In central Georgia, a gray 75-acre urban landscape rises suddenly from the green countryside. Fifty-one assorted reinforced-concrete buildings stand one-, two- and three-stories tall, unpainted with no glass in the windows. Yet, the interiors are set dressed as everything from a hotel to a hospital.
Interrupting the calculated perfection, two of the buildings – a parking garage and an apartment building – are collapsed ruins. Both were built that way. And, if the owners’ desire, these carefully designed wrecks can be reconfigured to reflect a completely different collapse scenario.
Welcome to Guardian Centers (GC). As a community, it is unpopulated, unfamiliar and, undeniably, one of the most advanced disaster training facilities in the world.
Designed for all phases of disaster training, GC offers a fully operational simulation of downtown America where first responders can test their skills, equipment and leadership. It can support everything from small exercises to major multi-jurisdictional scenarios with thousands of participants.
The degree of realism that Guardian Center offers is unique, said Stephen J. Krill, Jr., GC’s senior vice president for business development.
“You have a whole cityscape to do Level I and Level II training,” Krill said. “You can do treatment, triage, deal with bystanders – learn to deal with the whole event instead of just the breaking and breaching. Your training encompasses everything involved in that incident.”
Beyond the cityscape, GC’s training simulations include a ¼-mile long subway system with eight Washington, D.C. Metro railcars, a 1.1-mile, four-lane interstate, a residential neighborhood with eight single-family homes that can be flooded eight foot deep, and a complete trailer park.
Since opening in December 2012, GC has conducted training for a number of response agencies, including the U.S. Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and Georgia Search and Rescue. Still, this massive, 830-acre training center remains relatively unknown outside the state, Krill said.
“Before we could really market Guardian Centers, we needed to first prove the level and extent of our training capabilities to the first-responder community. With our opening event for the Marine Corps, we did just that,” he said.
GC’s Chief Executive Officer Geoff Burkart began his working career as an aircraft mechanic. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, he had risen to director of flight operations for BellSouth.
“His job was to see that personnel and equipment were able to get in and out of the Gulf Coast to restore the BellSouth telephone network,” Krill said. “Also, everyone that knew about the BellSouth supply effort was asking for a ride.”
The BellSouth mission expanded to delivering relief supplies for the government as well. The experience shaped Burkart’s plans for the future.
“He found himself frustrated,” Krill said. “How could a country as great as ours have such a poorly integrated response to a disaster of that magnitude?”
Burkart spent the next four years researching the issue, talking to anyone who would give him time. Aside from the fire service, he spoke to officials in federal agencies ranging from Homeland Security to the Department of Defense. One consistent issue stood out in all the different opinions.
“They told Geoff that we didn’t have a facility to do joint operational training on a massive scale,” Krill said.
Thanks to two investors, GC came into existence as a private entity without government assistance. However, finding the right location became a lengthy process, Vann Burkart, CG’s program manager, said.
The former Northrup Grumman missile plant in Perry, GA, first came under consideration in 2008. Built in the early 1990s, the 2,200-acre site was originally intended to be the home of a new long range cruise missile for the U.S military. Unfortunately, cost overruns resulted in the project’s termination in 1995 without one missile ever built. The site, which includes 500,000-square-feet of manufacturing space, sat vacant since 2002.
“Originally, the price tag was a little too much so we started looking at other sites,” said Burkett. “Then they came back to the table in mid-2011 with a better offer. The investors saw the potential here, including an established infrastructure with double and triple redundancy.”
The first four attempts at drafting architectural designs for the project were rejected, he said. But once those designs were approved, an accelerated building program went into action.
“We broke ground in late January 2012 and by November it was finished,” Burkart said.
GC’s simulated city follows Seattle’s metropolitan street grid. Standing alone inside it is as close as a person can come to the nightmare experience of being the last person on earth.
“You are fully immersed,” Burkart said. “The sound reverberation between the buildings is real. Visually, once you’re at street level in those corridors you can’t see beyond the simulation.”
Each building is concrete block construction with structural steel floors, interior staircases and electrical power. Glass can be installed in the empty steel framed windows, but only if required for the specific training exercise.
“Right now we are decorating the interiors with furniture specific to each business,” Burkett said. “We have a school, day care, hospital, medical supply store, restaurant and a hotel. Every one of our 51 buildings in the cityscape will be furnished to replicate life in a major city.”
Despite the abundant props to accentuate reality, the interiors of the buildings remain an open floor plan.
“We want the interiors to be a blank slate for whatever the client wants,” Burkett said.
