The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, will forever live in the minds of many, especially those who aided in the rescue and recovery operations. Dr. Kem Bennett, senior professor in the Wm Michael Barnes '64 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and vice chancellor and dean emeritus in the College of Engineering, was among those who arrived in New York with Texas Task Force One. That harrowing experience challenged the team and further instilled the need for the training facility designed and opened in 1998 — the now world-renowned Disaster City.
Since its opening, Disaster City has trained people representing every U.S. state and territory and more than 100 countries. Bennett shared his experiences with Disaster City, and how the training program impacted the team's time at Ground Zero, as well as how that experience influenced training since.
Please note that this episode includes content describing destruction at Ground Zero and recovery efforts that some listeners may find disturbing.
You know, I look back; that's 20 years ago. And there are some moments in that 20 years that are like yesterday for me, and there's some moments that are very blurry. But that particular moment is very clear to me, when we first received the call. I actually had cut my hand, and I was on my way to the doctor to have a stitch out. I was right out coming in here by the university, and I turned on the radio, and they were talking about this incident taking place in New York City, and the commentator was saying that a small aircraft had run into or crashed into the tours. And I immediately thought, "No, that can't happen."Hannah Conrad:
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, will forever live in the minds of many, especially those who aided in the rescue and recovery operations. Dr. Kem Bennett, senior professor in the Wm Michael Barnes '64 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and vice chancellor and dean emeritus in the College of Engineering, was among those who arrived in New York with Texas Task Force One. That harrowing experience challenged the team and further instilled the need for the training facility designed and opened in 1998 the now world-renowned Disaster City.Steve Kuhlmann:
The 60-acre training facility is part of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service's National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center. Since its opening, Disaster City has trained people representing every U.S. state and territory and more than 100 countries. Bennett shared his experiences with Disaster City, and how the training program impacted the team's time at Ground Zero, as well as how that experience influenced training since. Please note that this episode includes content describing destruction at Ground Zero and recovery efforts that some listeners may find disturbing. This is SoundBytes. Welcome to Engineer This!Dr. Kem Bennett:
That was my first reaction. And I felt like we would probably get a call, but I didn't think more about it except going to the doctor. And when I got to the doctor's office, the nurse came in and told me that I had an emergency call that I needed to take and that's when we were alerted that FEMA was going to put us on alert to go.Hannah Conrad:
Alright, just to kick us off. What is Disaster City?Dr. Kem Bennett:
Well, Disaster City is just like its name says. It's a city full of disasters. We have just about every type of disaster that you could encounter. We call them props, but some of them like houses, some of them are rubble piles, some of them are buildings, some of them are skills training areas. We have a train out there; we have an Amtrak that shows a passenger derailment. We have tank cars out there' we have trucks. It's just got everything out there. It's like a Disneyland for training for emergency responders.Steve Kuhlmann:
You mentioned prop. I just want to see if we could define what a prop is in this context.Dr. Kem Bennett:
A prop can really vary. If you go into hurricane disasters, you'll find a lot of wood that is stacked up in what we call rubble piles. So there's a wood rubble pile out there to train on. We have buildings and roofs caved in and walls in various locations where firefighters and responders have to train to move through tight spaces, cut through and use tools, by the way, to cut through concrete steel. These are very skilled people. I mean, this is, you just don't run and say, "I'm here to help you." I mean, you have to have a lot of skills. And Disaster City allows them to hone those skills, learn those skills and then apply them at the same time.Steve Kuhlmann:
Who are the people that do go out there to get training?Dr. Kem Bennett:
Well, that's a real good question because it's some broad. And that's another reason why I think city is so encompassing for it. I mean, it's not just a bunch of props, but we can actually bring in a county, a city along with state representatives and actually have them simulate how they would all interact with one another in a disaster environment. There are so many people and command posts behind the scene. And one of the things we have in this country is called the Incident Command System. You know, how do you go from having a disaster in a say a small town to now you're, you're next at the county level, then you're the state level, and all of a sudden it comes to the federal government and so forth. And how do you bring all these people in, put them all together and work as a team? And that's what Disaster City is about. We can actually train all these people at one time in an environment where they are interacting in a live scenario. Make the responders feel when they arrive on the scene to try to save lives that they've been there before and they know what to do. But they're not the only ones we're training out there. Besides the responders and the leaders in the background, we're also training the canines. These are incredible animals. They can run across these rubble piles like they're not even there. Their sense of smell, they can detect If they've countered, someone live who's buried underneath. They can detect if they've encountered the, someone who is deceased, and they could send back appropriate signals. So a lot of times rescues as you know, turn into recovery. That's the hardest part. But it's an important part because you're helping families retrieve the remains of their loved ones. So they're all very important, and the canines play an important part in that.Hannah Conrad:
Do you have a favorite part of Disaster City?Dr. Kem Bennett:
Yes, there, there are several actually. I guess my first favorite part is the very first prop to train in that we built. Every time I see that prop, it takes me back 20 years plus when we first started the concept of what, what Disaster City would be. So every time I see that particular building, I think, "Wow, we did it." The other feeling that I have is that nobody's ever done this before, so we designed these things. And that's where the engineering came into the design and the creativity of a lot of people. That's one place. I think the second place is a little bit more somber. There's a prop on the back of the facility that we use for training that when I go there, I get a little emotional. It takes me back to New York City to the response to Ground Zero. My first view as I walked into Ground Zero was this view of a parking garage, a lot of collapse in that building, and that facility looks just like it. So it gives me flashbacks. So I guess that's special in a different way.Hannah Conrad:
Transitioning to 9/11. For most people, you have a very vivid memory of where you were on 9/11. But not many people experienced what it was like on Ground Zero. What was it like during the recovery and rescue?Dr. Kem Bennett:
I guess the one word is overwhelming emotionally, physically pretty draining, tiring. Very big highs and happiness too all, all jumbled into one experience. I know for myself, when you first arrive and see the site. It stops you in your tracks. I think everybody just stopped in awe and looked I never saw such massive destruction in front of me. And piles it seemed like 60, 80 feet high of steel, interlaced, and people all over the place searching and looking. And it hits you that, "Wow, this is incredible." Smoke is coming down everywhere. By the time we got there, they had security all the way around it and were containing the area so people couldn't get in the area. But earlier, people had been able to get out there and there were signs and pictures of their, their... you know what. This one that really reached me was on a telephone pole right by where I was standing. That was a picture of a family having breakfast in their apartment it looked like and scribbled on the bottom of the photograph was a message in a child's hand saying, "Please find my daddy." Seeing this event and seeing that just was overwhelming for me. But then as soon as you go through that emotion, probably within seconds, your head's back in the game, if you will, and you know why you're there, and you just do your job. And then everybody starts doing what they're there to do and put it behind yourself. But at night, when you come back and you decontaminate and you get to showers and you, you get ready to get into your bunk, and you start thinking about your mind's video camera. And it plays back a lot of the incident. So you kind of go through those emotions in the evening. But while you're out there, you're focused on what you're doing.Steve Kuhlmann:
Texas Task Force One has the best of the best because you have the ability to loop in such a large area. What is it like preparing for an event like that, not just in the long term, the hypothetical, but also once you get that call, actually getting ready to go?Dr. Kem Bennett:
Everything is rehearsed. It's like, we're going to put a football team out on the field. They're going to practice every day. Well, these, these teams are the same way. This team practices. It gets together and has mandatory monthly and often more than that, but they train together. We train everything from loading the aircraft,. You're carrying the 100,000 pounds of equipment with you, easily you've got one big aircraft just to carry your equipment and another aircraft to carry the team. The team's about 74 members. You train together; you train loading together. You have to have your gear bags already packed at all time when you're on alert. And when your beeper goes off, you just grab your bag and you go. You just answer, "I'm on my way" so they know they can count on you being there. And then you have to be there. We have engineers. We have doctors, we have medical staff. You have to have your physical when you're there; they have to get the baseline all your, your vital signs have to be recorded. And you have to be deemed fit for service. And all this needs to take place. This is a major movement of, of humans and canine and equipment that has to be packed specially, and a lot of this is hazardous. And so you have to be able to be in the field for 10 days operational and not have any assistance for at least 72 hours. So you have to carry everything you have to carry with you. And you have to be prepared to go. So those training takes place to do that constantly. It is not haphazard. It's not like, "Yeah, go stand over here." Or you need to do this and you need... Everybody knows where they need to go. Everybody knows what group they're in, if they're in a search group, a rescue group, a medical group, a logistics group. I mean, can you imagine logistics just to move all this? I mean and have everything in when you get to the site, know exactly where the slightest tool is that you may need in minutes. It's a pretty incredible operation.Steve Kuhlmann:
Looking at Disaster City, again. It had only been established a couple years before. How did the training that you had done in those years prepare the team. You kind of talked about this in the, the preparation getting ready to go wheels up. But once you actually get on the ground, how did that training impact the response?Dr. Kem Bennett:
We didn't have a blueprint to follow. We had to figure out how do we train for disasters. Many disasters we hadn't been to ourselves, but we could bring in some of the top people to talk to us. We brought in a lot of people from the California area that dealt with earthquake disasters. We brought in people who were in the urban search and rescue teams in other states and had them come in and tell us about their experiences. We took photographs. And by the way, I'll just throw in right now this team is not only capable of responding to stuff like 9/11, but it can respond to any kind of radiological response or any kind of hazardous materials response, any kind of chemical response or what we call a heavy rescue. So the training, the team is trained to cover all these areas in response. Well, that means that's what we do out there to get prepared. So we, we go to 9/11 we head to 9/11. We knew what we were doing. Our team is capable of splitting right down the middle, operating in two 12 hour shifts. And that's what we did, 12 hour and 12 hour rounds. I remember that there was some heavy metal that was hanging up high over the rubble pile. Now the cranes and equipment there were just incredible on the ground trying to lift this out. But a lot of it, even these giant cranes could not pick up because they had to be cut the pieces. We ended up with that task our team but why? Because some of our guys were skilled at what they call high angle rescue. They then are comfortable operating in heights. But more importantly are comfortable using chainsaws with diamond tips on them at heights. Using cutting torches at heights, and so forth. So we ended up cutting a lot of the metal up high that could then be picked up by the cranes and lower down to be, to be removed. If you're going to put a rescuer in the building, the building better be safe. Who's going to make that call? You've got to have a structural engineer to look at that building and say,"It's okay. You can go in there." Or to say, "You need to shore up that wall." In other words, you know, how are you going to prop up that wall make sure it doesn't fall on you. And that's another skill they learned in Disaster City and that we train on is how to take wood, two-by-fours that lay on the ground and throw them up and build shores quickly. And you just call out a name and you build on that kind of shore to hold the wall up. We saw that yeah, we were, we had it right. We were training right.Jenn Reiley:
