Fort Worth-area responders prepare for severe weather

Fort Worth firefighter Felix Esparza is helped out of a tunnel during a practice drill that simulated the aftermath of a tornado at the Tarrant County College Fire Training Center on Tuesday.
Fort Worth firefighter Felix Esparza is helped out of a tunnel during a practice drill that simulated the aftermath of a tornado at the Tarrant County College Fire Training Center on Tuesday. Star-Telegram

Hurst firefighter Michael Thomas paused to catch his breath.

It was only a tornado response training session, but the fatigue that rescuers can feel in this sort of exercise can be very real, especially for those rigged up with pounds of firefighter gear on a warm day.

Here was the simulated scenario that played out Tuesday: A major tornado had ripped through Fort Worth, collapsing two buildings on the Tarrant County College Northwest campus, and severely damaging 75 nearby houses.

The scenario at TCC’s Fire Service Training Center was part of a three-day drill involving firefighters and paramedics from about a dozen area cities.

During the drill on Tuesday, Thomas was responsible for cutting through a metal plate to get into one of the buildings, but his Petrogen steel-cutting torch wasn’t working.

If it were a real tornado disaster, there could have been wounded civilians on the other side of the metal plate, perhaps screaming for help.

“You’ve probably just got dirt in the line,” instructor Mike Walters, a long-time Fort Worth fire lieutenant, told Thomas.

Then, as Thomas got back to work, Walters explained to a visitor that the malfunctioning torch wasn’t part of the training.

“That’s not part of the simulation, but it’s good for them to experience it, because it can happen in a real situation,” Walters said.

Spring brings bad weather

Spring officially begins Friday — and in North Texas, that means it’s the season for potentially severe weather. With an ever-expanding region of 6.8 million people, the prospect grows that a large wind and thunderstorm could cause massive property damage, injuries and maybe even fatalities.

At the training session Tuesday, Thomas and the other firefighters were eventually able to cut through the metal with a giant rotary saw. In all, at least nine rescuers from Hurst, Plano and Grapevine worked until they could get into the building.

The tornado drill also includes firefighters and other personnel from Arlington, Bedford, Euless, Carrollton and Irving.

The goal is to test rescuers’ ability to respond to structural collapses, as well as communicate with each other, said Tarrant County College spokeswoman Rita Parson.

The exercise is held on a large lot on the sprawling campus of the college’s Northwest campus, just off Loop 820 and Eagle Mountain Parkway, not far from Saginaw and Lake Worth.

On the campus, cinderblock buildings can be set afire from a control room on the third floor of a nearby glass building, where observers have a great view of the action.

“People in the control room can change things up, just to keep them on their toes,” another spokeswoman, Suzanne Cottraux, said.

A unique opportunity

The Fire Service Training Center staff placed concrete slabs and other heavy debris across the area where the training was being staged, to replicate collapsed walls. Salvaged automobiles were used to replicate vehicles that could have been thrown in a tornado.

Emergency workers from cities throughout the region routinely train together. In November 2013, an exercise known as Urban Shield was held in North Texas, and it involved representatives of many agencies simulating a response to a disaster. Urban Shield exercises can include simulated plane crashes, terrorist attacks or many other forms of large-scale devastation.

But training for a tornado response is a unique opportunity, and it helps area officials prepare for the possibility their training will soon be needed in real life, as the prospect of potentially-deadly severe weather increases, said Rodney Smith, a retired Arlington fire official and program coordinator for the TCC Fire Service Training Center.

“They don’t have this particular training on a regular basis,” Smith said. “This is a change for larger cities to work with the smaller cities. In a situation like this, you would have people from many cities responding, and they would need to quickly communicate with each other.”

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram