Once the primary health care facility for a major Army post, Noble is now a hospital for robots. Almost every week, doctors here work on scores of mannequins — mannequins that bleed, mannequins that moan in pain, mannequins with green foam around their mouths.
For the doctors on hand, the rush of patients is sometimes more than they can handle. That’s the point.
“We can stress them here pretty easily,” said Rick Dickson, gesturing around a small, tiled waiting room that seems straight out of the 1970s. “But we need a facility that looks and operates more like a 21st century hospital.”
Dickson is the assistant director for training for the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a $62 million-per-year Homeland Security training facility tucked away on the site of the former Fort McClellan, an 18,000-acre Army post that was closed in the late 1990s.
The CDP, as it is known, is at the heart of the post-9/11 “new normal.” In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, local governments and law-enforcement agencies took on a new role. In addition to responding to everyday crimes and accidents, emergency responders started planning for catastrophic events, such as chemical attacks or pandemics.
For most people, the changes have been pretty much invisible. A metal detector at City Hall, a side entrance that was locked 10 years ago and never opened again. Mass-casualty exercises that shut down a college dorm or government office for a day. Police officers who disappear into anti-terrorist training, and come back talking about the need for more awareness.
The CDP is one of the places those officers disappear to. A place where first responders go to think about the unthinkable.
‘Not if but when.’
In the CDP’s main building, inside a big glass case, there are reminders of past attacks on America. A piece of metal from the USS Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor. A slab of concrete from the federal building in Oklahoma City. A shard of steel from the World Trade Center.
It’s a reminder of how far the nation has come since the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The air here is full of statements that seem to be straight out of 2002.
“It’s really not a question of if a catastrophic attack occurs,” Dickson said. “It’s a matter of when.”
But then, that was the saying here long before Sept. 11. The CDP got its start in 1998, when Fort McClellan was closing, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks were largely the province of Hollywood screenwriters.
Dickson, a retired Army military policeman, has been here since the center was founded – as an obscure government agency that owned two buildings and trained hundreds of police officers in four disaster-response courses.
“We were fortunate that there are a few people in government who can see around corners,” Dickson said. “There were people who had the foresight to see this threat before the public did.”
After Sept. 11, the CDP’s growth exploded. The center owns the former Noble Army Hospital — now dubbed the Noble Training Facility — where doctors, nurses and hospital administrators tend to a hospital full of “dying” robots. It also owns “Northville,” a simulated town of gray cinderblock buildings, where trainees in chemical warfare suits practice evacuating mannequins after a simulated chemical attack. Hard by Northville is a white, windowless building where trainees suit up for “live agent training.” In other words, they don chemical gear and pretend to rescue people in a room filled with poison gas. The exercise is make-believe, but the gas in the room – Sarin or its deadlier cousin, VX — is real.
Officials at the center say they train 82,000 emergency responders every year — 11,000 at McClellan and many more at training events around the country. The CDP offers 55 different courses, on everything from pandemics to suicide bomb attacks. Emergency responders come here from all 50 states, and they stay on the CDP campus in dormitories that once housed non-commissioned officers at Fort McClellan.
Homeland Security officials say the CDP would have a reason to exist even if the Sept. 11 attacks hadn’t happened. They point to hurricanes, tornadoes and the threat of pandemic flu as reasons to train responders to be ready for disaster. But it’s clear the center owes much of its growth to the attacks. In fiscal 2001, the CDP trained 2,500 people. In fiscal 2002, it trained 14,000 — and the numbers have grown steadily since.
And the federal government picks up the tab. CDP officials say that once trainees are selected by their local police agencies, Homeland Security pays for their transportation and lodging.
“It’s a good deal for local governments, especially in times like these,” said Shannon Arledge, spokesman for the center.
‘This baby … will die’
Every major war comes with its own set of absurdities. Destroying the village to save it. Taking the hill and giving it back. The fictional, but strangely realistic, Catch-22.
The CDP has more than its share of dark ironies. There’s the Teddy Bear Room, where students learn to do triage by examining dozens of stuffed bears, each with a list of symptoms tied around its neck. There’s the Field Force Extraction class, which teaches responders how to remove nonviolent protesters who’ve chained themselves to each other — an odd fit, for a facility focused on disasters. And there’s the child-size mannequin in a hospital bed at Noble, its fate already scripted. (“This particular baby, in this scenario, will die,” Dickson said. “Not everybody lives, and that’s part of the training.”)
But don’t expect to hear anybody joking here. Officials at CDP say every bit of the curriculum makes sense if you understand the scale of casualties from a chemical or biological attack. Even in the wake of Sept. 11, Dickson said, most of the doctors who train here don’t initially understand how catastrophic such an attack could be.
