Tunnel Visions

Inside the Memorial Tunnel in West Virginia, the smoke was so thick that even the beams of the strong helmet-mounted and hand-held lights penetrated only a foot or two. Low air and motion detector alarms would occasionally bleat out their calls, mixed with the heavy breathing of men wearing full face masks and the scrapingsounds of equipment being dragged along the tunnel floor.
In other words: A perfectly normal situation.
The Memorial Tunnel, once part of the West Virginia Turnpike and abandoned when the highway was four-laned on a slightly different alignment, now has a new role — training emergency responders in subterranean search and rescue, and particularly response to mass casualty events in tunnels or other confined spaces.
Operating as the Center for National Response (CNR), a federally funded site owned by the West Virginia National Guard and managed by Azimuth Inc., Morganton, W.Va., in a contract with the federal government, the facility at the end of an undistinguished, winding mountain road has become particularly important to the nation’s primary links between civilian and military emergency responders—the Civil Support Teams (CSTs) who deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
History
Memorial Tunnel, opened in 1954 (and the first tunnel in the United States to be monitored by closed-circuit television), was abandoned in 1987, when the new four-lane Interstate highway opened. The surrounding area was turned over to the West Virginia National Guard for possible training use.
But West Virginia’s Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, saw even bigger possibilities for the site. Working with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to secure dedicated federal funding, the two proposed converting the site into a joint training center for homeland security.
Early work at the site began in 2000 following an initial allocation of $5 million in federal funds.
The CNR in Kanawha County works closely with the West Virginia National Guard’s Camp Dawson in Preston County (near the Pennsylvania border), which has been also been designated as a National Guard Joint Training Center for homeland security.
The CNR Memorial Tunnel site is located just off the current I-77, about halfway between Charleston and Beckley, W.Va.
Filling the gap
“The CNR and the people who train here fill the gap between civilian and military response,” said Michael Pitzer, a retired US Air Force officer handling public affairs for the CNR.
CSTs are unique military units whose 22 team members consist of full-time National Guard soldiers and airmen trained specifically to respond to homeland attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. The teams are federally funded, but normally report to a state’s adjutant general, the commander of the National Guard for that state.
The CSTs work with local responders at the scenes of confirmed or suspected WMD incidents to assess and then deal with the situation.
Though the concept of the CSTs began before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, developments since that time have given these units new significance and taught them new lessons. And many of these lessons are applied and practiced at the West Virginia site, which tries to present the most realistic scenarios possible, short of an actual disaster.
Wreckage and casualties
Though the smoke is an artificial, non-toxic theatrical effect, almost everything else is the real thing.
Currently, the tunnel is filled with wrecked 18-wheelers (a tanker truck and a box cargo truck whose lading has spilled out), dozens of wrecked cars and even a retired subway car (on a section of rail laid inside the tunnel). The subway car is accompanied by a scene set up as a subway station, complete with turnstiles, which represent an impediment for responders trying to access a site with bulky equipment.
Casualties are supplied, too, with the walking wounded portrayed by role-players who cry out for assistance—and more serious casualties depicted with dummies.
True to their intended role, CST members typically train together with emergency responders from their area.
For example, in mid-August, the 95th CST came cross-country from its home in the San Francisco Bay area of California, bringing along representatives of both the San Francisco Fire Department and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, the extensive subway system of that region.
Many of the 95th CST’s practice scenarios focused on dealing with incidents in a subway tunnel—from assessing the nature of an incident to decontaminating victims and emergency responders.
The 95th brought not only its 22-member compliment, but also about a dozen highly customized vehicles crammed with the latest in rescue, analytical and communication gear.
Filling a need
“I need this place,” said Lieut. Col. Jeffrey D. Smiley, commander of the 95th CST. “We’re simulating a BART incident. And we can’t do that on BART itself.”
Scenarios for Smiley’s team included searching the subway car inside the tunnel for victims and additional hazards.
He noted that not only do most transit systems operate 24 hours a day (performing track and equipment maintenance during times that they are not actually running trains) but on BART, “We cannot create and control the conditions we need to accomplish our training.”
