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Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2019 Vol. 66 No. 7

Texas Emergency Management Briefs, Tips and Links

Texas Task Force response teams utilize man’s best friend, technology to navigate disasters
By Chelsea Katz, June 11, 2019, The Eagle

Following a disaster, a barking dog, a boat or a helicopter can be the difference between life and death.

Urban Search and Rescue organizations Texas A&M Task Force 1, based in College Station, and Texas Task Force 2 in North Texas provide those services following earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and manmade disasters, both intentional and not. “We’ve done a lot of rescues, especially in the water group,” Chuck Jones, operations chief for both task forces, said. “The [helicopter] and the boat crews have done a lot of rescues, I mean life or death rescues. If they hadn’t been there, lives would have been lost. I think those are the ones that we look back on and are the most proud of that we were able to help.” The motto of TX-TF1, Director Jeff Saunders said, is: “Do the most good for the most amount of people in the least amount of time.” That is its focus with every deployment.

TX-TF1 was established in 1997 following the Oklahoma City bombings because it was noted Texas did not have a response team capable of providing assistance if such an incident happened in the state, public information officer and training manager Stephen Bjune said. Since 1997, the three segments of the Texas A&M Task Force — TX-TF1, TX-TF2 and TX-TF1, Region 3 in South Texas, a division of TX-TF1 — have deployed 182 times, with the majority of responses within the state. TX-TF1 is the only one of the three that is a federal response team under the Federal Emergency Management Agency and can respond anywhere in the United States or its territories.

Some of the most notable deployments have been to the Aggie Bonfire collapse in 1999, the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Space Shuttle Columbia search in 2003, the West Fertilizer explosion, the Wimberley floods, Houston’s Tax Day floods and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Alex, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence and Michael over the past two decades.

TX-TF1 has responded to more than any other federal task force in the country, Bjune said, noting much of that is because of its response in the state. Members of the three task force units are volunteers with other jobs, including firefighters, doctors, nurses, structural engineers, canine trainers, professors, law enforcement officers, lawyers and pipeline engineers. With millions of dollars of equipment, the teams must be ready to deploy within four hours of getting a call.

Gunny, a 7-year-old urban search and rescue dog with Texas A&M Task Force 1, enjoys having his ears scratched by handler Christy Bormann following a demonstration.

Gunny, a 7-year-old urban search and rescue dog with Texas A&M Task Force 1, enjoys having his ears scratched by handler Christy Bormann following a demonstration.

While many people are part of the teams deployed to disasters, one of the first to search is the K-9 teams.
TX-TF1 Canine Coordinator Christy Bormann and her canine partner Gunny, a 7-year-old German shorthair pointer, respond to search for victims trapped in debris.

The dogs are critical to the mission, Bormann said, because their sense of smell helps find people who need rescuing. “That sense of smell is able to locate people so much faster than we can,” she said. “If you think about a structure that has collapsed, in order for us to search it for a person who is unconscious or unresponsive, we would have to turn over every portion of that structure to physically search that with our eyes. Smell is able to move around a lot more effectively than our sight could ever hope to do. It can turn corners and crawl through cracks and crevices. And so all [Gunny] has to do is get one sniff of a person to be able to tell me that they’re there.” To the dogs, she said, the search is like a big game of hide and seek, and as soon as Gunny gets the scent of someone, he barks to alert her. The situations can be scary, though, Bormann said. “We love, love, love our partner, but by definition what we’re doing is go into a thing that’s too dangerous,” she said. “So, you just have to kind of lean back on that training level and go we are the best option for somebody that’s in there. That’s tough, I think, but that’s the nature of what we do.” In addition to their training, she said, Gunny has the ability to get into places humans cannot. “I can send him into a compromised building. He is a third of my weight, frankly, and four-wheel drive, so he’s distributing that weight differently, so he can crawl through all the stuff that’s going to fall on me or fall because of me with no problems,” Bormann said. “And so once you watch that a couple of times, you’re like, ‘Man, this really works.’ I think it’s really cool because 17 years into this, and I still look at it and go, ‘I don’t know what just happened. It’s magic.’ ” The moment a dog finds someone, she said, is the most powerful thing. “I have been doing that for so long, and I have seen what happens to families that don’t have answers,” she said. “They have been looking for a lost person for 20, 30, 50 years, seeing what that does to those families, I would literally do anything in my power to get that answer for them. I can’t change it, but I will do anything to get them that answer.” When doing live rescues, the team also uses technical search equipment — listening devices and long-barrel cameras — to determine victims’ locations inside buildings and safely to explore the inside of buildings before entering.

