Former firefighter/paramedic Billy Parker gazed at a scene of wreckage and devastation. An underground explosion had ‘pancaked’ a multi-story government building into a veritable concrete layer cake. Cars compacted like crumpled soda cans were sandwiched between two gigantic concrete slabs, once a floor apart. A crushed brown Pontiac’s bumper sticker, ‘I’d rather be camping’, seemed all too apt. Surveying the destruction, Parker was inscrutable.

Then, this was Disaster City, where he works. A 52-acre mock town in College Station, Texas, and a sprawling, purpose-built, search and rescue training facility with concrete rubble piles and an impressive array of life-sized, collapsible structures including a cinema and strip mall. Inside the shell of an office complex, we walked an eerie labyrinth of debris-ridden hallways to a space where upturned metal desks were strewn like children’s playthings. Outside, derailed and mangled train carriages (donated by Amtrak in return for training) were rigged to leak water to simulate hazardous liquid spills.

Disaster City, operated by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), is a member of the Texas A&M University System. And experts like Parker provide emergency responders with cutting-edge training in homeland security and natural disaster response by creating complex, catastrophic scenarios for incredibly lifelike search and rescue drills.

For a respected Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) guru internationally known in his field, Parker was incredibly unassuming. A 28-year veteran of TEEX, he is Disaster City’s Urban Search & Rescue Program Director. He was working a practice exercise with a 5-person squad from the elite, 450-strong Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1), one of only 28 federally sponsored, national response teams in the country. TX-TF1 is what you might call Disaster City’s home team.

After 9/11, Parker was one of 74 TX-TF1 members deployed to Ground Zero. And after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, he led a 41-strong TX-TF1 water strike team into New Orleans, directing the rescue of around 13,000 victims. They plucked people from rooftops, apartment buildings and nursing homes, and memorably helped 147 patients leave University Hospital, many with chest and trachea tubes attached.

In the mock scenario underway under Parker, a terrorists’ bomb has collapsed a government building and parking garage, trapping people and cars. However, in a real attack, emergency responders would have no clue if they were dealing with terrorism or a gas leak, and so it is here. The squad was told only that there has been an explosion. Either way, the response strategies are remarkably similar.

They were in Building 133 which embodies simulations of four historic pieces of wreckage. The collapsed concrete floors were modeled on the World Trade Center’s underground car park after Islamic terrorists bombed it in 1993. Two damaged, circular, concrete columns replicated 9/11 damage at the Pentagon. A steep, concrete ravine between two connected floors echoed Mexico City’s massive 1985 earthquake which separated outside walls from buildings.

Lastly, a 100 ft. square, hanging, concrete slab replicated part of the Alfred R. Murrah building’s roof that dangled precariously after the Oklahoma City bombing. While it didn’t fall, it suggested a good training opportunity to US&R Division Director Bob McKee. He, Parker, and their colleagues then devised solutions. In one training scenario, rescuers rappel down it, drill it, and eventually tie it back with steel cables.

For this particular exercise, the squad was focused on Building 133’s collapsed concrete floors. They started with general reconnaissance and took readings to check for toxic spills, noxious fumes or dangerous chemicals. It was all clear. Work could begin, but pockets of danger can form in confined spaces, so they would check the air repeatedly. Parker, squad leader Brett Dixon, and a couple of rescue specialists eased their frames into the shallow space separating two enormous slabs of concrete, edged with jagged rebar.

They had to shore up the solid concrete above them, then ‘breach and break’ (as they call it) to search for victims. Since drilling already-compromised concrete can trigger a dangerous further collapse or endanger an unseen victim above, they moved slowly and meticulously. Parker warned everyone to stay vigilant for any new fractures or ominous building sounds.

Searches are safest worked from the bottom up. “Typically, we like to shore our way in for protection,” Parker explained. Here, aluminum hydraulic shoring was put in place to stabilize the concrete. They then drilled a tiny inspection hole through which they could snake up the probe of a MultiRAE atmospheric monitor to check for combustible vapors and high concentrations of carbon monoxide. It was all clear.

They then inserted a SearchCam Recon II camera through the inspection hole and did a 360 degree sweep above. They visually assessed the structural damage, and spotted one victim, conscious but injured. They would have to go in. Reassured that no-one was directly above their drill spot, they could move faster to enlarge the hole.

Lying on his back, Dixon braced his feet on the concrete above to help him support a Stanley Hydraulic BR45 45-lb jackhammer and drill upwards; no mean feat. An oxygen/acetylene torch made the rebar crossing the hole fall away like broken cell bars. Entering the floor above, they shored again for safety. Then, with the rescue route finally clear, the victim was removed on a Sked Stretcher and the exercise completed.

