Disaster City: The University Program Training First Responders for the Worst
It’s a scene of utter devastation.
Smashed automobiles, derailed train cars and piles of rubble are scattered across an apocalyptic landscape. Hard-hatted responders cling to nylon ropes alongside a gutted high-rise. In the distance, an industrial fire sends flames and smoke into an otherwise bright blue sky.
Stretching across 52 acres just west of the Texas A&M University campus, Disaster City clearly deserves its name.
The mock municipality began taking shape in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Now, it is part of Texas A&M’s nearly 300-acre Emergency Services Training Institute, which attracts firefighters and other first responders from around the globe.
A brutal surge of violent weather has swept much of the nation this year, underscoring the importance of training centers such as this one. More than a thousand tornadoes have roared across the Midwest, South and Southwest in a year that also has seen costly hailstorms, extreme winds and catastrophic flooding.
“Folks just didn’t catch a breather,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The more than 1,200 tornadoes recorded as of June 23 aren’t the most ever (there were 1,817 in 2004), but this year’s total has easily surpassed the average range of 979 for a season.
As forecasters eye the skies with the onset of hurricane season, the Texas facility is a place “where you can exchange best practices and lessons learned so the next generation of first responders … can benefit from the knowledge that has been captured by [those] who learned the lessons the hard way — from experience,” Bunting said.
W. Craig Fugate, who headed FEMA during the Obama administration, said “extreme events require a higher level and more expert training” and that the surge in violent weather illustrates “the need to train for these events and make sure the first responders have the skills that are required.”
Last year, more than 116,000 responders trained at the institute, coached by instructors who have confronted some of the nation’s most horrific moments, from the wake of 9/11 to hurricanes Harvey and Katrina. The institute operates as part of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, also known as TEEX.
TEEX is the national training contractor for FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams. It is also home base for one of the FEMA teams — Texas A&M Task Force 1, which has already been deployed seven times this year.
A Long History
Texas A&M began building its reputation as a training ground for first responders in 1929 — long before the term "first responder" came into use — when the Texas legislature established a firefighter training program here in College Station.
Under the extension service, the 297-acre training institute encompasses Disaster City, the Brayton Fire Training Field and the Emergency Operations Training Center, which has classrooms and a computer-assisted command post for directing disaster exercises.
While Disaster City resembles a stricken community, Brayton Field presents an array of industrial-scale challenges for firefighters, including an imperiled chemical complex, a ship deck and engine room, a mock airplane and a leaking chemical storage tank.
The training institute employs a workforce of more than 200 to construct the props at Brayton Field and Disaster City.
Disaster City is set up like a typical mid-sized community to give responders diverse challenges. It includes a strip mall, a government building, an office complex, a single-family residence and a theater.
Volunteers or mannequins are typically hidden within the smashed autos, train cars and buildings so first responders, including dogs, can practice search and rescue operations.
One jarring scene features a concrete beam sitting atop a bright yellow school bus and a crushed SUV. The mangled high-rise is missing a wall and displays twisted steel rods protruding through broken concrete. A collapsed indoor parking garage is full of crumpled automobiles.
Suspended from a nylon rope, New Jersey Transit Police Officer Juan Guallpa tries to secure a dangling 1,200-pound piece of concrete — nicknamed “the widow-maker” — as instructor Robert Wier, a retired Fort Worth firefighter, stands nearby offering instructions.
“This has always been what I wanted to do,” Guallpa, 32, explains after descending from the rope exercise.
Many of the responders undergoing training at Disaster City are seasoned veterans who display athletic physiques and a dauntless outlook for the task at hand.
Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, Lt. Dennis Wells, another trainee from the New Jersey Transit Police, describes the rope-hanging exercises as an “adrenalin rush” and a “big confidence booster.”
Training can run anywhere from one day to 16 weeks. Students typically stay in area hotels or motels since there is no on-site housing.
G. Kemble Bennett, the extension service director during the 1990s, said he came up with the idea for Disaster City after the Oklahoma City bombing spotlighted the need to give Texas an aggressive first responder training program and a top-flight urban search and rescue team.
“The OKC bombing got our attention,” Bennett said in an email. “We knew we needed to be prepared.”
Search and Rescue
The training institute’s 2018 operating budget was $44 million, mostly from training fees plus $2.3 million from the state. Director Robert Moore acknowledged that first responder training is a “competitive industry.”
“We try to get students from all over the world to come here to our facility,” he said. “The more students we bring in, the more revenue we can generate and the more props we can build, the more buildings or classrooms we can build.”
All 5,800 members of FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams either train here in College Station or use a curriculum that the extension center developed.
The center is also part of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. The congressionally mandated consortium, which includes six other training centers, was formed in 1998 to help communities and regions prepare for catastrophes, including acts of terrorism.
No one understands the importance of precision training more than members of the Texas A&M task force, composed of 80 volunteers from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Since its creation in 1997, the task force has been deployed at least 180 times. Its missions have included nine major hurricanes and emotionally wrenching searches at ground zero after the 9/11 attacks.
The force’s leaders recently invited reporters into a cavernous warehouse that included stacks of swift-water rescue boats, command vehicles and a huge cache of equipment. “You want to do the most good for the most amount of people in the least amount of time,” said its director, Jeff Saunders, “so everything we do is geared toward that.”
Christy Bormann, the canine training coordinator for extension center, is also a task force volunteer who makes every deployment with Gunny, her gregarious 7-year-old German short-haired pointer.
In a practice drill, Gunny charges toward a parked truck in response to Bormann’s search command, barking enthusiastically after finding a “survivor” (a task force member) hiding underneath.
Hearing the sound of that bark when the search dog finds a real-life survivor is “an incredibly powerful moment,” Bormann said.
Despite the obvious perils, those who choose a career based on defying danger seem bonded by both the excitement of the job and a passion for helping others.
“It’s a camaraderie, a brotherhood, a family, and you’re doing something that is great,” said Alex Mandy, a training manager at the Texas A&M site and former Harris County firefighter. “Every person that you get to go help, it’s the worst day of their lives. And you can make it better.”