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Atlanta shopping mall hosts mock terrorist attack

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Lenox Square shopping mall in Atlanta will host a mock terrorist attack on Sunday evening to test and improve multi-agency response efforts and skills of first responders should the “unthinkable” occur.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are partnering with Atlanta police and representatives from state and local law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services for the drill.

Atlanta Division FBI Special Agent in Charge, J. Britt Johnson said the exercise will highlight the importance of readiness and partnerships between law enforcement agencies and first responders. There will be a large police presence at the mall during the drill scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and the public is asked to avoid the area during the drill.

Lenox Square is an enclosed four level shopping mall that includes 250 stores, several restaurants and a food court. The shopping mall attracts approximately 35 million visitors annually. Lenox Square is located across the street from Phipps Plaza, the first multi-level mall in Atlanta. Both shopping malls are owned by Simon Property Group.

Worldwide, shopping malls are a place in which people, sometimes in the thousands congregate for shopping, entertainment and dining are attractive targets for terrorist organizations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reportedly disrupted several al-Qaeda plots to attack shopping malls in cities across America, including Chicago.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the 9/11 commission estimated that eighty-five percent of the nation's critical infrastructure is privately owned and privately patrolled--everything from nuclear power plants to shopping malls. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's role is limited to suggestions and incentives. Unarmed, poorly trained and poorly paid security guards are the first line of defense at the overwhelming majority of U.S. venues.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) partnered with U.S. shopping malls.and large department stores including Walmart and Target to bring the 'If You See Something, Say Something' public awareness campaign to U.S. shopping malls. In September, 2012, DHS announced plans to partner with Simon Property Group owned shopping malls.

U.S. shopping mall security guards are trained to focus largely on the risks teens and young adults pose to shopper security. The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota was the first mall in the U.S. to enact a controversial "parental escort policy" in 1996. Other shopping malls throughout the country followed suit, imposing curfews for unescorted teens ranging from 6 pm to 9:30 pm.

In recent years, mass shootings at shopping malls and other "soft targets" such as schools, churches, and movie theaters have illustrated the need for increased security and public safety awareness.

Last week, two deadly shootings in three days occurred outside of other Atlanta area shopping malls. A security guard was shot to death on a road leading into the Town Center at Cobb, approximately 13 miles away from another shooting in the parking lot of Cumberland Mall.

Other than actual events, first responder drills and exercises are the most comprehensive test of readiness and means by which to evaluate a city or county's emergency management system. While extremely costly, drills and exercises should not be viewed as costs, but rather investments. The lack of exercises will prove much more costly when disaster strikes-we can pay now, or we can pay later.

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