A member of TX-TF1 since its start in 1997, Jones said, he has seen it has grown in size and scope, from a small cache of equipment and about 140 members to $7 million cache of equipment and more than 800 members throughout the state. “I’ve seen us respond to different catastrophes that I really never thought that we would respond to,” he said. “In 1997, I never thought two planes would fly into the World Trade Center [four years later], just was unfathomable. The response to that was humbling, to say the least. The West Fertilizer explosion, you don’t expect that. … The Bastrop fires, going to the Bastrop fires and searching through 2,500 homes that have been burned, just hoping not to find anything — and in the end we didn’t, which we were very happy about that. That was a service we never thought we would do.”

The deployment to New York City following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, is the one Jones looks back on with the most regret, he said, because he wished they could have done more. The best moments, though, are those when it helps people in some of the worst moments of their lives, when the rescuers drive their boat into a person’s house and rescue them off the top of the refrigerator, and get them to the boat, he said. “That’s probably the best moment in their life at that instant. Now, it was worse before and it’s going to be worse later, but at least in that moment we’ve done something to make their day a little better for a brief period of time,” he said. Though he hates to have to respond to disasters, he said, he is proud that people throughout the state care about the task force and trust the members.

(Source: The Eagle)

With floods and droughts increasing, communities take a new look at storing water underground
By Erica Gies, June 11, 2019, ENSIA Online

June 11, 2019 — Houston, Texas, has flooded every year for the past five years. At the same time, Texas is also known for dire water shortages. What if people were to capture the floodwater and store it for later in aquifers — underground layers of permeable rock, gravel and sand that allow water to pass through?

A recent study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that coastal aquifers from which water has been pumped for use in farms and cities, have enough space to store two-thirds of the water from high-flow events from 10 Texas rivers, reducing the impacts of both floods and droughts — if we figure out a way to get the excess water into them.

Actively moving water underground, a practice known as managed aquifer recharge (MAR), is increasingly popular today. There are about 1,200 managed aquifer recharge projects in 62 countries, according to the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC) based in Delft, the Netherlands. In addition to helping manage water over- and under-supplies, MAR can be used to restore depleted aquifers, rehabilitate ecosystems and cleanse polluted water. But there are challenges as well.

Water in the Bank

Storing water underground for future use is increasingly popular due to growing volatility in supply because of climate change as well as to the downsides of the alternative: damming rivers to create surface reservoirs.

World Map. Image courtesy of IGRAC, licensed under CC BY-SA

World Map. Image courtesy of IGRAC, licensed under CC BY-SA

Managed aquifer recharge projects around the world. For one thing, in developed countries, many rivers are already dammed. For another, dams cause myriad environmental problems, such as preventing sediment from replenishing coasts, blocking fish migrations, and destroying river habitat by slowing down water and allowing it to warm. Reservoirs lose up to a quarter of stored water to evaporation, and sometimes have to release water to make room for big storms. And surface storage can lead to overuse of water because the sight of it gives people a false sense of water security. It also costs around double the price of groundwater recharge.

Saving heavy flows underground for higher demand times has been the practice for the barrier island of Wildwood, New Jersey, since the 1960s, says Steven Phillips, a hydrologist and groundwater specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento. A popular resort area, Wildwood hosts numerous visitors in summer. Water managers store excess winter water underground and then pump it out for use during the high season.

Graphic courtesy of INOWAS

Graphic courtesy of INOWAS.

Managed aquifer recharge taps nature’s strategy for storing and cleansing water by moving it underground. California is looking to scale up this strategy. The snowpack that historically has supplied water into the dry spring and summer is predicted to largely disappear with the climate crisis. And its winter storms are predicted to grow more intense. Water managers and scientists, led by the California Department of Water Resources, are looking for the best places to move water from winter storms underground for use during the dry summers.

Other Benefits

Water’s natural tendency, in many places in many seasons, is to linger on the land. When surface waters slow down, some can seep underground and recharge aquifers.

