Preparing for 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.

"10 times as good"

Disaster City is home to Texas Task Force 1, an elite 300-member group of the state's most experienced emergency responders. Its urban search-and-rescue team can deploy as either a state or federal asset. It is one of 28 such teams in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and also operates through the Governor's Division of Emergency Management as the only statewide team of its kind in Texas.

Texas Task Force 1 has responded to several disasters including the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, the Columbia space shuttle explosion, and hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Disaster City and Texas Task Force 1 are, in fact, the products of one such significant event as well as the vision of G. Kemble Bennett, vice chancellor and dean of engineering at Texas A&M University. He recalls seeing news coverage shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when he was director of TEEX.

"It was a wake-up call for me," he says, noting that TEEX had systems in place to ensure emergency responders in Texas were prepared for tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, but not for mass casualties from terrorism.

"We needed a facility that would put our responders into any possible scenario they could encounter," he says.

Parker oversaw the logistics that turned Bennett's concept into a reality and ensured that every major type of potential disaster was included in constructing Disaster City. Within a few years, the mock town became the first heavy-rescue training facility in the state.

Today the $12 million facility is regarded as the most comprehensive of its kind. As part of a larger TEEX emergency response training complex, Disaster City sits adjacent to the 120-acre Brayton Fire Training Field, the largest live-fueled fire training facility in the world.

Other states view Disaster City as a model to replicate.

Michael Bilheimer, a fire captain in San Bernardino, California, has been undergoing structural collapse training for more than eight years and was among six professionals his state sent to Disaster City for training. Their mission was to learn about the facility so California can design one of its own, he says.

"I've been to half a dozen urban search-and-rescue training facilities in the United States, and this one is, hands-down, the best," he says. "It is not twice as good, but 10 times as good."

Nothing but the best will do

Not only are Disaster City's facilities top-notch, but its leaders and visiting instructors are considered among the finest practicing emergency responders in the field.

Stephen Wright, who led the advanced course on exterior shoring, is a Nacogdoches County paramedic, a FEMA structural collapse instructor and a member of Texas Task Force 1. He has responded to a list of high-profile disasters, including September 11, the 2000 Fort Worth tornado, and Hurricane Rita.

Parker, too, has often found himself heading for such disasters. He was even called when the unthinkable happened nearby in 1999, as the heralded Aggie bonfire collapsed, killing 12 students.

"That's probably the hardest disaster I've ever been to because of the connection to the university," he says.

Those who come for training at Disaster City are also among the most experienced in the nation and must satisfy several prerequisites to be admitted to the program. They come from around the world and apply the knowledge they gain in College Station to a variety of major disasters.

Members of the London Fire Brigade called on skills they acquired at Disaster City when bombings shook London's public transportation system in July 2005, killing 56 people.

In an interview with CNN, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Ken Knight credited Disaster City's urban search-and-rescue training for his agency's preparedness that day.

"We'd taken the view that it was when, rather than if, and had a high level of training in place, including a number of London firefighters trained at Texas A&M for anti-terrorist activities [and] building collapse," Knight told CNN. "We had taken new equipment and prepared ourselves, sadly, for this day. This day was the reality of that training, and firefighters throughout London came through it well."

Staci Semrad is an Austin-based freelance writer. She may be reached at semrads@sbcglobal.net. (An earlier version of this story appeared in Texas Co-op Power magazine.)

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