Concrete collapse

Members of the Pocatello Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue team practice rescuing trapped victims from collapsed concrete structures at a new research and training facility opened by Idaho State University.

POCATELLO — One group of Pocatello firefighters cut through structural steel with a blowtorch Tuesday morning while others sawed into a slab of concrete, making certain no debris would fall on the dummy trapped below.

Members of the department’s Urban Search and Rescue team got to simulate tactics to rescue survivors from a collapsed concrete structure at Idaho State University’s new Disaster Response Complex.

The facility, located east of campus in a spacious, fenced area above the Idaho Accelerator Center, is unique in the Pacific Northwest. It’s primary purpose is university research, but it should also provide an invaluable training and certification resource for several ISU departments, local and regional emergency responders and even soldiers with the Idaho National Guard.

Devin Christensen, a captain with the fire department who heads the special team, had to travel to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, with another member of the department the last time he participated in structural collapse training. He anticipates the team will now train locally at least twice per year, at a considerable savings to local taxpayers.

“We can train 25 guys here today for the money it takes to send two to a class in Texas,” Christensen said.

The training grounds include several concrete culverts arranged in a winding tunnel, piles of debris and steel supports and concrete slabs that can be cut during rescue training and replaced afterwards.

Christensen explained the training could prepare his team to rescue victims trapped under a collapsed highway bridge, or covered beneath rubble after a bombing or an earthquake.

“I think the main thing is it’s a great opportunity to work with ISU and to bring departments from the region together,” Christensen said.

ISU engineering students designed the facility. It was funded with a $1.1 million grant from the Higher Education Research Council of the Idaho State Board of Education through the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission.

Mustafa Mashal is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering and the principal investigator for the Disaster Response Complex project. He said additional lanes at the facility will include an area to simulate vehicle rescues and a structure that simulates roof collapses.

ISU engineering students are designing the facilities. Mashal said they’re also using the facility to test robotic and virtual reality technology they’re developing for use in rescues. Some students, for example, are writing a Ph.D. dissertation on adding capabilities to a rescue robot enabling it to navigate through confined spaces. The new collapsed structure facility will enable them to conduct a full-scale validation of those capabilities, he said.

Mashal said the facility will also be useful in develop curriculum and obtaining certifications.

Mashal witnessed the need for such research and training during the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake while in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Saving lives is the ultimate goal of this project,” Mashal said.

Jared Cantrell, project manager of the Disaster Response Complex, said ISU’s College of Technology recently used the facility to conduct mass casualty training for future emergency medical technicians. He said the university’s GIS program is also interested in using the facility.

Cantrell expects the facility will be self-sustaining with funding from users throughout the community who take advantage of training opportunities.

He hopes to conduct one to two small trainings per week and a couple of larger trainings per month at the facility, with the goal of keeping the cost to users as affordable as possible.

“We’re trying to make this as open and available as possible to serve the community,” Cantrell said.