“When doctors talk about mass-casualty incidents,” Dickson said. “They’re usually talking about a bus crash with 26 passengers. When you talk about hundreds of people showing up at your door with contaminated clothing, that’s a completely different situation.”
Even the civil-disobedience training fits, CDP officials maintain.
“Terrorists can take advantage of all sorts of situations,” Dickson said, noting that the 2012 political conventions, which are sure to draw protesters, may also become targets for terrorists. Police need to be able to handle those complex situations, he said.
All of this is delivered with a deadpan seriousness that seems to come straight out of a Cold War nuclear bunker. And that mood is everywhere here. The guards are friendly, but with a hyper-alert, watchdog stare. In every other hallway, there’s a picture of an accusing finger, and above it the words “Display your badge.”
Ask CDP workers why they’re so single-minded, and they’ll tell you about Wayne Rhatigan, the New York police officer who foiled a bomb plot in Times Square last year. He was trained by CDP. So were some of staff at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., a hospital that rode out a devastating tornado earlier this year.
“I think people are vulnerable to complacency if they aren’t in the business of dealing with these threats on a daily basis,” said Chistopher T. Jones, superintendent of the center. “Our students are dealing with the threats.”
It may not hurt to be in a place where the “new normal” is, well, normal.
The danger of chemical weapons is nothing new here: for 40-plus years, Anniston was home to one of the biggest chemical weapons arsenals on the planet. Hundreds of local residents worked in highly secure chemical weapons bunkers, and everyone had a friend or cousin or uncle who donned a chemical warfare suit daily at work.
Heather Hollingsworth is the 21st century incarnation of your uncle with the chem suit. By day, she works at Noble, where she dresses in medical scrubs and maintains the mannequins that populate Noble Hospital. At night, she takes EMT courses at Gadsden State.
Oh, and one other thing.
“I’ve trained with live agent 170 times,” she said.
In a real chemical attack, CDP officials say, men and women would be decontaminated separately. Many of the classes that come through the center are short on women. When they are, Hollingsworth suits up, goes into the gas chamber, and risks exposure to VX.
It’s tdeadly stuff. Arledge, the CDP spokesman, says you can die from contact with a drop of VX that’s just big enough to cover the statue of Lincoln on the back of a penny. (There really is a statue of Lincoln in the monument on the back of the penny, but you have to look really close.)
Why train with live agent? Dickson said studies have shown that people who train in the standard military way — donning a suit and going into a room full of non-lethal tear gas — lack confidence in the equipment, and in their own ability to use it in a real-world attack.
“If you did this training in the military, you probably reached up and broke the seal on your mask if it got too hard to breathe,” Dickson said. “When you’re working with live agent, you don’t do that.”
Asked where the CDP got its VX, CDP superintendent Jones said, tersely, “From the Army.”
He won’t answer questions about how much poison gas the facility has on hand.
A math problem
Ten years after the attacks, the budget austerity is a looming threat to almost every government program. Anti-terrorist programs may yet prove to be untouchable in the budget process; if an attack occurs, nobody wants to be the politician who just cut homeland defense.
But continued funding is still not a given, especially at the local level.
“Homeland Security training is very expensive, and there’s not as much money to go around,” said Stacy Mann, a professor at Jacksonville State University’s Institute for Emergency Preparedness.
Cuts have already appeared at the state level. Officials of Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security said earlier this year that their federal funding dropped by almost half, to $5 million, due in part to the end of stimulus funding. When Alabama legislators passed a tough immigration bill, and tasked state-level Homeland Security with enforcing part of it, officials pointed out that they didn’t know how the department would pay for it.
The director of CDP says he can see the conundrum states and local governments are facing.
“I don’t think it’s complacency,” Jones said. “I think it’s a math problem.”
Jones said he foresees “downward pressure on every agency” as the federal government tries to cut down on spending.
Even the CDP is looking for ways to cut corners. Jones said the center is reviewing some of its policies on energy use, and is revamping the way it schedules travel for students coming to the center. With thousands of students per year, he said, some red-eye flights could save a lot of money.
Jones acknowledges that it’s his job to worry. But he said the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden haven’t convinced him the threat of attack is passing. Far from it.
“With the destabilization that is going on, and the presence of weapons of mass destruction in these countries, the risk may be increasing,” he said.
Asked if the public has grown complacent after a decade without a major attack, Jones shook his head.
“The fact that we’re all more alert,” he said, “may be the reason why an attack didn’t happen.”
Contact Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560.