Drill Prepares Search and Rescue Teams for Disaster

By Michael Hill

Operation Fallout at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst: a vehicle pinned under a train, another one on its side, a train car derailed, bodies tossed amid the rubble.

Wearing a camera, Phoenix of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 searches the debris, sniffing and confirming the scent of a human alive and buried under tons of concrete.

“I’m going to call back to base camp and we’re going to bring a team out here and I’m going to commit a team to that pile to go through that rubble. There better be somebody in there. Otherwise we might be missing somebody down the road somewhere. So it’s very important that the animals do the right job, do their job,” said Pennsylvania Task Force 1 Search Manager Francis Werner.

Rescuers put their skills to the test.

Minutes later, success from one side of the pile.

“You’re now officially saved,” said one participant.

And on the other side, too.

This is a full-scale exercise of three states and dozens of agencies combining resources to test their disaster capabilities in a building collapse, an explosion and an act of terrorism.

The drill includes setting up a base camp where rotating responders can live for up to two weeks — insulated tents for sleeping, eating and medical treatment. This team includes some of the 242 volunteers of New Jersey Task Force One.

“When a catastrophe hits, everybody runs away. But somebody has to be there to help take care of the people that are there. So that’s why I do it,” said Dr. Ronald Klebacher, emergency medical specialist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Local agencies typically respond first before calling in a FEMA-funded task force, in this case, building a support to hold a rail car in place so a team can extract those pinned in the car.

Even the best training can’t prepare emergency workers for every situation.

“Your tactics and training are only going to get you so far,” said New Jersey State Police Lt. Christopher Demaise. “We can’t mimic everything that we encounter out there in the real world.

The exercise of the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management calls for teams to maneuver in confined spaces, on elevated platforms and in off-the-rail train cars.

Being in a tipped train car is one of the most nauseating experiences you’ll ever have. Try walking through a derailed train car at about a 15 to 25 degree angle. Talk about a case of vertigo.

“The first few times you get a little bit uneasy because of the three dimensional pitch that you’re not quite used to,” Demaise said.

The teams will assemble at the end of the exercise to share notes.

“One of the things that we find most troublesome is communication, but as you can see here today, all of us getting together on a regular basis can help mitigate some of those communication problems,” Demaise said.

The state stages this exercise once a year, inviting partners to train just as it would if any of them needed help in a real disaster.