Guardian Centers’ biggest exercise draws hundreds

mstucka@macon.comMarch 25, 2014 

  • Watch joint multi-agency training at the Guardian Center in Perry.

PERRY -- Andy Meadows of Macon was stranded on a rooftop in a flooded housing development for hours Tuesday, with only a large “HELP” sign and two goats to keep him company.

Meadows discovered he liked working in the fake disaster scene at the Guardian Centers’ largest-ever training exercise and said he hopes it will lead to a full-time job. Single, though, he acknowledges that saying he’s a “professional victim” may not be the best pick-up line.

But for hundreds of other participants in this week’s exercises, the crushed cars and trapped victims were practice for the real thing -- and marked the first time the center hosted a truly national event, said Guardian Centers CEO Geoff Burkart.

Among those watching Meadows get rescued was Michael O’Neil, 44, a fireman from Townsville, Australia. He was there “to observe and learn and build networks.” Australia’s Task Force Queensland had helped in urban search and rescue operations in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Solomon Islands, while a parallel team from New South Wales helped in Japan, he said.

And while there were other observers, including those from the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, Virginia-based crews were simulating search and rescue operations in the aftermath of a massive earthquake off the coast of Alaska, while the U.S. Army was responding to a smaller earthquake in Perry itself.

Chris Schaft, battalion chief and program manager for USA 1, a Virginia-based rescue task force for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the firefighters training at the Guardian Centers hadn’t before had access to the kinds of collapsed structures the Guardian Centers offers.

“It’s like going to Disneyland for them here,” Schaft said, with each training site better than the other.

Some of the firefighters -- who normally work for the Fairfax County, Va., fire department -- rescued Meadows and other simulated victims from a flooded area meant to mimic Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. The firefighters first tried a chain saw, then swung an ax, to cut open a roof to rescue Rodney Mack of Perry from the attic of a flooded house.

“It became real to me when I was in there for 3 1/2 hours,” Mack said.

The Virginia crews arrived at Robins Air Force Base on Monday around 3 a.m., then got to work. They were largely focused Monday and Tuesday on a simulated collapsed building, meant to simulate the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Cars were crushed in a garage, and a rescue worker suspended from ropes worked to knock a hole through a near-vertical concrete slab. American crews used similar skills to deal with the aftermath of Japan’s tsunami.

Not far away, a U.S. Army unit out of Fort Benning was setting up communications gear, setting up barbed-wire barricades and welcoming helicopters.

Burkart said at its peak this week, the training exercise will bring about 700 rescue workers to Guardian Centers. The facility -- site of a former Northrop Grumman Corp. missile plant -- is designed to host 7,000 people, Burkart said. There’s plenty of room to grow.

“It’s the biggest single event that we’ve hosted,” Burkart said.

Guardian Centers gained experience in the year it has been open and learns from each exercise even as its trainees learn.

“A year ago we wouldn’t have been as prepared to handle the client,” Burkart said.

This week’s exercise was funded by five different organizations. Burkart could not say what the total cost was.

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