Friday, September 24, 2010

Disaster City® Volunteer Program

I’ve written a lot recently about Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1). The Task Force is based out of College Station and is sponsored by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), a member of The Texas A&M University System. They train at TEEX’s Disaster City®, our 52-acre training facility, which is a mock community featuring full-scale, collapsible structures designed to simulate various levels of disaster and wreckage, and is customizable for the specific training needs of any group. Emergency responders worldwide visit Disaster City® for unparalleled search and rescue training at the most comprehensive emergency response training facility available today.

A key ingredient of the training at Disaster City is realism, including the chaos and disorganization provided by victims. To this end, in 2006 the TEEX Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Division began recruiting from the surrounding communities and found an incredible group of volunteers to assist with US&R training and large-scale exercises. Disaster City® volunteers help give authenticity to the chaos, making exercises conducted at Disaster City® some of the most comprehensive and true-to-life in the world. Without the volunteer program, TX-TF1 and students training in Disaster City® wouldn’t be able to experience dealing with live victims that have realistic injuries and the emotions that accompany them.

To ensure the closest to real-world training, the division seeks volunteers from all walks of life, age groups and occupations. On a typical exercise you’ll find students from Texas A&M University and Blinn College, community groups such as the Boy Scouts and church groups, homemakers, retirees, spouses and emergency response students. Disasters aren’t choosy, and all volunteers are welcome.

Examples of disaster scenarios that volunteers participate in include:
  • Aftermath of a train wreck involving the derailment a 7-car passenger train
  • The collapse of an office building and parking garage
  • Entrapment in a collapsed wooden building that was destroyed by a tornado
  • Exposure to a chemical accident or chemical attack
  • Contamination by a biological weapon or dirty bomb
  • Injury at the bottom of a river bank after a flood
  • Entrapment and injury in a collapsed strip mall

Some volunteer opportunities in Disaster City® require the use of makeup to give victims the appearance they are injured. For this, they use special effects makeup (also called "moulage") such as fake blood, burns, cuts, broken bones, and other techniques to give the scenario a high level of realism.

Animal lovers are also offered a unique opportunity to participate in the Disaster Canine Search Program. There, volunteers get a chance to meet and interact with the canine handlers and search and rescue dogs. There are also opportunities to assist with Canine Evaluations that are periodically hosted at the facility.

As a recent volunteer, I can tell you first-hand that helping with the training is fun stuff. All volunteers are encouraged to act the part – yell for help, scream, cry in agony, plead to be rescued first, ask for water and food or beg for pain medication. If you are more interested in letting someone else act like the hysterical family member, they have other emotional conditions available as well. All of these scenarios are designed to simulate the situations that responders face during an actual incident, and they rely on volunteers to help induce urgency and stress to the training exercises.

For many, the greatest reward is knowing that they did their part helping to prepare responders from Texas, the nation and the world. In addition, Disaster City® volunteers are recognized in various ways for their service and commitment to the program:

  • Certificate of Appreciation – Every volunteer will receive a certificate for each attendance, signifying that you have donated valuable time and energy in Disaster City® working to support Texas Task Force 1.
  • Disaster City® & TX-TF1 Coffee Mug – This large coffee mug, with the Disaster City® and Texas Task Force 1 logos, is perfect for that big cup of eye-opening java needed to get your volunteer day started, and perfect to show off at the office or during a late night study session with classmates. This gift is for someone who has volunteered three different shifts.
  • Disaster City® long-sleeve T-shirt – This one-of-a-kind T-shirt is only available for Disaster City® volunteers and will let everyone know that you have helped train US&R teams in Disaster City®. This gift is for someone who has volunteered six different shifts.
  • Disaster City® Challenge Coin – This rare 1½-inch coin is only given to volunteers who have demonstrated a dedicated commitment to the Disaster City® Volunteer Program. Be sure to carry the coin with you at all times, because at any time you could be challenged by a Task Force member or fellow volunteer. This gift is for someone who has volunteered nine different shifts.

Although volunteers are working in and around broken concrete, collapsed structures, train wrecks and damaged buildings, everyone’s safety is paramount. Volunteers will be be crawling on top of rubble, climbing into collapsed buildings, and getting a little dusty. All volunteers are tracked on a log so that we know your location at all times. Plus, volunteers are surrounded by some of the most qualified safety, rescue and medical personnel in the world.

Interested? Training and exercises take place in Disaster City® year-round. There are several ways to stay informed and register for volunteer opportunities. First, fill out the TEEX Volunteer Subscription Page to receive timely e-mails about volunteer opportunities. If you are on Facebook, join the Disaster City® Volunteer Program Group Page. Here you’ll not only see updates on upcoming training, but you’ll also see feedback left by other volunteers. You can also visit the Disaster City® Volunteer Program Website for further information and photos.

If you represent a group, or just want more specific information, contact the Volunteer Coordinator, Brian Smith at, or call 979-458-0857.

