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

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