Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Wed August 31 2016

Destination: Disaster City

Destination & Tourism | Melinda Crow | August 31, 2016

Destination: Disaster City

Ever wonder how disaster first responders get their training? It's not like they can "practice" responding to real jet crashes or building collapses. So where do they go for realistic training?  Many of them go to Disaster City — part of the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) training facility in Bryan, Texas. First responders from all over the world visit the facility to hone their skills on full-scale mockups under the supervision of expert instructors.

Fighting fires on planes and ships

Fire suppression involving jet fuel requires specialized training, available at the TEEX facility. Current mockups include a 72-foot fuselage with first class and coach sections, bi-level wings, tail section, and a cockpit, all rigged for spills of fuel and engines that ignite. Another area includes a smaller fuselage, a wheel/brake assembly, and an engine. The two mockups combined make up the largest training pit of its kind in the U.S. Another recently acquired jet fuselage will soon be added to the props available for training designed to save lives in airline disasters.

Managing fires onboard a ship at sea requires even more specialized training. A 300-foot ship mockup is available for training firefighters in close-quarters for electrical and diesel fires. The available scenarios include fuel drum fires, engine fires, and fuel spills.

Additional areas rigged for fire training include industrial complexes, pipelines, and refineries. Training fires in these areas can be designed as large or small and are carefully monitored during the training process.

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Fires and rescues on trains and trucks

Using donated tankers, cargo, and passenger rail cars, the facility has a wide array of disaster recreations. Some are rigged for fire and HazMat training, while others are set up primarily for search and rescue training. The search and rescue areas, while looking realistic, are structurally sound so that volunteers can safely act as "victims" awaiting rescue. Temporary barriers are sometimes placed between the trainees and the victims in order to make the rescue more difficult.

Collapsed buildings and rubble piles

Throughout the complex there are buildings in various stages of disaster — everything from almost fully intact shopping centers to a roof collapse area. There is a section of an apartment building brought in from the town of West, Texas, where a fertilizer explosion three years ago tore open the front the building. Another building draws its design from some of the world's largest disasters including the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the Mexico City Earthquake. It includes a metal-framed structure that can be configured with a combination of shattered columns, a hanging concrete slab, and floors that can be tilted at varying degrees.

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Scattered throughout the complex, there are several rubble piles with specially built tunnels running through them. Concrete barriers are then slid in and out of special slots in the tunnels to make "rescues" as difficult as the training warrants.

Both human responders and dogs are trained to find and aide in the rescue of survivors in the buildings and piles. Dogs first start out on what looks like playground equipment, but is actually specially designed to help them become comfortable with maneuvering through and over obstacles while avoiding hazards like exposed nails or sharp metal. Once they are adept on the equipment in the open, they can begin training on the piles.

Specialty training

The TEEX facility is one of the country’s premier emergency response training facilities, offering training in more than 130 specific areas, including HazMat, oil spill rescue, emergency management, and crisis preparedness. The facility trains responders from across the globe, including the U.S. Department of Defense. The goal of the facility is to use innovation and outreach to train responders, not only from the state of Texas, but well beyond. 

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