SAN DIEGO -- Forget the H1N1 pandemic. Could a future crisis arise from an outbreak of viruses that destroy brain cells and render people violently catatonic, like zombies?
The far-fetched scenario of a government grappling a zombielike threat -- think movies like Night of the Living Dead or, more comically, Zombieland -- has captured the attention and imagination of Brad Barker, president of the security firm HALO Corp.
Next month, his outfit will incorporate -- no kidding -- zombies into a disaster-crisis scenario at the company's annual Counter-Terrorism Summit in San Diego, a five-day event providing hands-on training, realistic demonstrations, lectures and classes geared to more than 1,000 military personnel, law enforcement officials, medical experts, and state and federal government workers.
HALO will take over the 44-acre Paradise Point resort in the city's popular Mission Bay and create a series of terrorist scenarios, with immersive Hollywood sets including a Middle Eastern village and a pirates' haven. Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, a former CIA and National Security Agency director, and Mexico Interior Secretary Alejandro Poiré Romero will speak during the summit, which runs Oct. 30 to Nov. 2.
Barker calls the scenario "Zombie Apocalypse." That phrase took off last year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled a campaign aimed at underscoring the importance of being prepared for major emergencies, natural disasters and pandemics.
In the CDC's Preparedness 101 program, fictional zombies are used to drive home the message that Americans must be ready for any emergency -- even the kind that, hypothetically, could stem from a brain-eating virus pandemic. Zombies also star in a 40-page comic book the CDC published, a tongue-in-cheek take on the serious scenario of a mutated virus that quickly spreads as the government dispatches its military to maintain order while infectious disease specialists scour for a vaccine.
"The Zombie Apocalypse is very whimsical," Barker said, noting the setting is intended to add some levity to the more dire scenario summit goers will encounter -- incidents depicting active shooters inside a hospital or downed pilots trapped behind enemy lines, for instance. The pandemic medical nightmare is bound to be an attention-getter among people attending the summit.
"They are going to see a lot of stuff go down," Barker added. "It is a Hollywood production."
The zombies who roam the island will harass the troops, first-aid teams and medical responders participating, Barker said. HALO declined to detail the scenario just yet, saying only that the idea is to challenge authorities as they respond to extreme medical situations where people become crazed and violent, creating widespread fear and disorder.
For the record: zombies are not real. However, earlier this year the world was used rather liberally to describe a rash of incidents involving cannibalistic attacks -- the most high-profile of which, in late May, involved one man biting the flesh off another man's face. Police suspect drugs, not a brain-eating virus, provoked the attack.
Beyond the zombies, the HALO event will weave in lessons learned from real disasters and terror events, including attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deadly 2008 bombing in Mumbai, India. Cyber terrorism will have a leading role in sessions and courses throughout the summit as well.
"The new battlefield is cyberspace, for sure," Barker said.
That means that during the summit, participants' cellphones and email accounts could be hacked, said Tim McAfee, a former Marine now working as HALO's tactical operations director. Some, he said, might be rattled when they realize how easy it is for a hostile force to compromise their personal information and what the broader national-security implications of a cyber attack can be.
"The awareness," he said, "is going to be monumental."
HALO is composed of former military special operators as well as intelligence and national security experts. They train military units and federal and state agencies in security, counter-terrorism, force protection, emergency response and disaster management.
To help pull off such an elaborate production, HALO has partnered with Strategic Operations Inc., which specializes in hyper-realistic tactical and combat trauma that makes use of various special effects and actors performing as role-players.
The company has helped train thousands of sailors, soldiers and Marines in counterinsurgency missions, urban patrols, security operations and combat trauma over the past decade at its San Diego training studio and on military bases.