But in many places we have blocked the opportunity for natural aquifer replenishment. We have cut off rivers from floodplains with concrete channels and levees; drained wetlands and paved over them with sprawling, impervious cities; and eliminated beavers. As a result, stormwater ends up running off into surface waters and away from the region instead of soaking into aquifers.

In fact, a 2015 study of NASA satellite data found that more than half of the world’s major aquifers were overdrawn or overstressed. Combined with the fact that in many places groundwater is being drawn up for surface uses, this situation has produced a net loss of underground water. In fact, a 2015 study of NASA satellite data found that more than half of the world’s major aquifers were overdrawn or overstressed. This not only threatens water security, it can also cause the land above to sink, as it has in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Beijing and Mexico City. And pumping from an aquifer near the coast can decrease water pressure to the point where saltwater can push in underground, tainting the freshwater.
MAR can help reduce such problems. San Jose, California, began using MAR many decades ago after the downtown sank around 13 feet (4 meters). And Los Angeles and Orange counties were among the first places to use MAR to push back saltwater intrusion. In the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, officials are planning a “fairly large-scale groundwater recharge to push back saltwater coming into their groundwater,” says Bill Alley, director of science and technology for the National Groundwater Association. The saltwater intrusion is partly due to rapid sea-level rise.

Because surface water and groundwater are often linked by gravity and hydraulic pressure, recharge can also bring new life to wetlands, springs, creeks, and other surface-water ecosystems that dry up, get too warm or become choked with algae after people deplete the surface water or groundwater that feeds them. In the Sacramento Valley, The Nature Conservancy cut a gap in a levee so high river flows would once again flood Cosumnas River Preserve and seep down into the aquifer, where the water could provide ongoing sustenance for the ecosystem.

Moving water into the ground can often clean it, depending on the pollutants and the composition of the substrate. But sometimes it’s too late. In some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, water tables have fallen more than 500 feet (150 meters) below ground from overpumping, says Phillips. “Water levels are deep enough that we’re not likely to see rivers benefiting from groundwater input for possibly ever.” Such aquifers could still be used for water storage — although that’s not always possible because sometimes subsidence causes permanent loss of capacity in an aquifer.

Moving water into the ground can often clean it, depending on the pollutants and the composition of the substrate. Gilbert, Arizona, discharges wastewater into recharge ponds, including a riparian preserve that offers recreation space for people and habitat for wildlife, where it percolates down into the aquifer for future use. Pond water is also used directly for irrigation and other non-potable uses, reducing demand on drinking water.

How It’s Done

A long-used approach to moving water underground, still practiced in rural places around the world, is to harvest or funnel rainfall into a shallow basin or trench and allow it to soak into the soil.

In 2011, on a project in Tigray, Ethiopia, a mountainous, rural area, IGRAC hydrogeologist Arnaud Sterckx saw people building check dams in gullies, reforesting steep valley flanks, building terraces for agriculture, and digging ponds to capture rainwater. Such projects typically don’t appear in the MAR global inventory, he says, because these traditional methods don’t require permits, feasibility studies or environmental impact assessments.

Sterckx says the corralled water doesn’t even have to filter down to an aquifer to make this a useful practice. By lingering in the soil, it can help crops grow with reduced need for irrigation.

An urban version of this approach is cities’ increasing use of green infrastructure. Additions such as green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement and parks along river banks absorb stormwater, reducing flooding and to retain water locally for future supply.

Photo courtesy of John Marx from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo courtesy of John Marx from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency uses water from the Colorado River to replenish groundwater in the West Whitewater River sub basin in south-central California.

Water managers are also building large infiltration basins, such as Arizona’s 38-acre (15-hectare) Hieroglyphic Mountains Recharge facility, which stores Colorado River water for later use. Such basins are built above suitable geology for infiltration, typically a mix of sand, gravel and clay. But recharge basins can clog if the water has a lot of sediment and therefore need to be cleaned out periodically, warns Sterckx.

A more natural way to store water underground is to help creeks and rivers that have been engineered to stay within their banks to spread back out into their historic floodplains.

In an early example, local leaders in Los Gatos, California, built partial dams across a creek in the 1920s using burlap sacks filled with dirt to cause the water to slow down and spread out across flat areas adjacent to the creek. Today, inflatable dams are deployed in several northern and southern California counties to slow down rivers and streams during high flows to allow more infiltration in the natural channel, says Phillips.