Sam White is a communications specialist and blogger for the Texas Engineering Extension Service and welcomes your comments. Know of something interesting happening at TEEX? Please submit blog ideas to

Friday, September 10, 2010

National Preparedness Month

Tropical Storm Hermine
September is National Preparedness Month, and right on schedule, our planet demonstrated how important it is to Have a Plan. On Tuesday, Sept. 7, just before 11 a.m., warning systems advised the College Station locations of the Texas A&M University System of a possible tornado in south College Station, and ordered everyone to seek shelter immediately. Texas A&M also activated its Code Maroon alert system, moving over 70,000 students, faculty and staff to interior stairwells and basements. I also know that throughout the area, parents began calling and texting schools, worried about their children.
I was reminded that even with the best training and planning, there can be confusion at the onset of an emergency, further emphasizing the importance of having a plan for you, your family and your workplace. 

There are three important steps we can all take to be prepared for an emergency.

Make a Plan

Because your family may not be together in an emergency, it’s important to plan how you’ll contact each other, and how to get back together.

When thinking about communicating during an emergency: Have an out-of town contact. Many times long-distance communications work when local communications have failed.
  • Make sure everyone in your family knows that contact number and has a cell phone, coins or a pre-paid phone card to make the call.
  • Have some that are too young to remember the number? Make sure that your children’s school or daycare has your information as well. Find out what their procedure is for emergencies. Make sure that you are on their emergency list, whether it is by phone, e-mail or text, so that you are informed. Plus, find out where they will post information for early pickup--local television station? Radio? Not all schools have a plan in place about how to contact parents, so be proactive.
  • Make text-messaging an important tool. Many times text messages will get through when phone calls can’t. Texting is new to many. Have your children teach you how to text.
  • Identify and use your local emergency alert systems. Although many towns still have siren systems, family members should subscribe to any emergency alert system available. Public alert certified weather radios can be purchased locally or online and can be kept in your home. Texas A&M has a Code Maroon system which uses SMS to notify students, faculty and staff of emergencies affecting the flagship campus. Twitter also has become an alert system lately, with the ability to transmit alerts to mobile devices from Code Maroon, as well as police departments, fire departments, and other government organizations.
Visit TEEX’s Emergency Preparedness Webpage for more information on planning and links to the Online Family Emergency Planning Tool.

Have a Basic Emergency Supply Kit

It’s very important to have the supplies to take care of your family for a short time after an emergency event. First and foremost, the Basic Emergency Supply Kit must have the basics for human survival: fresh water, food, clean air and warmth. With those items taken care of, we can add further supplies for communication and comfort.

Use common sense. Canned goods require a can opener, and most electronics require batteries. Cars and generators don’t run well without fuel. Assess each item to make sure you have an adequate supply of what it takes to run it, and the ancillary tools necessary to make the items functional.
Think. It’s important that everyone THINK about what’s essential for them, and incorporate those items into their emergency kit.

Purchasing the supplies for a basic kit costs about $130. You can find a link to a complete list of items for your Basic Emergency Supply Kit at TEEX’s Emergency Preparedness Webage, or read below how to enter to win a kit before this weekend’s Texas A&M - Louisiana Tech football game!

Members of Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1) will be in the Aggie Fan Zone on the north end of Kyle Field beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. There, you can meet the team’s K-9 rescue dogs and check out one of the steel beams recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. See many tools of the trade, special equipment and rescue cameras. TX-TF1 will also have commemorative dog tags available for the first 3,000 visitors, and kids can pick up a collectible trading card about one of the search and rescue canines. Everyone who stops by can also enter to win an Emergency Preparedness Kit!

As part of First Responders Day, Texas A&M University has chosen this game to honor current and former members of the Task Force, as well as all first responders. Recently returned from mobilization to help local jurisdictions that were impacted by the flooding associated with Tropical Storm Hermine, TX-TF1 members will take the field before the game for an awards presentation. Following the ceremony, Task Force members and their families will sit together to enjoy some great Aggie football.

Be Informed

Different emergencies require different responses. For example, a fire calls for building evacuation, while a tornado may call for people to remain in the structure for shelter. It is critical to understand potential emergencies and the appropriate response.

Here is an extensive, but not all-inclusive, list of potential disasters, as well as actions you can take to stay safe. A list of most likely disasters may include:
BlackoutsChemical Threat
Extreme HeatFires
Influenza PandemicLandslide and Debris Flow (Mudslide)
Nuclear ThreatRadiation Threat
WildfiresWinter Storms and Extreme Cold

Links for all of the information, as well as American Red Cross shelter information and other useful preparedness links can be found on TEEX’s Emergency Preparedness Webpage.

Watch for next week’s TEEXblog, where I’ll write about volunteer opportunities for citizens to assist with training emergency responders at TEEX’s Disaster City.

Sam White is a communications specialist and blogger for the Texas Engineering Extension Service and welcomes your comments. Know of something interesting happening at TEEX? Please submit blog ideas