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At Cold War missile factory, elite rescuers drill for disaster

Rescue specialists for USA-1 examine the scene of a mock disaster area during a training exercise at the Guardian Center in Perry, Georgia,
Rescue specialists for USA-1 examine the scene of a mock disaster area during a training exercise at the Guardian Center in Perry, Georgia,

By John Shiffman

PERRY, Georgia (Reuters) - On a cloudless, windswept Georgia morning 100 miles south of Atlanta, a rescuer dangled 30 feet in the air, secured by rappelling ropes, wielding a jackhammer, as he drove the drill into a massive concrete slab designed to mimic the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. It took about an hour to punch a hole big enough to reach mock disaster "victims" trapped between the slab and an exterior wall.

Nearby more rescuers stood by a replica of an apartment building damaged during the 2010 Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake. Dogs sniffed for victims. Engineers built make-shift ladders with two-by-fours.

The large-scale disaster drill, unfolding this week in rural Georgia, is being staged at a 830-acre (335-hectare) training site that was a missile factory during the Cold War. The campus, known as The Guardian Centers, is nestled between a grove of pecan trees and a rural stretch of interstate and is designed to meet the growing needs of disaster rescue, police and military teams.

Not far from the collapsed buildings, rescuers prepared to work inside a life-size mock subway collapse. Nearby, others set out in boats for water rescues on a movie-style-set modeled after urban flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Alongside was a wrecked building designed to simulate the 2001 terror attack on the World Trade Center.

"I've seen a lot of sites around the world - this is the most complex site I've ever seen," said Chris Schaff, a Fairfax County Fire Department battalion chief and task force commander for USA-1, the elite international urban search and rescue team that is based outside Washington, D.C. "This is Disney for rescuers."

This week of field training, the first of its kind at the Guardian Center to be open to the media, began Monday with the arrival of USA-1 from Fairfax. Along with its sister team in Los Angeles, USA-1 has been deployed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to 30 foreign disasters, including earthquakes in Haiti and Armenia and Iran, the tsunami in Japan and the typhoon in the Philippines.

Schaff said he is pushing the 75-strong rescue team from Virginia to experiment so they can work faster and more efficiently during a real disaster. "We want to test our guys and gals here until they fail, when they get to the point where they don't know what to do next. Hopefully, they go into their tool box and figure out something else."

Dewey Perks, a former Fairfax firefighter who coordinates USAID's urban search and rescue efforts, said the technology and coordination has changed dramatically since the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the event that ultimately spurred creation of USA-1.

"The majority of men and women who make up this team are also the ones who ride the fire trucks in Fairfax, but we also have to carefully integrate the civilian members - the dog handlers, the engineers, the doctors - to make sure it's a team when they deploy abroad," Perks said. "This is the closest we can do to an exercise where you can really feel like you are in a foreign country because typically when we do training we do it in our backyard, and we are familiar with the scenery."

(This version of the story corrects year of Oklahoma City bombing to 1995 in first paragraph, and spelling of Christchurch in second paragraph)

(Reporting by John Shiffman; Editing by Andrew Hay and Eric Walsh)

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