The most industrial approach is to inject surplus water into the ground via a well or borehole. It’s more costly than passive methods because of the energy required. Nevertheless, it can be useful for moving water through a nonabsorbent clay layer into an aquifer below, or in places where there isn’t room for a spreading basin. This approach has been used in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico, says Alley.

This induced bank filtration plant in Mainz, Germany, draws water from the Rhine River and pulls it through the ground to cleanse it. Another MAR method is called induced bank filtration. People dig a well several tens of meters away from the river so the hydraulic pressure will attract water from the river, moving it through sand and silt, which have good filtration properties, says Sterckx. Germany and the Netherlands have a lot of these projects and typically use it as a pretreatment for drinking water. Hungary gets about half of its public supply this way, says Alley.


Despite the many benefits of MAR, there can be downsides as well. The main concern is pollution. Although putting water underground can clean it, in some cases, MAR can taint groundwater due to pollutants in the water or soil. “That’s why you need knowledge about aquifers, hydrogeology, the direction of the groundwater flow, the quality of water you’re infiltrating,” says Sterckx. “Otherwise you may have serious issues.”
Contaminants can come from urban runoff or from agriculture’s use of fertilizers and pesticides. Near Wichita, Kansas, says Alley, people have been pulling high flows from the Little Arkansas River to replenish the Equus Beds aquifers from which they draw their water. “They’ve had to deal with removing atrazine [an herbicide] from the water before they inject it.”

Other pollutants are naturally occurring, such as arsenic, which is found in Florida’s geology. When recharging water there, it’s possible to prevent groundwater contamination, but it’s complicated, says Alley. “In the Everglades they had this massive idea of managed aquifer recharge [to resupply water that had been over drained], and they haven’t followed through on that largely because of the chemistry problems with arsenic.”

In some cases, polluted groundwater can be diluted with recharged freshwater, cleaning it to a level where it is suitable for certain applications. In San Joaquin Valley, where some groundwater is polluted with nitrates from fertilizer, farmers measure the levels in the groundwater they’re pumping to irrigate their crops and reduce their fertilizer applications accordingly, a practice that could improve groundwater quality over time. Water can also be cleaned for drinking after being pumped from a well, although “it tends to be expensive,” says Phillips.

Recharging water for later use can also cause consternation over ownership. Getting access to water supply for recharge can be another issue. Although much water used to refill aquifers comes from wet season excesses, in some jurisdictions, it can be complicated due to legal or political considerations to get rights to that water or to ensure it’s of suitable quality, says Jim LaMoreaux, president of the U.S. branch of the International Association of Hydrogeologists.

Recharging water for later use can also cause consternation over ownership. Other people may pump out water that you inject, such as in El Paso and San Antonio, Texas, where, says Alley, it’s the “law of the biggest pump” — which essentially means that anyone can pump underground water if it lies beneath their property. That was the case until recently in California as well. But the state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act now requires water users in a watershed to work together to use their groundwater sustainably, a challenge that is motivating some districts to use MAR. They share the resource and are therefore accountable to each other.

Also, depending on the geology, some of the water moved underground can be “lost” to the wider environment. Accepting some loss requires a similar shift in thinking from an ownership mentality to one focused sustainability, in which recharging water supports ecosystem health, possibly requiring fewer human interventions to stave off collapse. And it’s worth stating again that above-ground reservoirs lose up to a quarter of stored water to evaporation, and sometimes have to release water to make room for big storms — so “loss” is already part of the status quo.

The world’s booming human population and our built environments are increasingly altering the natural water cycle. The impacts of those changes are exacerbated as climate chaos brings bigger floods and longer droughts. As one method to repair the water cycle, MAR will likely spread, especially as people learn from experience how to mitigate potential problems with the processes.

(Source: Ensia)

STAY COOL, DRINK WATER: Tyler Fire Department Releases Heat Plan For Summer
By Sue Necessary, June 23, 2019, KETX FOX 51

TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Summer in East Texas can be brutal – and dangerous.

According to information from the Tyler Fire Department, about 400 people die each year from exposure to heat due to weather conditions, and many more people die from health conditions that are made worse by exposure to excess heat.

In an effort to cut down those numbers, the Tyler Fire Department, Northeast Texas Public Health District and other public service agencies in Tyler and Smith County have released their 2019 “Heat Response Plan (PDF),” designed to provide the community with tips on avoiding heat-related injuries and illnesses.

