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Training prepares firefighters for disaster

Capt. Bruce Bennett, left, Justin Rash, center, and Lt. Ricky Thompson with the Albany Fire Department were among eight firefighters who participated in a 12-hour disaster training session at the Guardian Center near Perry recently. The three-day event was sponsored and attended by the U.S. Marine Corps, which invited members of the Georgia Search and Rescue from around the state to participate. (Jim West)

Capt. Bruce Bennett, left, Justin Rash, center, and Lt. Ricky Thompson with the Albany Fire Department were among eight firefighters who participated in a 12-hour disaster training session at the Guardian Center near Perry recently. The three-day event was sponsored and attended by the U.S. Marine Corps, which invited members of the Georgia Search and Rescue from around the state to participate. (Jim West)

ALBANY — A select group of Albany firefighters returned recently from a simulated emergency that everyone hopes will never happen here.

Eight members of the Albany Fire Department recently took part in a large-scale, ultra-realistic, staged disaster at the Guardian Center near Perry. The team was joined by other public safety personnel of the Georgia Search and Rescue Task Force II, including representatives from Valdosta, Leesburg and Thomasville. Members of other GSAR task forces were also represented.

In the disaster scenario, terrorists had detonated explosive devices within the “city” and coordinated search and rescue teams were assigned to various tasks and locations. Some of the members of the AFD were assigned to shore up a collapsed building and to rescue victims — live role players — who were “trapped” inside. Over the three-day operation, each participating team would have a 12-hour time slot in which to accomplish its assigned task.

As a part of the game, firefighters were starting with a substantial sleep deficit. It had been raining, and in their heavy long-sleeved shirts, boots, gloves and breathing gear, they made their way into the shattered building they’d been assigned. It was wet inside, firefighters said, and dark — the only light from lamps atop their helmets.

“It was hard to tell where we were,” said Capt. Bruce Bennett with AFD. “Everything was wet. Rocks or broken concrete would move under our feet. We had to monitor for gas to make sure the voids were safe for us to go into.”

Only four of the nine-member team on that assignment could enter the building at any one time, the firefighters said, to work three separate “holes” in the structure. The objective was to safely locate victims, tie them with ropes, then extricate them from the structure.

The victims called to them from the darkness, but rescue would have to wait. First, the structure would have to be shored.

“We started out with metal shores,” said Lt. Ricky Thompson with the AFD. “But when the allotment ran out we had to go to the cutting table and make them out of wood. It wasn’t easy.”

The idea behind the exercise, firefighters say, was to demonstrate a severe disaster situation as realistically as possible. That means long hours of exhausting work in a constantly changing environment. Guardian evaluators never let the rescue teams stay too long in a comfortable straight line.

“Just when we’d think we were making progress, an evaluator would say, ‘OK, now the building has shifted or this overhang has changed. This is what you have to do now.’” But that’s the real world. You have to adapt.

According to the firefighters, lessons of safety could be harshly administered by Guardian evaluators, who were known to bestow a virtual “death” upon a disaster participant.

“They could just come up and say, ‘You’re dead,’” said Justin Rash, a driver with the AFD. “Then you’re out of the action and the other team members have to do the job without you. That’s realistic.”

None of the Task Force II members “died” that Sunday, firefighters said.

Participants in the feigned disaster say that to make their rescues, they had to listen closely for sounds made by the role players, then often having to break through heavy slabs of concrete reinforced with rebar. Special cameras were utilized to peer into potentially dangerous or obscured areas. In some cases, water had to be pumped away.

“Some of the victims were ambulatory and some were not,” Bennett said. “We had to make decisions on what to do with each victim, based on the information we had. Evaluators determined if we’d made the right decisions.”

“You might think these things won’t happen in Albany,” said Fire Chief James Carswell, “but it happened in Oklahoma City. A building collapsed and people were trapped at all different levels. Water lines broke, gas lines broke and rescuers had to improvise. We could have a tornado or a bombing and see the kind of structural damage where we would have to go in and do some of these things. We can’t control any of that, but what we can control is the training we receive in advance.”

According to Carswell, the three-day event at the 75-acre Guardian Center included GSAR units from all over Georgia, with the roughly $1.4 million tab paid for by the U.S. Marine Corps. Members of the Marine Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives (CBRNE) unit of Indian Head, Md., reserved the training facility and invited GSCAR to participate in support, Carswell said.