Masters of Disasters

Billy Parker gazes at the wreckage and devastation. An underground explosion has "pancaked" a multi-story government building into a veritable concrete layer cake. Cars are crumpled like soda cans between gigantic concrete slabs, once separate floors of the building. A crushed brown Pontiac's bumper sticker aptly states, "I'd rather be camping." Surveying the destruction, Parker, a former firefighter and paramedic, is inscrutable.

This is Disaster City, where he works. A 52-acre mock town in College Station, Texas, it is a sprawling, purpose-built, search-and-rescue training facility with concrete rubble piles and an impressive array of life-sized, collapsible structures that include a cinema and strip mall. Inside the shell of an office complex, an eerie labyrinth of debris-ridden hallways leads to a space where upturned metal desks are strewn like children's playthings. Outside, derailed and mangled train carriages - donated by Amtrak in return for training - are rigged to simulate hazardous liquid spills by leaking water.

Disaster City is operated by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) and Texas A&M University. Here, experts such as 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-and-rescue guru, internationally known in his field, Parker is incredibly unassuming. A 28‑year veteran of TEEX, he is also Disaster City's Urban Search & Rescue program director. On this particular day, he is working a practice exercise with a five-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.

After 9/11, Parker was one of 74 TX‑TF1 members deployed to Ground Zero. After 2005's devastating hurricane season, he led 41 water strike team members into New Orleans, directing the rescue of about 13,000 victims. They plucked people from rooftops, apartment buildings and nursing homes. They also helped 147 patients leave University Hospital, many with chest and trachea tubes attached.

Today's mock scenario: a terrorist's bomb has collapsed a government building and parking garage, trapping people and cars. In a real attack, emergency responders would have no clue if they were dealing with terrorism or some other catastrophe. The squad is told only that there has been an explosion. Either way, the response strategies are remarkably similar.

They are in Building 133, which embodies simulations of four historic disasters. The collapsed concrete floors were modeled on the World Trade Center's underground parking garage after Islamic terrorists bombed it in 1993. Two damaged, circular concrete columns replicate 9/11 damage at the Pentagon. A steep, concrete ravine between two connected floors mirrors Mexico City's massive 1985 earthquake that separated outside walls from buildings.

Lastly, a 100‑square-foot hanging concrete slab replicates part of the Alfred R. Murrah building's roof that dangled precariously after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. While it didn't fall, it suggested a good training opportunity to Urban Search & Rescue 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.

In this exercise, the squad is focused on Building 133's collapsed concrete floors. They start with general reconnaissance and take readings to check for toxic spills, noxious fumes or dangerous chemicals. Once the air tests clear, work can begin, but pockets of danger can form in confined spaces, so they will test repeatedly. Parker, squad leader Brett Dixon and a couple of rescue specialists ease their frames into a shallow space between two enormous slabs of concrete edged with jagged rebar.
They must 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 further collapse, or endanger an unseen victim above, they move slowly and meticulously. Parker warns everyone to stay vigilant for any new fractures or ominous sounds from the building.

Searches are safest when worked from the bottom up. "Typically, we like to shore our way in for protection," Parker explains. Here, aluminum hydraulic shoring is put in place to stabilize the concrete. They then drill a tiny inspection hole, through which they can snake up the probe of an atmospheric monitor to check for combustible vapors and high concentrations of carbon monoxide. All clear.

The team inserts a specialized camera through the inspection hole to do a 360-degree sweep above. They visually assess the structural damage and spot one conscious but injured victim. The search team will have to go in. Reassured that no one is directly above the drill spot, they move faster to enlarge the hole.

Lying on his back, Dixon braces his feet on the concrete above to help him support a 45‑pound jackhammer, and drills upward. An oxygen/acetylene torch burns out the rebar, which falls away like broken jail bars. Entering the floor above, the team shores again for safety. Then, with the rescue route finally clear, the victim is removed and the exercise is completed.

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

Parker, a Texan in his mid‑50s, exudes a quiet, inner confidence. He's built it up over time. He started by working weather disasters such as tornadoes. In 1999, tragedy hit close to home when a bonfire built by Texas A&M students collapsed, killing 12. Yet Parker isn't haunted by all he's seen. He calls himself "the ultimate optimist."

A devoted husband and father, he's also a man of strong faith, and immediately after he got his first fire and paramedic certifications, he knew he'd found his calling. "Obviously, God's been very good to me, 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," he says.

Calm and responsible, Parker admits being an adrenaline junkie. "I like the big incidents, 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."

In the thick of a crisis, Parker finds it helpful to stay emotionally detached. "I stay pretty focused on what I call ‘in the zone' on an adrenaline high," he says. "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 response team found remains from all seven astronauts in just nine days. "The rewards aren't always finding somebody alive," he says. "Sometimes it's giving family members the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones."

Training Globally. The expertise of Parker, McKee, Dixon and their roster of top-notch colleagues help police, SWAT teams, firefighters, military, medical staff and other groups learn to manage crises at Disaster City. They come from all over the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Some responders have specific interests. "We will custom-tailor a training scenario and emergency plan accordingly," McKee says.

Brian Locke, director of Operational Preparedness & Resilience at the U.K.'s Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service is a six-time visitor to Disaster City. "Terrorism is a threat that hangs over everybody these days," he says. He wanted his staff to experience Disaster City and to learn from instructors "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 search-and-rescue teams. The climax of each course is a final, full-blown, real-time exercise, after which participants are given feedback on their performances. It's the complex, final Operation Readiness exercise that really sold Giachino.

"Wow, is that valuable," Giachino says. "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 communication systems at home, along with more search-and-rescue canines. "Although there's some very sophisticated acoustic and seismic equipment, it's just so time-intensive to canvass an area," he says. "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 about debris and rubble at Disaster City. Administrators and supervisors come to hone their incident management, resource coordination and information-management skills. The state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Training Center (EOTC) is a 14,000-square-foot incident command post that McKee proudly calls "eye candy at its best." From this logistics and planning hub, operations staff can control scenarios happening outside.

EOTC director and Army retiree David Nock also emphasizes 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 says.

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 OK," Nock says.

A special bond exists among those who work or volunteer to perform dangerous search-and-rescue missions. "It's a family within a family," Parker says. "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."

Learning from the Past. Everything changed in the search-and-rescue world after 9/11; simply put, funding for exercises 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, teams carry generators, fuel, medicines, cardiac monitors, hazardous material gear, gas-detection tubes and more.

Because disasters are chaotic and dynamic affairs, communication is critical. The 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina exposed the need for overhaul in that area, and things have improved. "We're all talking the same language," Parker observes. As for McKee, he's most excited by wireless technologies and advances in personal tracking and locator devices.

Since 9/11, many rescue teams have invested in radiation monitors and personal protective equipment. Many 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 may be used once a decade, when you could buy a few badly needed $10,000 boats for the inevitable flood?

Parker makes the point that no amount of equipment can substitute for preparation "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."

Sue Russell is a writer living in California.