Preparing for disaster

Disaster City helps master any disaster


James Bond hangs from a cliff on-screen as moviegoers in a crowded cinema feel the floor begin to tremble.

The screen goes black, sections of the theater cave in, and panicked patrons scream in the darkness, shielding themselves from falling debris. They trample one another in search of an exit, but there is none to be found.

The earthquake, while only an imagined training scenario at a full-scale, mock theater in College Station, Texas, is among a variety of real events (including hurricanes, tornadoes and terrorist acts) for which emergency responders prepare.

The Texas A&M University System boasts one of the world's most impressive training facilities: Disaster City. It is run by a member agency of the A&M system, the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), to provide emergency response training and technical assistance for disaster response.

Emergency responders from around the world come to Disaster City for specialized training in urban search and rescue. They perform exercises in structural collapse, canine searches, and disaster medical services.

They represent city, county, state and, sometimes, federal agencies. Trainees include firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officials, and other emergency responders called on to handle disasters.

Masters of disaster

Disasters can be virtually special-ordered at Disaster City, a 52-acre mock community featuring full-scale residential and commercial structures, streets lined with rubble piles, and the actual wreckage of a passenger train. A new multi-story training prop — complete with crushed columns, hanging concrete slabs, and protruding steel — simulates some of the challenges responders faced at the Pentagon in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and at Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995.

Disaster City buildings can be configured into "collapsed" positions by raising and lowering rooftops and other exterior sections. Volunteer "victims" are recruited to stage the aftermath of disasters, producing a realistic atmosphere.

"We're masters of disaster," says Billy Parker, program manager for TEEX.

House of Pancakes

Indeed, visitors to Disaster City often feel they have entered a ghost town somewhere in the realm of chaos. An automobile is parked upside down in an intersection. A sedan is mashed under a toppled concrete beam. Street signs slanted 45 degrees look like they've suffered the ferocity of a hurricane. Threads of steel rebar jut from concrete rubble piles where buildings appear to have collapsed. The derailed train cars lie in disarray, some turned on their sides. In the cabins, mattresses and seats are strewn about in an eerie reminder of the passengers who once boarded the ill-fated train.

Amidst the ruins, sounds of hope emerge with the tapping of hammers and the chatter of men and women at work.

One morning, the voices were those of 17 emergency responders and Occupational Safety and Health Administration representatives working to support the exterior walls of Disaster City's theater, weakened by an imagined disaster. The exercise was part of a five-day advanced course on exterior shoring.

Wearing protective clothing, hard hats and steel-toed boots, the students used heavy wooden boards and hundreds of nails to construct wall supports, a process crucial to safely rescuing trapped victims.

Other courses give students hands-on experience breaking through wood, steel and concrete, and using simple tools (such as pipes and levers) to move and lift several tons of concrete. Students must often practice these skills in tight spaces such as the House of Pancakes, a three-story building collapsed, i.e., pancaked, to the height of one story.

Program participants can also hone their search-and-rescue skills. Live human "victims" are placed in tunnels under piles of concrete or wood rubble and left for responders and dogs to locate through vents on top of the tunnels.

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