Mock City for Disaster Training Nears Completion in Georgia

By WAYNE CRENSHAW | November 26, 2012

When Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig was a police officer in Florida many years ago, the closest he came to realistic training was turning the lights off in the shooting range with only a flashing blue light to see by.

He and dozens of other community members recently toured a Georgia facility that promises to take emergency response training far beyond anything Hartwig ever experienced.

The Guardian Centers, which features a mock city at the former Northrop Grumman plant, is nearly finished and will serve as a training facility for emergency responders around the country.

photo: The Guardian Centers

It was the first time Hartwig had seen the place, which has a dual-track subway, a mile-long interstate, a floodable neighborhood and two blocks of demolished buildings, as well as numerous other block buildings that make up what has been dubbed “Guardian City.”

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Hartwig, who dealt with Hurricane David in 1979 and a mass riot as a police officer. “Something like this would have been excellent, but we just didn’t have anything like it. I think there’s going to be a big demand.”

The first exercise is planned for December, with about 40 Marines coming in to work an earthquake response scenario. It’s the only contract signed, however.

Vann Burkart, who led last week’s tour and is the son of Guardian Centers Chief Executive Officer Geoff Burkart, said he isn’t discouraged more agencies haven’t signed on. He said most governments budget a year ahead, so the first year will be slow.

“We expect it will be a little light in 2013, but in 2014 it’s going to really pick up,” he said.

Geoff Burkart conceived the facility after coordinating emergency response for BellSouth during Hurricane Katrina, where he saw the problems that come with multiple response agencies trying to work together. After a major investor signed on for the $51 million project, construction started in February, and it has moved at a rapid pace.

Only a few things are still left to be done, including installing traffic signal lights for the mock city and moving the subway cars into the 1,600-foot tunnel where the tracks have already been installed. The cars were expected to arrive from the Washington, D.C., subway system. The GBI is going to blow the roof off two of the cars to simulate the 2004 Madrid terrorist attack.

Timothy Maloney, vice president of operations, said the facility is designed so that it can be set up for any scenario users want to try.

“The place is just really limited by your imagination,” he said.

Perhaps its most unique feature is the two city blocks constructed as demolished buildings. Maloney said no one has ever built anything like it. It includes a tunnel system underneath rubble and pods where a role player will be the person to be rescued. Because the rescue could take hours, the role player will relax in a waiting area, then go through a tunnel and into the pod when the rescuers get close.

The idea, Maloney said, is to give rescuers the experience, and satisfaction, of extracting a real person rather than a dummy.

“The whole point of Guardian Centers is immersing the client and making it as realistic as it can possibly be,” he told the group.

The complex can accommodate as many as 7,000 participants at a time.

The tour last week was organized by the Perry Area Chamber of Commerce due to the high interest in the facility, said Stacy Campbell, president of the chamber. She has visited the site monthly since construction started and believes it will be a big boost to the economy. Its annual economic impact is estimated at $75 million.

The center currently employs 10 people and expects to eventually employ 100 when it reaches full capacity, Vann Burkart said.

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