By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
It will no longer be called Homeland Security, however the city of Meridian's Public Safety Training Facility will have the same goal of training first responders from all areas of emergency management.
Bunky Partridge recently returned to the city's training facility as director. Partridge had had a 29-year career with the fire department – the last nine years as fire chief – when he left to become director of and to organize the Homeland Security/Public Safety Training Facility.
Partridge said that in 1995, then Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith decided to build a training facility for firefighters and police officers on 99 acres that belonged to the city as part of the Bonita Lakes property.
He described the property then as a "red dirt pit."
"We started out with zero budget," Partridge said. "We worked with local businesses, we worked with Lauderdale County that paved the running track and driving track. We started with a lot of sweat equity. We had firefighters, police officers out here working, building their own ranges."
Located on Sandflat Road, the facility consists of a classroom building, ballistic shoot house; multi-story drill tower with live fire rooms, five shooting ranges, canine kennel and training courses, a collapse structure training prop, rough terrain obstacle course, housing for 40 students, and a "derailed" Amtrack passenger train.
That derailed train was made possible from a $750,000 Federal Rail Administration grant, Partridge said. The train is used for an Emergency Response Rail Training course.
"There was not another one like it in the United States. When a train derailed, the firefighters and police officers did not know how to go inside the train when it was lying on its side, how to pop the windows out, how to turn the power off," Partridge said.
Students are taught how to rappel into the ravine to rescue train passengers, according to Doug Stephens, training officer.
"One of the most difficult things for students when you put them in these rail cars that are lying on their sides is that top and the bottom are now the sides; and the sides are now the top and the bottom," Stephens said. "Some of the major hazards there are windows. If you step through a window you could end up in the bottom of the ravine."
That course has brought emergency responders from around the country, Partridge said.
Partridge, along with Mayor Percy Bland, and Curt Goldacker, the city's chief administrative officer, recently met with congressional leaders in Washington to try to get the FRA grant again.
Currently, there is one Emergency Response Rail Training class offered, which is scheduled for October, Partridge said.
The rail training is just one part of the training available at the facility.
Firefighters can be trained at the Meridian facility instead of attending the Mississippi Fire Academy. Firefighters hired to work at the Mississippi Power coal plant in Kemper County will be trained in Meridian as well, Partridge said. Police officers still have to attend the Mississippi Law Enforcement Training Academy, but other law enforcement training is available at the center, which offers various shooting ranges and academic classes.
James Sharpe, assistant chief of police, was conducting a class on report writing for new police recruits at the center on Wednesday.
"We're teaching them an introductory report writing class," Sharpe said. "This is to help them write in the format that we use at the police department and to hopefully help them produce better cases that we can take to court in the future."
In an afternoon drive along the training facility's grounds last week, Ricky Leister, training chief for the Meridian Fire Department, explained the maneuvers firefighter students were attempting in the Driver Operator Class. To pass the driving test, students have to navigate through a complex sequence of orange cones, in forward and in reverse.
"All of this is to make sure that they are aware of their positioning with the vehicle in the road way," Leister said. "Before we put them on the road, we need them going through this course without hitting a cone."
He also conducted a tour of the smoke house, which is designed to emulate the conditions of a burning building. When a student initially enters the smoke house, they are able to look around.
"Where we throw them a curve is when we black their masks out," Leister said.
Fake smoke is used, and students have to go through the structure essentially without the use of their sight. And, it's incredibly hot in the smokehouse, Leister said.
"We keep it about 800 degrees or less, even though fires these days are no problem getting 1,200 degrees," Leister said.
The house is also set up to train students on vertical rescues. After training is completed, The Mississippi Fire Academy conducts the final testing for recruits to become certified.
Other classes include Mississippi Force Protection, sniper training, Overland Search and Rescue, and Basic SWAT training.
They also offer training in Collapsed Structure Rescue, which takes place mainly under a huge pile of rubble on the training site.
Underneath a massive pile of pieces of cement with rebar sticking out everywhere is a series of tunnels designed to train first responders how to handle rescues in a collapsed building.
"We teach them how to get in their safely, find the voids, the livable spaces that people could survive in and how to get into those by breaching and breaking the concrete — and doing it in a manner that you don't do any more damage or cause any more injury to the survivors," Stephens said.
The Collapsed Structure Class teaches students how to conduct rescues with various approaches, including with or without a breathing apparatus, Stephens said.
"By having the uprights, we can drop people down inside them," he said. "We will bring a crane out and teach them about crane operations, lifting and moving this heavy debris. If you have a real-world incident like that, you have to get in there and move this debris to get to survivors."
The center recently established a 550-yard rifle range and the National Sniper School has their competition there each year.
Partridge left the department in 2009 at the beginning of the Cheri Barry administration, which did not hire a full-time director. He returned when he was re-hired by Bland earlier this summer. Bland has said he wants to get the grant money rolling in again and he wants to use the training facility even more.
Partridge said he's glad to be back and he said he shares the mayor's vision to expand the facility and to get more grant money. He acknowledged that because of budget cutbacks, there isn't as much grant money as there was a few years ago, but there are still grants that can provide funding to the facility.
"Our goal is to build more props, to get more technically advanced," Partridge said. "We are the only place we can bring fire, police, EMS, public works, in one area. We do that here. We build relationships up so that when we get on an emergency scene, we all know each other, we all speak the same language and we can take care of business. That's why we are so different."
Among lessons learned through the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, was the development of the National Incident Management System.
"A 10-73 in the fire department and a 10-73 in the police department might be two different 10-codes. If a house is burning up, we're going to say on the radio, a house is burning up," Partridge said. "If we're chasing a criminal, we're not going to use a bunch of codes, we're going to all speak the same language. That's what came out of 9-11. We're all going to work together; we're all going to train together."
Goldacker described the facility as a gold mine, combining training in a train in a realistic scenario with instruction in state-of-the-art classrooms.
"We have training classrooms that have high-tech visual boards that have their own email addresses so you can send a PowerPoint presentation straight to the board," Goldacker said.
Students are issued an iPad that they use for study and to take tests. There are also cabins on site where up to 40 students can stay for the duration of their training.