W.Va. Training Tunnel Takes Disaster Prep to New Level

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CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- As recently witnessed with Hurricane Sandy, it is crucial that first responders act fast and work together.

Learning to work as an effective team takes preparation and practice.

CBN News went underground in West Virginia to see that training at work.

First Responders Boot Camp

A terrorist event unfolds in a crowded subway. Dead and wounded litter the station while rescuers rush in to help. Fortunately, this is only an exercise.

But for the trainers in this scenario, it doesn't feel that way.

First responders from around the nation travelled to the mountains of West Virginia to go underground.

"We will take units from throughout the country, self-support teams, civilian first responders, we will tailor exercises to what their commanders need, whether it be a drug laboratory, a collapsed parking structure for search and extraction purposes, and collapsed structures outside as well," Major Bill Anning, with the Center for National Response, said.

A tunnel that was once a part of the state turnpike now serves a new purpose: taking disaster preparedness to a whole new level.

"We can make it high noon or we can make it midnight. We can have flame bars in here; we can have smoke and the echo in the tunnel adds to the realism," Anning said. "You'll have jackhammers, you'll have sawing; you'll have people crying for help."

Subway 'Terror' Attack

One exercise simulated a terror attack on a subway train. Locals from the area served as victims. The training unit came all the way from Portland, Ore.

"A response like this in this type of a scenario - that's very rare," Sgt. Mike Unsworth, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, told CBN News. "That's why we travel from Portland to West Virginia to do it."

"We train routinely, but you do not get a tunnel environment in which you can put a railcar and smoke and victims and control the environment like they've done here," he explained.

"Our job was to come in and do a sweep of the scene and locate devices and render them safe or determine if we can work around them," Portland Police Bureau's Sgt. Tim Musgrove said. "The first thing we're doing is trying to get those folks out of harm's way while our EOD guy, Sgt. Unsworth here, renders them safe."

A major car pile-up would be a nightmare scenario that would see various agencies converging on the scene. If they had never worked together before, they might not be able to work together effectively.

That's why the training they do in West Virginia is so important.

"These are the guys that are going to respond; these are the people that are going to show up after the first responders are there and they ask for assistance," Col. Randall Isle, with the Joint Inter-Agency Training and Education Center, said.

"These are going to be the heavy lifters," he continued. "They're the guys who bring the big equipment. They bring the personnel that's needed to do a very large event."

Never Too Prepared

Emergency workers come from far and wide because they are not going to get this type of realism anywhere else.

"This is the first time in a long time that we've actually had live actors and I think the live actors provide a sense of realism and urgency," Sgt. Leanee Raina, with the Portland Police Bureau Emergency Management Unit, said.

"We hope we never have to use this," Raina added. "But the more prepared we are the better we are in case something happens."

The military gets lots of use out of the tunnel as well. U.S. Marines conducted training in a simulated drug lab.

Special operations also come from around the country to train in a specially constructed cave complex, which is built to look just like the ones in Afghanistan, and it doesn't get more realistic than this.

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Chuck Holton

Chuck Holton

CBN News Reporter

Chuck Holton has been producing high-octane features and news for CBN since 2003. He has freelance reported from nearly all of the world's hot spots, including Afghanistan, Burma, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.