Volunteer victims, recruited from the university and community, can lie for hours awaiting rescue by humans or canines. Concrete rubble piles must be regularly restructured, though, to outsmart the canny canines who quickly memorize the positions of ‘hides’, the tiny crawl spaces where ‘victims’ wait silently for dogs to pick up their scent. It can get stifling inside them. Once, a TEEX member playing volunteer dozed off and started snoring. It’s the only time anyone can remember Billy Parker getting mad.

Parker, a fifty-something Texan, exuded the kind of quiet, inner confidence that builds over time. He started by working lots of weather disasters like tornadoes. In 1999, tragedy hit close to home when a bonfire built by local Texas A&M students collapsed, killing twelve. That one hurt. Yet, Parker isn’t haunted by all he’s seen. Indeed, he professed himself, “the ultimate optimist.”

A devoted husband and father, he’s also a man of strong faith and immediately he got his first fire and paramedic certifications, he knew that he’d found his calling. “Obviously, God’s been very good to me,” he said, “because there are very few people in this world who have been to the incidents I’ve been to, and lived to share the stories with others.”

Asked how he reconciles feeling blessed with all the tragedy and sorrow, he seemed surprised: “I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think the ability to learn from incidents and share with others is the greatest satisfaction I get. God never said that things would be perfect in this world. There will be trials and tribulations and death and suffering, and our job is not to wonder why, but to trust in God’s overall plan for our lives, and do the best we can with what we’ve been given. And I think he’s given me God-given talent to manage large incidents and deal with pretty awful things and continue to keep an even keel and an even, steady hand, and do the best for my fellow man.”

He certainly epitomized calm reassurance and wore his leadership responsibilities easily. Then again, he’s a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who loves the buzz of it all. “I like the big incidents,” he admitted, “being in the big game, at the center of the action. When I was a firefighter/paramedic, I wanted to be in the busiest station, running the most calls, going to the most fires. Unfortunately, people are hurting when you’re working.”

In the thick of a crisis, it helps that a certain emotional detachment kicks in. “I stay pretty focused and what I call in the zone on an adrenaline high,” he said. “It’s afterwards that I really feel the emotions of what took place. Katrina was a bad situation, but we helped 13,000 people and I feel very satisfied with that.” Deployed to 2003’s Space Shuttle Columbia Recovery Mission, Parker was gratified when their small TX-TF1 team found remains from all 7 astronauts in just 9 days. “The rewards aren’t always finding somebody alive,” he explained, “sometimes it’s giving family members the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones.”

It is for the expertise of Billy Parker, Bob McKee, Brett Dixon, and their roster of top-notch colleagues that police, SWAT team members, firefighters, military, medical staff, civil support teams, and even public works and city officials come to Disaster City from across the U.S. and countries like the U.K., Canada, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. If handling a specific disaster concerns visitors, McKee explained, “we will custom-tailor a training scenario and emergency plan accordingly.”

Brian Locke, Director of Operational Preparedness & Resilience at the UK’s Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service, is an enthusiastic six time visitor. “Terrorism is a threat that hangs over everybody these days,” he explained. “In Merseyside, we’ve got an airport and a very large port as well, and we have underground roads and tunnels and an underground rail system. So we all work closely together—the multi-agencies: the police, the fire, the ambulance, local authorities—to ensure that we have plans in place should anything happen.

“Fortunately, we don’t suffer from necessarily the weather extremes or the geological issues that the US has, so we’ve put our teams there specifically to deal with any terrorist attacks that related to collapsed structures. And once you’ve taken the CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) out of it, a collapsed structure is a collapsed structure.”

Locke was keen for his staff to experience Disaster City, of course, but also to give them the chance to learn from instructors who have racked up enormous man-hours of experience, “And who can talk from experience of having done it in a real life scenario. We didn’t find anything like that anywhere else in the world. It’s incredible.”

Another repeat visitor is Brian Giachino, Operations Chief of the Iowa Task Force, one of 33 state and regional teams. His US&Rs have tackled ‘breach and break’ scenarios at Disaster City much like the one underway. The climax of every course is a final, full-blown, real time exercise after which each participant is given feedback on their performance. It’s this complex final Operation Readiness Exercise that really sold Giachino.

