Management & Operations

Railcar plays role in emergency training

Posted on May 29, 2007 by Ernest H. Robl

When retired in 2000, Boston’s Green Line subway car 3541, a Boeing-Vetrol LRV, was buried deep inside a West Virginia mountain. On an almost daily basis, it plays a part in a staged performance filled with screaming victims and thick smoke intended to help train first responders in the event of an emergency. In full protective gear, these responders check the subway car’s interior not only for casualties, but also any lingering biological, chemical or radiological agents that may have been part of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack. Though it no longer sees the light of day, the car has become one of the most important "props" at the Center for National Response (CNR), a joint training facility for military and civilian emergency responders.

The tunnel became a homeland security training site in 2000-2001, with the former Boston car placed inside. The federally funded site is owned by the West Virginia National Guard. A contractor manages the civilian training staff.

The facility even has an area simulating a subway station, complete with turnstiles, allowing responders to practice getting bulky emergency equipment past such obstacles. While the former Boston car is not a perfect stand-in for all transit equipment, it allows responders to become familiar with searching such vehicles in zero visibility.

Emergency responders training together in the tunnel have included members of the San Francisco Fire Department, a WMD military Civil Support Team (CST) from the San Francisco bay area, and representatives of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART). WMD CSTs are elite military units with high-tech gear tasked with surveying the scene of a WMD attack or other mass casualty event and then coordinating military and civilian responses. "I need this place," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey D. Smiley, commander of the 95th CST (WMD) from California. "We’re simulating a BART incident and we can’t do that on BART itself."

During one training scenario, an entry team from the CST went in first to evaluate the situation and to check for lingering hazards and was then followed by firefighters who treated and evacuated casualties. Though the smoke filling the tunnel was of the non-toxic theatrical stage-effect type, all participants wore full protective and breathing gear and had to operate in total darkness, working around debris in the tunnel. The smoke, whose density can be controlled, can simulate either smoke from a fire or dust clouds following an explosion or building collapse. As with most training scenarios in the tunnel, role players depicted walking wounded, while dummies portrayed serious casualties, often buried under debris.

Even knowing that this is a training exercise, being far inside a dark, smoke-filled tunnel is eerie. Staff report that emergency responders who had been at the 9/11 New York attacks found the setting so realistic that they suffered flashbacks.

After each exercise, responder supervisors and CNR training staff evaluate participants. Then, the scenes inside the tunnel are reset for yet another exercise and another group of emergency responders. Transit systems interested in training at the CNR should contact their state’s CST (WMD) through the state adjutant general. More information about the CNR can be found at www.centerfornationalresponse.com.

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