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Emergency Response Program Prepares Trainees for the Worst - 2002-09-17

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States last year, U.S. officials have augmented emergency response programs, in order to be ready for any future terrorism-related disasters. A national training center at College Station, Texas, is preparing firefighters, police officers, medical personnel and other so-called "first responders" for the worst case scenarios.

With a supervisor watching them closely and barking out orders, the trainees learn how to operate smoothly as a team and how to face some of the most horrendous situations imaginable. These include fires, bombings, chemical and biological attacks and even nuclear weapon attacks.

The training site provides hands-on experience with collapsed buildings, wrecked trains, burning factories and a variety of other disaster scenes. It is what one trainer calls "Disneyland for firefighters."

This site, operated by Texas A&M University, began as a training ground strictly for Texas firefighters, nearly a hundred years ago. But it has expanded over the years, and is now used by the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center, which is headquartered nearby. The program is backed by federal funds, and the training is available to emergency response agencies from all over the United States.

"In a little over three years, we have trained over 30,500 first-responders, either from here or across the country, from over 1,900 cities from all 50 states and the territories," James Thyne, director of operations and training said. "About seven or eight major disciplines: fire, hazardous materials, emergency medical technician, public works community, emergency management, medical facilities..."

Since the attacks in September of last year, programs designed to prepare emergency personnel for a variety of awful scenarios have expanded.

The man in charge of the overall program, G. Kemble Bennett, says the training provided here has helped put the United States in a much better position to respond to acts of terrorism, but more needs to be done.

"There is still a lot of work to do," Mr. Bennett said. "Do I feel comfortable that, if this nation is hit we will have a good response? Yes, I do. But do I feel that we are there where we need to be? No, we are not."

He says there are still millions of emergency and rescue personnel around the nation who need to be trained. Mr. Bennett says the federal government has recognized this need, and that, since September of last year, has increased funding for such training.

"If I look at our funding levels today, we are probably a factor of two-to-three times where our funding level was in 9-11 (September of 2001)." he said. "We have jumped up two and a half to three times, somewhere in that area, in our total funding. We are tripling the number of people we are training because of the funding."

Among the courses offered at the National Emergency Response and Training Center is one dealing with the effects of weapons of mass destruction, including radiation from a nuclear explosion. Trainers say that, as horrifying as such an event might be, it is crucial that response teams and agencies in the areas nearby be ready to go into action to help survivors.

Many of the trainers who work here have had real-life experience in such places as Oklahoma City, after the bombing there in 1995, and in New York after the World Trade Center attack. Trainer Billy Parker says organizers have designed the program to provide trainees with a wide variety of experience, based on situations encountered at real disaster sites.

"Structural collapse, confined space… It is well-rounded," Mr. Parker said. "It is a little bit of everything. It gives them a good general knowledge or awareness knowledge, in some cases, and operations level training in other."

Mr. Parker says it is also important for experienced trainers to prepare trainees psychologically for the kind of horrors they may face in a disaster zone.

"Our recruit academy starts with these people, I call them kids, but they are 18 to 25 years old, and looking for a rewarding job," Mr. Parker explained. "They have no clue, no experiences whatsoever in emergency services, or in seeing the type of disasters of the nature we are seeing nowadays. So, it is really our job to prepare them, both physically and mentally, to handle the job on a daily basis."

Trainers say it may not be possible to prevent all future terrorist attacks, but by being prepared to respond to them, the nation can reduce their impact and save many lives.