In describing scenarios that his CST had been practicing, Smiley came back again and again to the importance of being able to control the environment.
The team commander noted that he was a strong believer in the Army’s “crawl, walk, run” progressive system of training. The first day at the site, the team had run scenarios that did not require protective gear and had full lighting in the tunnel. The second day, the team started using protective gear, with reduced lighting. By the third day, the team was working in total darkness in a dense smoke environment—with full protective gear.
Communicating
One of the bitter lessons of recent mass casualty incidents has been that emergency responders were unable to talk to each other because of differing equipment requiring different frequencies. The 95th’s communication trucks can monitor and transmit on all major frequencies used by emergency responders and military units. Not only that, but the trucks are also equipped to tie into local phone lines and set up local computer networks so that data can be shared quickly.
If local communications are disrupted, the teams have access to both civilian and military satellite communications.
For example, during training in Memorial Tunnel, the 95th ran cables into the tunnels and set up repeater antennas inside to deal with the fact that radios carried by both team members and other responders would normally have difficulty communicating with units on the surface.
Each CST carries not only detection equipment that can identify and measure thousands of chemical, biological and radioactive agents but it also has a science officer on staff who helps interpret data from the detection equipment and the unit’s entry teams that go into a disaster site first to assess the situation.
But what set the CNR site apart from other military and civilian training sites are both its realism and its controllable environment. The tunnel has a range of lighting that can be set for full or partial functionality—or turned off completely. The wrecked vehicles and other debris in the tunnel require close attention, particularly when the smoke generator is turned on to simulate either smoke from a fire or fine particulate dust that results from an explosion or building collapse.
Even staircases leading up to the tunnel’s ventilation system can be brought into scenarios that require rescuers to go up or down flights of steps. One section reached by these stairs has been rigged with a simulated elevator shaft to practice extractions from that environment.
Never satisfied
But, as difficult as the CNR’s tunnel environment can be, both the center’s staff and its clients are never satisfied as they work to prepare responders for the most challenging scenarios possible.
Joseph Early, an Azimuth employee who supervises a staff of 12 as the center’s training director, said his biggest challenge is “to keep up with the evolving skills of the people who come to the center to train.”
Early,a 20-year Army veteran, said he is looking to provide not only other training scenarios outside the tunnel on the center’s large site but also programs that can be taken on-site to emergency responders who, for various reasons, are unable to travel to the center.
He pointed out that one of the center’s strengths was that it “allowed training under one unified command” of responders from both the military and many civilian agencies.
Smiley, the commander of CST training at the site, said though the existing training facilities were vital to his team, “There are already things we’d like CNR to build for us.” One of those, he explained, was a scenario involving entry into a tunnel from the surface where normal means of access had been blocked.
Realistic environment
Though Smiley never used the term himself, his description of the team’s rigorous training and extensive, highly technical capabilities makes it very obvious that CSTs are elite military units, as much as any of the special forces.
How tough is the environment in the tunnel? One indication: CNR always has at least one of its own medics on standby inside the tunnel during training, and it stores its own emergency supplies in the tunnel even though the civilian and military units training in the tunnel include medics.
Several staff members at the site pointed out that several participants in a recent training exercise succumbed to heat exhaustion while wearing protective gear.
And, during earlier sessions, emergency responders from the New York area who had responded to the 9/11 attacks suffered flashbacks while training in the tunnel.
In the meantime, however, both the center’s staff and the combined military and civilian groups who come there to train continue to push the limits of realism of the training scenarios.
Motorists who pass the site less than a mile away on Interstate 77 may see an occasional puff of smoke coming from the mountain containing the tunnel, most likely have no idea of the types of struggles going on inside—but, if the worst ever happens, they will no doubt be glad that tunnel is there.
Ernest H. Robl is a North Carolina based writer and photographer whose specialties include coverage of transportation subjects. His previous articles for HSToday covered rail security issues and the lessons of Hurricane Camille.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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