For example, eight of the buildings dispersed across the cityscape are designed with breaching walls so that responders can make entry using heavy equipment or explosives. Forty of the concrete panels stand ready at a moment’s notice.
Underneath the buildings and streets are utility tunnels identical to what rescuers might find in a real metropolitan disaster. It gives rescuers another route to access portions of a structure cut off by a collapse.
Helping to sell the realism of the cityscape overall is a large supply of new 2012 cars and SUVs parked throughout. All of the 300 vehicles donated by Chevrolet to populate the cityscape’s five miles of paved and stripped streets suffered flood damage during Hurricane Sandy that made them unsalable.
What passes for prime real estate in this cityscape would qualify as a disaster area anywhere else. At one address, an apartment building is carefully constructed to represent a structural concrete collapse, complete with debris piles and a five-story tower toppled at a 25 degree angle.
“It’s based on an actual building collapse in Christchurch, New Zealand, during the 2011 earthquake,” Burkart said.
Likewise, a three-story parking garage several blocks away is modeled after a structural steel collapse, complete with cars stranded on the upper floors. The parking garage comes with built-in flexibility almost worthy of a Transformer action hero.
“Each floor is on a hinge and pin system so that we can set them at different positions, even tilting them up to 45 degrees,” Krill said. “Each floor weighs 75,000 pounds, so it does require a crane to move them.”
Concrete sections of the garage can also be moved and even dropped to crush cars for added realism. The ever shifting design adds an extra challenge for first-time and return students.
“Every time they visit the structural collapse it is like the first time, not a structural collapse that looks the same each and every time a student visits,” Krill said. “So they can’t game it. That adds to the learning experience.”
To deal with the changing nature of these collapsed buildings, students must be responsive and adaptable.
“Anybody can go into a sterile environment like a table top exercise and pretend what they’re going to do,” Krill said. “Instead, we tell them to figure it out themselves. What are your manpower requirements? What are your limitations and risks?”
In December, a joint training operations involving U.S. Marines, the Georgia Search and Rescue (GSAR) team and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation utilized the mock cityscape for the first time. The parking garage proved a daunting challenge, Krill said.
“That far corner is where the first responders made technical entry into the first collapse,” he said. “It took them eight hours just to get through that 10 percent of the cityscape.”
Why surround two structural collapse “props” with blocks and blocks of undamaged simulations? The GC cityscape is intended for law enforcement training as well as urban search and rescue, Krill said.
“The recent events in Boston show us that law enforcement needs to be prepared for situations where they are forced to go through town and search every building,” he said.
Only one building in the cityscape stands as a fully finished administrative building. That three-story tan structure serves as a fully-functional emergency operations center (EOC) from which incident commanders can assess damage, measure progress, and make executive decisions, Burkart said.
“The first floor of the building is where clients can bring their own equipment to communicate and check their students,” he said. “The second floor is offices and conference rooms.”
Twenty-seven video cameras with full tilt, zoom and pan capability throughout the cityscape feed information to the second floor offices, as well as GC headquarters a half mile away.
“This down-range location is more for out-of-the-box observation and after action reports than to actually administer the exercises, although we can accommodate both requirements,” Krill said.
On the third floor of the EOC, ceiling to floor windows offer a 180-degree view of the cityscape below. On the roof is an Federal Aviation Administration-certified helipad capable of landing a 24,000-pound Blackhawk if necessary.
At present, the tan building is the only real splash of color to be found in the gray cityscape. To decorate the bare exteriors of the many buildings, GC is extending an unusual opportunity to area businesses.
“We call it our building sponsorship program,” Burkett said. “We offer businesses the opportunity to paint the buildings in their colors and put their signage on them. In return for their branding, we get a more realistic cityscape to enhance the immersion for first responders. This is exactly what we collectively achieved with General Motors and its generous donation of Chevrolet cars and trucks.”
CC’s cityscape is not the only startling sight at the disaster training center. Not far away, eight residential rooftops rise above the water in a 5.5 million-gallon pond designed to facilitate search and rescue training under flood conditions.
In many ways, the flood simulation is much more complete than GC’s cityscape. Eight concrete block houses are arranged as a neighborhood, complete with chain link fences and swing sets in the back yards.
Participants use boats to rescue role players from the rooftops, including some who were “trapped” in the attics and have to be extracted by cutting a hole in the roof. Some were “incapacitated” and not able to get off the roof by themselves.
