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.