“Wow is that valuable,” he said. “Normally you train and come home and have to set up your own exercise, and don’t have resources.” Disaster City inspired Giachino to acquire more sophisticated communications systems and more search and rescue canines. “Although there’s some very sophisticated acoustic and seismic equipment,” he explained, “it’s just so time intensive to canvas an area. The canines are not supremely reliable, but if they’re on their game and scent travel is good that day, they can go toe to toe with the electronic equipment.”

It’s not all debris and rubble at Disaster City and TEEX. Administrators and supervisors come, too, to hone incident management, resource coordination, and information management skills. The state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Training Center (EOTC) is a 14,000 sq. ft. incident command post that Bob McKee proudly called, “Eye candy at its best.” From this logistics and planning hub, operations staff can control scenarios underway outside.

EOTC director, David Nock, a retired army man, also emphasized situation awareness and decision-making. What is the top decision-making blunder? “Not making a decision, however small or big, at the appropriate time,” he said.

Nock’s students also participate in a final, highly orchestrated, incident command training exercise that plays out in real time and in sequence. Sometimes, the intensity and realism proves overwhelming. “I’ve actually had people have to go step outside just to make sure the world was okay,” said Nock. “They get sweaty, they get tense.”

After a TX-TF1 deployment, Billy Parker enjoys going bass fishing or tubing with his kids. But critical incident stress debriefings are held to help everyone decompress: “We basically, get to talk amongst ourselves, and vent a little.” Parker explained. Unsurprisingly, he feels a bond with all his fellow US&R workers.

 “I love the US&R program because it’s a family within a family,” he said. “It’s a job, but it’s not really a job. We’re not kin by blood, but we’re kin by incidents, by our common beliefs and by our common goals in life, to help our fellow man.”

Everything changed in the US&R world after 9/11. Simply put: funding flowed. TEEX now has a $6.2 million equipment cache, ready-to-go in pre-packed kits tailored to different deployment sizes. To be totally self-sufficient, they carry generators, fuel, medicines, cardiac monitors, Hazmat gear, Colorimetric gas detection tubes, you name it.

Since disasters are chaotic, dynamic affairs, communication is critical and 9/11 and Katrina rudely showed the need for overhaul. Things have improved. Communication devices are smaller, with greater interoperability. “We’re all talking the same language,” Parker observed. Bob McKee was excited by wireless technologies and the advances in personal tracking and locator devices.

Since 9/11, many US&R teams have gained radiation monitors and personal protective equipment . Lots of firefighters and EMS workers have gas and chemical detectors, and firefighters are also likely to have previously unaffordable construction tools. Robots? Not so much. Why buy a robot that might be used once a decade when you could buy a few badly needed $10,000 boats for the inevitable next flood?

Parker noted that equipment is never a substitute for being, “Well-prepared in how to manage a disaster, mitigate it and respond to it. But the emergency response community communicates better now, and is constantly training. I think we’ve built scenarios to better prepare it to deal with just about anything we could conceivably think of.” And with that, Billy Parker sleeps peacefully at night.

Each year, a small army of robots and their nimble-fingered handlers visits Disaster City for its Department of Homeland Security and National Institutes of Standards & Technology robot evaluation exercise. Emergency responders dream up tests to gauge the robots’ usefulness in US&R response. Robots must navigate wreckage, obstacle courses and mazes, climb walls, stairs and debris piles, and exhibit qualities like dexterity, mobility, speed and endurance.

In past events, robots’ visual acuity has been tested with a low-tech eye chart just like your optometrist’s. One robot actually hauled an injured dummy out of harm’s way. Battery life remains the real challenge. Just ask the manufacturers of cordless vacuums and laptops.

2007’s crowd pleaser was the AirRobot, a 2.2 lb, flying-saucer like, wire aircraft, 3 ft. across, that takes off vertically, can go up to 25 mph and reach heights up to 3,000 ft. and distances of up to 1,640 ft.

 “I liked its effortless, nearly silent hover,” said TEEX’s Martial Voitier. “It’s GPS-controlled so it can hold position on breezy days and will return to its position if it is pushed or bumped. It has a good wireless camera and is a very neat robot.”

Also popular: the Eyeball R1 (a.k.a. a ‘throwbot’), a 1.25 lb sphere that’s easy to roll into inaccessible places. And the cobra-like, Active Scope Camera which weighs 10 lbs, is more than 25 feet long, and advances into crevices at 2 inches per second, transmitting images.

Parker, McKee and colleagues do see a place for robots in US&R—eventually. For now, they remain expensive, and with their niche skills, no one size fits all. “To equip a US&R team properly,” Billy Parker laughed, “you’d need a menagerie of robots!”

American Legion (published abbreviated version)

Sue Russell
Sue Russell
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