Disaster Graduate School

At the Center for Domestic Preparedness, in Anniston, first-responders from across the nation prepare to handle worst-case scenarios.

First Ebola, then an earthquake, a compromised chemical plant and a collapsed building — and then the woman shows up in labor. All the while victims cry out in pain and fear and cell phones ring incessantly. First-responders from across the country gather at the Center for Disaster Preparedness to learn how to cope, if the worst happens on their watch. Photos by Cary Norton

Nearly every week, golfers enjoy a leisurely day on the links at Cane Creek Golf Course in Anniston, while some sort of life-threatening disaster unfolds just a few hundred yards away. This week it’s an Ebola outbreak. Next week an earthquake hits. That is followed by a chemical attack, a bombing and a hurricane.

This cluster of calamities takes place at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, which, on the surface, sounds like the unhappiest place on Earth. Actually, it is one of the most important places, realistically recreating a variety of potentially deadly events to train emergency responders, medical personnel and law enforcement officials from throughout the country.

“We’re teaching people how to deal with the worst day of their life,” says Chuck Medley, CDP assistant director of training delivery.

- Sponsor -

Operating as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the umbrella of Homeland Security, the CDP occupies 182 acres of what used to be the Fort McClellan military base, a few miles north of downtown Anniston. In fact, McClellan’s role as a chemical training facility in the latter half of the 20th century helped lead to the creation of the CDP.

It was announced in 1995 that Fort McClellan would be shut down in 1999, but two events occurred before then which made officials reconsider abandoning the facility entirely. First was the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured more than 1,000, followed by the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building that resulted in 168 deaths.

Suddenly, the need was amplified for a facility where emergency responders and others could learn how to handle chemical and biological attacks, along with a variety of mass-casualty events. So in 1998, Fort McClellan was transitioned from a military base to a civilian training center. Since then, more than 1 million people have gone through some form of CDP training — either on site or from traveling instructors — an average of approximately 50,000 each year.

“We save lives here every day, even though we may not know it,” says Medley. “The tasks that we teach here resonate out through the country and save lives.”

The facility has more than 1,000 employees (approximately 100 federal workers and the rest contract), and all the instructors have disaster-response experience. Using an annual operating budget of $64 million, the CDP pays all expenses to bring and house trainees at the Anniston complex for sessions that usually last a week. During that time, a Philadelphia police officer might work alongside an ER nurse from Wyoming, with the common goal of learning how to better operate under extremely stressful conditions.

“It’s one thing to see it in a textbook. It’s another thing to do it in real life,” says CDP Superintendent Tony Russell, a former Marine from Georgia and longtime FEMA official. “People who come here can really experience what these types of events are like. We want to train them to make sure that if something happens on their watch, they can go out and make a difference and save lives.”

The CDP offers approximately 50 courses covering 17 different response disciplines. The individual scenarios range from man-made (terrorist attack, mass shooting) to natural disasters (wildfires, tornadoes) to less dramatic but still volatile situations, such as dealing with protesters or handling multiple drug overdoses.

Only about 25 percent of a course takes place in a traditional classroom. The majority of the week is spent doing experiential learning at some of the mock sets that have been created within the complex, including a small town and a four-car subway. In addition, the Noble Training Facility at the CDP is the only hospital in the United States dedicated solely to training healthcare professionals in disaster preparedness and response.

The week is capped by a four-hour exercise during which the trainees are thrust into the chaos and emotions of a realistic disaster-response simulation. How realistic? In addition to using high-tech mannequins that can appear to breath and bleed, the CDP also brings in live actors who scream and cry and add to the tension. Amputees volunteer to simulate patients who have just lost a limb in an incident.

There might be smoke and fire to deal with, along with dim lights and loud noises. Even smaller details are included in a simulation, such as having a victim’s cellphone ring continuously, a sign that a loved one is repeatedly calling.

“We try to make the environment as realistic and immersive as possible,” says Medley, a native of Huntsville who spent 24 years in the Army before joining the CDP in 2010. “It can be sensory overload for responders, but they have to get organized and triage these patients and deal with all that at one time. We intentionally give them more than they can handle, because we want it to be extremely challenging.”

Brandon Whitman, the CDP exercise program manager, is responsible for creating and overseeing many of the simulations. He said a new problem is introduced every few minutes throughout the exercise, forcing the trainees to adjust quickly.

“So they’re dealing with an Ebola outbreak at a hospital, and suddenly there is an earthquake in the area,” says Whitman, a native of Anniston who worked for the Department of Defense for 12 years before joining the CDP in 2015. “Then you find out because of the earthquake, a chemical plant was compromised. Now they have to deal with that. Then a building collapses, which further complicates the scenario.

“If you don’t address each problem right away, it’s all going to pile up on you quickly. And then in the middle of it we’ll have a woman show up who is going into labor. Because the world doesn’t stop turning. Babies still need to be delivered.”

Along with teaching emergency-response techniques to the trainees, these simulations also might make some of them realize they are not cut out for such emotionally stressful work. Medley says he has seen people burst into tears over the death of a simulated baby.

“Some people come to training and they realize that maybe it’s a little too intense for them,” Russell says, something it’s better to find out before a crisis.

Medley says the CDP is constantly studying real events to improve its training. For example, he says the pressure-cooker explosive device used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing had not been seen before that attack. By the following week, the CDP had already incorporated the device into its training sessions.

“It speaks well of our state that we have the talent and capability here to deliver this kind of training from Alabama,” Medley says. “This facility is a national asset. Nobody else in the country can do the mass-casualty exercises that we deliver.

“Bottom line is, we’re trying to create a more resilient country. We know bad things are going to happen. We want communities to be able to respond to these events as quickly as possible, so they can deal with these incidents and save lives. That’s our ultimate goal.”

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox