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Mountain Tunnel Prepares Responders to Save Lives 


By Harold Kennedy 

The scene: A woman and a man lie on the floor of a poorly lit subway station, victims of a terrorist bomb. Think London or Madrid. Slowly, from a hole in the ceiling above, two rescuers are lowered by rope to render first aid and to lift them to safety.

The event is just a training exercise at West Virginia’s Center for National Response, located in the mountains just outside of Charleston, the state’s capital. The casualties are locally hired role-players, and the rescuers are members of the U.S. Army’s Wolf Pack Platoon, part of the Military District of Washington’s Engineer Company at Fort Belvoir, Va.

“We’re here for a week of training,” said the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Von Gretchen Beard. “I have a lot of new soldiers, and they have learned a lot.”

The center is the showpiece of the West Virginia National Guard’s emerging network of military and homeland-security training facilities. Azimuth Inc., of Morgantown, W. Va., has operated it since June under a five-year contract worth up to $20 million. The center does not charge other agencies for use of its facilities, said a Guard spokesman, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Michael K. Pitzer. “All they have to do is show up,” he said.

Another training site is Camp Dawson, located near Morgantown in the northern part of the state. With more than 4,000 acres, it accommodates military units of any size, from platoons to brigades, from all services, active-duty as well as National Guard and Reserves.

Dawson offers several bivouac sites, a 40-foot rappelling tower, helicopter landing zones, small-arms ranges, an enemy prisoner-of-war compound, a mock third-world village and other vacant buildings that are used by military police, engineers, special operations forces and FBI hostage-rescue teams.

It also features an abandoned manganese factory—with a full set of vats and other industrial equipment—which is used for decontamination training, Pitzer said.

Bridgeport, W. Va., just off Interstate Highway 79 near Clarksburg, is home to the Fixed Wing Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. It provides flight lessons, using both in-air flying time and simulators, to aircrews of the C-12 Huron, C-23 Sherpa and C-26 Metroliner transports flown by the Army Guard.

In southern West Virginia, the Guard is assembling a vast, 46,000-acre range for live-fire, urban-combat training, complete with its own airport and control tower, said the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Allen E. Tackett. The range is expected to be ready within two to three years, he added.

“It could be used by regular military units, special operations forces or civilian law enforcement and first responders for consequence management exercises,” Tackett said.

The Center for National Response is a 2,800-foot-long highway tunnel that was a part of the West Virginia Turnpike until 1987, when it was bypassed by Interstate Highway 64/77. After the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo, Tackett recognized the tunnel’s potential as a training site for first responders.

“Before 9/11, people thought I was a fool,” Tackett said. “They thought, ‘why do we need a tunnel.’” Since then, he said, opinions have changed.

The tunnel contains seven major training venues equipped to expose trainees to a variety of scenarios, including:

The tunnel is strewn with surplus, abandoned automobiles that can be populated with dummies or live role-players. The cars, considered expendable, often are cut up with blowtorches to rescue make-believe victims.

To make the training as realistic as possible, the tunnel’s floor is often littered with artificial human body parts and sometimes real animal remains.

“What I was trying to put together was scenario-driven training that would be more difficult than first responders were likely to encounter in real life,” Tackett said. “If they can work in that tunnel, they can work anywhere.”

The tunnel attracts more than 7,500 first responders, Red Cross workers, law enforcement officers, National Guardsmen, special operators and other military personnel from as far away as New York, Atlanta and Seattle and from such countries as the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

The facility “is unique,” said the center’s deputy director Ronald E. Thomure. “There’s nothinglike it anywhere in the United States, or for that matter, in the world.”

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