The plan also provides resources available to the public, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly and the homeless, to avoid the heat.

The human body is engineered with a number of ways to cool itself. But, under the extreme conditions so familiar to East Texans – high temperatures coupled with high humidity that can last for what seems forever – those natural mechanisms may not always be enough.

In such cases, a person’s body temperature may rise rapidly. Very high body temperatures can cause severe damage to the brain, other vital organs and even death.

To guard against this, TFD’s Heat Plan offers some suggestions:

  • Stay indoors when possible, out of the heat and in cool surroundings. Fans can be useful, but alone may not be sufficient to ward against heat illnesses and injuries once temperatures rise above 90°F with high humidity. Air conditioning remains the best defense against and refuge from the heat.
  • Keep your body hydrated. Drink water. Drink a lot of water, and drink it frequently. Sports drinks can be good in moderation. But avoid alcohol, as it only worsens dehydration.
  • Stay out of the sun as much as possible. If you must be outdoors, try to stay out of direct sun, wear light weight, loose fitting clothing and consume at least 5-7 oz. of water every 20 minutes.
  • Check up on relatives and neighbors. The elderly and those who live in isolation are most vulnerable, especially if they don’t have air conditioning. Take a few minutes and make certain those who may have no one else are staying cool.
  • Do not leave children and pets in vehicles. Heat can build up rapidly. The chart below shows just how quickly the inside of a vehicle can turn deadly:

So, how do you know if you or someone near you is suffering from heat exposure? The TFD Heat Plan details these signs and symptoms:

Signs & Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness & fatigue
  • Cold, pale, clammy skin
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, blurred vision or fainting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Mood changes such as irritability or confusion

Signs & Symptoms of Heat Stroke:

  • Body temperature higher than 103°F
  • Sweating stops and skin is hot, dry and red
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Change in mental status (confused, passed out, slurred speech, inappropriate words)

The plan includes these tips if you suspect that you or someone near you has been overcome by heat:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Move to a cool shaded area or an air conditioned room
  • Loosen and/or remove clothing
  • Apply a water-soaked towel (or ice pack wrapped in a towel) to head and armpits
  • Give a small cup of water (only if conscious and not nauseous)

The Heat Plan also includes a comprehensive listing of shelters available both day and night where people can take refuge from the heat. Among them are locations common throughout East Texas – churches, movie theaters, malls and retail outlets, local fire departments, Salvation Army or Red Cross centers and public libraries.

City swimming pools and splash pads also are a good refuge. And for those communities that have them, senior centers and recreation centers can provide an escape from the heat, as do such public facilities as the Tyler Rose Garden Center.

Some facilities, such as local Red Cross or Salvation Army centers, may offer overnight shelter. Please take the time to research such options should they be needed for you or a loved one.

The best way to remain safe in the coming summer months is to be prepared, with plenty of water and appropriate clothing on hand; be aware of temperatures, of your time spent exposed to heat, of available shelters and of people near you who may be especially vulnerable; and be informed about the signs and symptoms of heat illness, first aid treatment for such illnesses and who to call in an emergency.

Summer in East Texas can be a wonderful time for recreation, family fun and holiday outings. It can also be dangerous. But with knowledge, preparation and care, we can all get our lawns mowed, hit the lakes, the parks or just those back yard barbecues and safely enjoy the many opportunities for fun and relaxation offered in our region.

(Source: KETK FOX 51)

Disaster City Sees Storm Warnings Every Day
By David Montgomery, June 25, 2019 Stateline Article

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — 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.

Instructor Richard Wier, left, advises New Jersey Transit Police Officer Juan Guallpa as he works to secure a dangling 1,200-pound concrete slab in Disaster City, a training site for first responders at Texas A&M University in College Station. (Pew)

Instructor Richard Wier, left, advises New Jersey Transit Police Officer Juan Guallpa as he works to secure a dangling 1,200-pound concrete slab in Disaster City, a training site for first responders at Texas A&M University in College Station. (Pew)

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.

A concrete beam sits atop a school bus in Disaster City, College Station, Texas. (Pew)

A concrete beam sits atop a school bus in Disaster City, College Station, Texas. (Pew)

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.”

(Source: PEW)

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