transport artery, on August 8, 2012, judged to be one of the busiest days during the Olympics.
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Police and fire officers gather during an exercise to test emergency services' readiness for a terror attack at the disused Aldwych underground station on Wednesday.
"We are preparing on the basis of a severe level of threat that is higher than our current threat level," James Brokenshire, a government minister for security, told NBC News on Monday.
While authorities emphasized that security drills happen all the time, the Olympics doesn't happen all the time. The eyes of the world will be on London this summer: The city's population is expected to balloon by almost one million and an estimated four billion globally are expected to watch the games on television.
Partly because al-Qaida and related jihadi groups, right-wing extremists and Northern Irish militants are all thought to be a threat, the games will see the U.K.'s largest peacetime security operation involving tens of thousands of security officials.
The issue of security is particularly relevant to Olympics organizers. The decision to award the 2012 games to London was announced on July 6, 2005. The following morning, the city suffered its worst peacetime attack when four suicide bombers killed 52 commuters, many of them on the subway.
A constant refrain among the phalanx of officials at the drill on Wednesday was improved communications, seen as one of the failings in the response to 7/7, as the July, 2005, attacks are known.
Police, fire and ambulance vehicles line the road during an emergency services exercise at the disused Aldwych underground station on Wednesday.
"We are testing our coordination in working with other agencies," said Nicola Watson of the British Transport Police. "We are testing the communications systems on the underground service, we are testing our command and control in conjunction with the other organizations, and also we are testing the investigation into an incident t such as this."
So a major improvement has been the deployment of a digital radio system that allows first-responders to communicate more effectively and when in subway.
But the drill was a confidence-building exercise as well.
"It's ... about showing that London is ready, and demonstrate it to the world, because a world event is coming to London in a few months," David Whiting of the London Fire Brigade said.
One person whose confidence apparently had been boosted by the drill was London mayor Boris Johnson.
"I want (everybody) to know that London's underground system is the safest in Europe," he said. "It's never been so safe."