Howdy. It's your producer Jenn Reiley here with a quick note. Disaster City opened in 1998. But ideas and plans for the site were three years in the making. In April 1995, a car bomb went off outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 people were killed. At the time, Bennett was serving as director of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, or TEEX. TEEX was responsible for the state's urban search and rescue. After the bombing, TEEX recognized the need for a team for heavy rescue operations. And when you create a team, you need a place to train them. Thus, Disaster City was born. I don't want to keep you off from the interview, so let's get back into it.Hannah Conrad:
How did your work responding to 9/11 with Texas Task Force One influence teaching at Disaster City?Dr. Kem Bennett:
Quite a bit. First and foremost is proof of concept. We have Texas Task Force One that is what responded there to New York City, and our team had only become a federal team in June and here we are in September responding to a major national disaster. Now we had been a state team, so we were prepared, but it was a proof of concept. We felt like when we were there, we were prepared to be there. We knew what to do. There was no lag in what we did. So when we came back, we said,"Yeah, we got it right, that part." But what did we bring back? Well, we brought back a sense of the need for technology. For example, when we first got there, there was some government people there that met us out at the site. And they said, "Do you have your camera search gear with you?" We said,"Yes, we did." We have a special gear; we can snake it down into rubble piles of look around. And they said, "Well, we can upgrade that for you." Sure enough, they took it over to the van. I don't know what they did to it, but it came back and it was like we went high definition TV. I mean, it was incredible, the visibility. So it's like, "Oh, we got to get more of this stuff." And technology, more technology needs to come in. So we brought that back with us. One of the things that the emergency response community does after any disaster response is that there's a lessons learned. They sit down, they get together, and they'll talk about what, what went right, what went wrong, and what we could do better. And the information that's gathered there is brought back and entered into our training program.Steve Kuhlmann:
Could you have ever imagined not just the impact of training, but the real world impact that this program has had?Dr. Kem Bennett:
I don't think I've could. I can say this, that our fire training program is known worldwide, and that's primarily because of the petrochemical industry development in Texas. So before we even had the search and rescue part, we had a reputation. Well, that's something you can build on. Okay, let's add, let's add building block b now. Let's be the world's premier search and rescue training facility. And that's exactly what we did. But it'd be like building a program, a Texas A&M University program. You have a pretty good visibility to go with right now. Just build on that.Hannah Conrad:
You mentioned the start of Disaster City. What was it like at the opening of Disaster City and has it developed the way that you expected?Dr. Kem Bennett:
The opening is...that, that's the point when you say you've arrived. Okay, let's say that. We cut a ribbon and everything, but I mean that, it was very special, because there were a lot of, a lot of players there. The people that made it happen were there. I was overwhelmed. We had some of our political help was there. Senator Hutchison from the state of Texas at the time. She was a huge help in this. We had Kevin Brady who was our congressman at the time. Kevin was there. There were a lot of people that made this happen that were there. And so what it meant to me was, we did it. We did it. We took a concept. there was nothing there but this acreage of land and a couple old buildings. And, and we had a training facility. We built a couple million-dollar facility to train there, and we had the ribbon cutting there. It was like, you know, this is going to happen. So we opened up that day and started and as I said, we had a couple of three training props in Disaster City at that time. And it has grown. In terms of my vision. Well, the vision I had was we needed a training facility. Beyond that, I wasn't quite sure. In fact, I thought it was risky when we did it because I was saying, I don't know if we really need that many people need to be trained in search and rescue, you know, is it something we could sustain? Another person I'd like to mention was really our main trainer and rescue at the time was Billy Parker. And Billy used to always, he'd whisper in my ear, he says, Dr. Bennett, now you need to understand that, you know, we do a lot of fire training here. And we do a lot of emergency medical training. But I'm telling you the next thing coming is this heavy rescue, and we need to, we need to up our rescue training. Of course, he was a rescue guy, so what would you expect him to say? But I did listen to Billy. And he was right, because when we put the facility together, not only did we become the national training center where they come to train all the, all the teams, but we train the London fire brigade. And London used to come over here and train with us, and when they had the incident over there in the subway. At the end of that incident, they did an interview, the fire chief there. He said in his interview that they responded so well, that it was because of the training they had received here in Texas in our training facility. Today when I go out to Disaster City, I just can't help but smile. It's just like I said; it's grown, grown into something I think we really needed in this country and it's pretty glorious.Hannah Conrad:
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