If you drive on West Virginia’s Interstate-77, halfway between
Charleston and Beckley, and blink one too many times, you may miss
it. But local politicians and proponents of U.S. homeland defense
know it’s there—the West Virginia Memorial Tunnel. The
tunnel is now a training site for local, state and federal agencies
preparing to handle terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
The tunnel, built in 1953 as part of the West Virginia Turnpike,
was permanently closed when I-77 opened between Beckley and Charleston
in 1987. The Federal Highway Administration used the facility in
the mid-1990s as a test facility for ventilation of smoke from tunnel
fires. Four years ago, the tunnel became a storage site for the
West Virginia Turnpike.
To turn the tunnel into a training facility, Congress appropriated
$5 million in fiscal 2001, and $3 million in 2000. One of the program’s
biggest supporters is Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
The contractor who won a competition to transform the tunnel into
a training site is Research Planning, Inc. (RPI). Program manager
Mel Wick estimated that RPI would need a total of $27.3 million
to make the tunnel fully operational. After that, he noted, it will
cost $5 million a year to sustain the facility and run the training.
The project was criticized as pork-barrel spending by some members
of Congress, notably Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But Byrd said the
tunnel meets a legitimate counter-terrorism need. It will allow
“military tacticians the opportunity to test new strategies
and techniques to respond to terrorists that may attack American
targets,” said Byrd.
Ted Kramer, the deputy project manager for RPI, said the company
broke down the project into six phases. Phase one through five include
research and development of training scenarios, as well as turning
the tunnel into a functional training facility. The sixth phase
begins after the facility—called the Center for National Response—is
completed, and it will address its long-term maintenance.
“There’s no other place in the country where you can
go in to this kind of an environment, and do this kind of training,”
said Kramer. “There have been some above-ground buildings
with their interiors designed to replicate the inside of tunnels.
It’s just not the same. You walk in and say, ‘Oh, this
is a building, and now I have a small tunnel to work through, but
it’s still in a building.’”
According to RPI, the tunnel was 99 percent ready for training
in May, although it already has hosted several training sessions.
South Charleston Fire Chief C.W. Sigman brought his team for training
in the tunnel, and said the feeling of “reality” considerably
adds to the training for first responders. “It does a really
good job of putting you in a restricted area ... where you have
scarce conditions,” he said.
Inside the tunnel, a row of dim lights reveals a two-lane, 2,800
foot-long highway. But before too long, it begins to look like a
subway or railway tunnel with real cars on the tracks. There also
are trailers, where residents could be harboring illicit drug operations,
and areas swamped with rubble.
The training environments can be adapted to specific customer needs—to
rehearse scenarios such as subway poison-gas attacks or underground
explosions. RPI has built in a subway mezzanine and platform, laid
rubble props and an 18-wheel tanker truck loaded with simulated
hazardous materials. A 120-foot wide, 3-foot-high passageway has
been designed to train first responders to operate in confined spaces.
A National Guard team from Illinois already has trained in the
tunnel, while West Virginia local firefighters come there regularly
for weekend exercises.
“Other training areas are good about training the individual,
but we need a place where teams can train and act like it is a real
incident,” said Sigman. In April, his firefighter teams participated
in a joint exercise with the West Virginia Red Cross and a Dow Chemical
Reponse Team, simulating a chlorine gas sabotage act. “We
need to improve our response capabilities. [The tunnel] gives us
another facility [where] we are out of the public eye, and we can
do the things we need to do without scaring the public.”
The only drawback to the tunnel, Sigman found, is that it doesn’t
have any classroom facilities or break-out rooms where teams can
revise the exercises.
“In here, you have different air, you have different lights,
a different sound, and that adds something to the training, “
explained Kramer. “And when you put them in a Level-A [protective]
suit, with a breathing bottle on the inside, because they are encapsulated,
and when you say ‘go find somebody in this rubble scene, take
your meters of air quality and other instruments, they look down
there and say, ‘Damn, it’s a long way.’”
