Disaster City in Ruins: 200 responders search for ‘victims’ in rubble, collapsed structures and derailed train

TX-TF2 searches rubble pile at Disaster City.
TX-TF2 searches for ‘victims’ during exercise at Disaster City.

DISASTER CITY, COLLEGE STATION – Nearly 200 responders in hazmat gear climbed over concrete chunks and rebar, calling out and using listening devices to locate and rescue victims of a mock pipeline explosion. The full-scale Operational Readiness Exercise (ORE) on Feb. 22-24 drew responders from Texas A&M Task Force’s College Station based TX-TF1 and Dallas/Fort Worth-based TX-TF2 teams, as well as members from the Texas Military Department, to Disaster City® in College Station.

The teams searched for ‘victims’ – over 100 local volunteers – who were “walking wounded” or hidden inside rubble piles, destroyed buildings, a derailed train, or other full-scale props at the 52-acre Disaster City.

"Victim' rescued from rubble pile at Disaster City.
“Victim’ rescued from rubble pile at Disaster City.

The FEMA-sanctioned full-scale exercise is an annual assessment of Task Force capabilities, and the responders did not know the details of the disaster until they were called out at 6 a.m. on Feb. 22. In the scenario, the blast had destroyed buildings and infrastructure, releasing chemical contaminants into the local community, requiring decontamination of both citizens and responders.

Task Force members, working with the Texas National Guard’s 6th Civil Support Team and its Chemical, Biological Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) Task Force, faced the realistic challenges of responding to a large-scale disaster with 24-hour operations over three days. The exercise involved personnel from all search and rescue disciplines, including structural collapse, medical, logistics and more. National Guard units performed search, extraction, decontamination, and medical triage for volunteer ‘victims’ during the exercise.

Response partners from the College Station Fire Department, and other local, state and federal organizations, such as FEMA and the Department of Defense, also participated to strengthen the ability to conduct joint operations in large-scale incidents.

TX-TF1 works to rescue 'victim' at Disaster City.
TX-TF1 rescuing ‘victim’ at Disaster City.

“The annual Operational Readiness Exercise is the largest training event for the Task Force each year,” said TX-TF1 Director Jeff Saunders. “Our 750 team members spend about 30,000 hours in training each year, and it is all voluntary, unpaid time. We train year-round to be able to respond and save lives not only in the communities where we live, but across the United States.”

Hurricane Harvey was one of the largest deployments TX-TF1 has responded to in the past few years, but the team has also responded on both state and federal deployments for severe weather, flash flooding, explosions, wildfires, and other hurricanes to include Maria, Michael, Florence and Olivia. Last year in Texas, TX-TF1 members deployed in support of 58 Texas counties, including response to Tropical Storm Imelda, the fifth-wettest rain event in U.S. history.

It is a misconception to think that the team only deploys during hurricane season, Saunders says. “We have responded to events during every month of the year, including tornadoes in December and flooding in April. Eighty percent of our deployments are water-related, and at least a third of our deployments have been outside hurricane season. Our mission is to respond at a moment’s notice, regardless of the ‘season.’

“When TX-TF1 shows up, people are having the worst day in their lives. This is not a situation anyone wants to be in, but we are there to help,” Saunders says. “When we respond, our goal is to do the most good for the most people in the least amount of time.”

Over its 23-year history, TX-TF1 has deployed 179 times, to some of the largest events on record, including the World Trade Center terrorist attack; the Columbia Shuttle explosion; Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Harvey and Michael; the Moore, OK, tornado; Wimberley, TX flooding; the West, TX, fertilizer plant explosion; the Bastrop wildfires; the Camp Fire in California; and many more.

About Texas A&M Task Force 1
TX-TF1 is sponsored by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) and has deployed 179 times since 1997. The team can be activated by the Texas Division of Emergency Management or as one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 28 sanctioned urban search and rescue teams.