As with the cityscape, portions of the residential homes are replaceable following full-scale search and rescue operations.
“We have to replace the roofing because the responders make entry using axes and chainsaws to rescue survivors,” Krill said.
Unlike the cityscape buildings, the interiors of the homes are divided into separate fully furnished rooms. The degree of realism exceeds anything the designers planned, Burkart said.
“In the December exercises, the rooms were complete down to clothes and toys inside,” he said. “When we filled the flood zone, the belongings floated out the windows and between the homes.”
According to Krill, at least one GSAR participant was temporarily overcome by what he saw.
“One gentleman stepped away from the bank, looking ashen,” Krill said. “I asked if he was okay. He said he needed a moment because he had responded to Katrina and what he saw in our flood zone was a flashback for him.”
Nature never seems to ignore trailer parks in a disaster. Neither does Guardian Centers. Unlike the cityscape and the flood zone, the dwellings that populate the eight-acre trailer park simulation are completely disposable.
“The mobile homes are considered exercise consumables,” Krill said. “They can be crushed, torn apart or even burned since they are only unfinished shells.”
Adjoining the trailer park is a full-sized athletic field. In the future, the grassy field will be stripped and an eight-foot wall with bleachers added.
“The idea is that the first thing to look for after a disaster is the local athletic field,” Burkart said. “It makes a good marshaling area for misplaced persons.”
As with any training center, some clients find it more convenient to rent protective clothing and equipment on the spot rather than transport it from home. GC has no equipment rental itself but maintains working relationships with numerous providers nearby.
“As we grow, we will have more and more equipment available on site for clients to take advantage of,” Burkart said.
COLD WAR REMNANT
Guardian Centers took advantage of a special Cold War security measure from the site’s Northrup Grumman days as a setting for its subway train emergency simulation.
“The missile plant had a 1,800 foot sealed corridor built as a way to move the missiles back and forth without detection by Soviet satellites,” Burkart said.
Eight retired Washington, D.C., passenger cars share dual railroad tracks running the length of the climate controlled tunnel. The simulation comes complete with a subway platform familiar to big city commuters.
Like the collapsed buildings in the cityscape, the subway tunnel includes special effects for water, smoke and even realistic sounds. Temperature and lighting conditions are also controlled.
“This simulation can operate 24/7,” Burkett said. “Responders that want to train in actual subways can only do so when the systems shut down for maintenance or repair, and shutting down a subway system can be very costly and difficult to schedule.”
Dubbed “I-911” by the GC staff, the training facility boasts its own one-mile-long four-lane highway built to Department of Transportation specifications. It lends an opportunity to add further complications to training exercises too important to be dismissed as routine.
“The idea is that the participants turn the corner heading toward the exercise and find the roadway packed with role players and abandoned vehicles,” Burkart said. “They can’t even get into the disaster area until they deal with route clearance.”
During the December exercise, U.S. Marines responding to specific orders found their way blocked by a mass casualty school bus accident.
“They had to make a decision,” Burkart said. “Do they go around and complete their mission or do they stop and help? We even had the lieutenant commander calling them on the radio – ‘I didn’t call you for any bus wreck – I need you over here!’ It stressed the participants and their original plan.”
Imagine a football team that must come together as a unified team every Sunday despite no opportunity to practice, Krill said.
“The wide receivers practice by themselves,” he said. “So do the linemen and the quarterback. Yet they have to come together as a unified team to perform as an offense and defense.”
The same is true of the government agencies and organizations that must respond together in an emergency. Guardian Centers provides the practice field where these groups can test their ability to work together.
“What we have here is the ability for all these levels and layers of government to come together, including the private sector and non-governmental organizations,” Krill said. “It’s not just a matter of sitting around a table and talking about what to do. You have to get out there and practice. That’s how integration and coordination legitimately gets done.”
While Guardian Centers is fully operational, this small business with big dreams looks to build additional venues, such as surface rail and aircraft fuselage simulations, Burkart said.
The facility can accommodate simulation and live-fire training in the use of firearms and explosives as well, making it an attractive location for law enforcement and special operations training. Also, the GC site is zoned to permit the use of toxic industrial chemicals in open air releases, a unique capability for hazardous materials, chemical, biological, and radiological training.
Short of actually visiting the site, it is difficult to take in all that Guardian Centers represents in disaster training, Krill said.
“No other facility in the world offers a more capable, integrated and realistic training environment for first responders than Guardian Centers. When clients visit the site, everything just clicks, and they immediately see and understand everything we can do here to help improve response.”