As the trainees bring out a casualty, Kramer noted, “the
adrenaline starts to kick in, and they know that this could be for
real. In this environment, dark and closed, it makes a difference.”
To create this site, RPI “had to turn the tunnel back to
life,” said Kramer. Of $25 million worth of testing equipment
that had been stored in the tunnel, nothing was salvageable or commercially
re-sellable. The contractor had to replace the lights, which were
mostly burnt out; tear off the insulation on the walls, and clean
out the burnt walls. At this time, the tunnel still has no running
water and no sewage system. “A lot of money will have to go
toward that,” said Wick. He also mentioned that the electrical
renovation cost $1.2 million.
The refurbishing of the tunnel has been a boon to West Virginians.
The clean-up, mezzanine prop set, lights, trailer rentals have all
been supplied by local contractors. All nine RPI representatives
onsite are from West Virginia. After being told that there are no
weapons and hazardous materials tested in the tunnel, the local
residents, according to Kramer, seemed to be enthusiastic about
new activities going on in their usually quiet neighborhood.
While the tunnel is still the property of the West Virginia Highway
Authority, it will be turned over to the National Guard.
To RPI’s Kramer, that makes sense, “because it is federal
money, and every car, every truck, every piece of glass that we
buy is actually federal property, and it makes that whole arena
a lot cleaner.”
The decision to making the tunnel a National Guard asset is not
Amy Smithson, of the Henry L. Stimson Center, said the West Virginia
training site is a redundant capability, because a facility for
anti-terrorism training already exists elsewhere in the United States.
The Justice Department, she said, has opened a live training facility
at a former Army base, in Fort McClellan, Ala. So why, Smithson
asked, “is the National Guard building another training boot
camp in West Virginia?”
The taxpayers, she said, “can rightfully question whether
preparedness has taken a backseat to political favors.”
In an October 2000 study, Smithson recommended that anti-terrorism
training for first responders be handed by local and state academies,
as well as by nursing and medical schools.
“It’s all a fight about territory,” said a law-enforcement
official who attended a recent conference on homeland defense in
Washington, DC. The source, asking not to be quoted by name, said
the government is “working its way down” with the training,
starting with the National Guard and federal agencies. “It
will take some time until it gets to the locals.” For many
agencies, the source said, Fort McClellan is too far away and many
cannot afford to travel there. But for those within a five-hour
radius of West Virginia, the tunnel would be more accessible.
A more important consideration than the location is the uniformity
of training standards, said Albert J. Mauroni, a policy analyst
for Analytical Services, Inc. in Arlington, Va. “What we have
to guard against is having too many of these [weapons of mass destruction]
training sites,” he said. “We are going to be at different
levels of proficiency.”
Mauroni has first-hand experience working at the Fort McClellan
facility. That site is useful, he said, but it can’t fulfill
every need. “There are a series of rooms, you know you have
live-agents all around you, it gives you experience with the equipment,
but that doesn’t simulate what is going to happen in a subway.”
The tunnel facility, said Mauroni, can test how proficiently first-responder
teams work together. “You need both. As long there’s
a coordinated national effort,” he said. It would be wasteful
for Fort McClellan to build an underground site and for the Memorial
Tunnel to add live-agent training. It would duplicate efforts and
create different standards instead of having one national standard
provided by the two training centers, said Mauroni. “It would
be overkill, pardon the pun.”
It takes RPI several months to put together a comprehensive training
program, based on the needs of a particular agency, said Kramer.
Even for the local firefighters who come for a weekend, preparation
can take several weeks.
So far, RPI hasn’t charged any user fees to trainees for
using the tunnel, and according to Wick, the company hopes that
training in the tunnel will be free of charge. But that all depends
on the funding provided by Congress. Without public funds, the company
will have to charge user fees. The company declined to provide specific
numbers. Wick said he hopes the training facility will be incorporated
into the Justice Department’s homeland defense program.
At press time, there were no training drills scheduled at the tunnel
beyond July, but Kramer said that RPI has received inquiries from
the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental
Protection Agency. “We have a lot of open training dates in
the future,” said Kramer.