Lionshead a big stage for disaster exercise |

Lionshead a big stage for disaster exercise

Scott N. Miller
Preston Utley/Vail DailyEmergency crews search for a "dummy" placed prior to the old gondola building being demolished.

VAIL – Rob Jones is getting a career’s worth of experience in just a few days of work.Jones, a firefighter from Rifle, is one of nearly 400 people who swarmed over a large pile of debris in Lionshead in a drill organizers hoped would closely mimic a real large building collapse.”It’s been a real eye-opener,” Jones said of the drill. While Rifle firefighters train for “confined space” incidents, they do it in something closer to a classroom. “That’s nowhere near as challenging as this,” he said.The reason is that when it comes to training for a building collapse, there’s just nothing like a knocked-down building, and those can be hard to find. Even if emergency service agencies can find such a building, getting into it for training can be hard. That’s why Vail Resorts required everyone going into the “disaster” site to sign a liability waiver. There’s also the matter of publicity, which is why Vail Resorts changed the name of the old gondola building to the “Kaltenberg Building” for the drill.The end result, though, is a large training ground. And for four days, the demolition site became the closest thing to a disaster any emergency worker could hope for.”This is where we learn our skills,” said Paul Dillon, a Denver Fire Department captain and a member of the Colorado Urban Search and Rescue Team. “We’re fortunate Vail had the foresight to do this.”As machinery hummed virtually everywhere on the site, rescuers were poking holes in the building and using hydraulic jacks and timber to shore up a staircase.

In a dark cornerAs Dillon led a small tour, he shined his helmet light into a nook of the old building. There, small scaffolds of four-by-four lumber held the roof steady so rescuers could work to find a victim – a mannequin in this case – on the other side of a concrete wall.After a small hole had been knocked in a wall, rescuers ran a camera into the next room to find exactly where the victim was. A victim on the other side of the room would allow rescuers to hammer away, knocking concrete into the next room. A victim too close to the wall, though, requires a different technique, pulling concrete back into the room rescuers are working in, to avoid further injury to the victim.As Dillon shined his flashlight into a dark corner of the building, rescue dogs barked outside, looking for still other victims. Rescuers, covered with dust, walked into and out of the site.On a break, Vail firefighter Rocco Ligrani looked out over the site, still a bit amazed even on the third day of the drill. Ligrani is a veteran of training sessions in Vail Village at the old Sonnenalp Swiss House and the Vail Village Inn. Those buildings, now long gone, were used for training before they were completely demolished. The Lionshead drill is happening on a much, much larger scale.”The amount of equipment and manpower for this is amazing,” Ligrani said. “We need a lot of different resources.”

“It’s a different thought process, bracing for a structural collapse,” Ligrani said.More than muscleThat different thought process extends beyond the rubble pile. Back at Vail Town Hall, the town council room was set up for a swarm of reporters, with phone lines and Internet hookups at the ready. Farther back in the building, people from around the region tried to keep up with the activity at the work site. The work in the operations center ranged from dispatchers bringing together information to financial people to ensure contracts with private companies are legitimate.People at the command center also worked with representatives of the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which also treated the drill as a real emergency.”There’s always a glitch here and there working with first responders,” said Randy Bogart of the Grand Junction office of the Red Cross. “It’s always a learning experience.”

But there seemed to be plenty of learning going on, from the front lines to the back rooms. “This gives people an opportunity to think things through,” said Merle Glenn. The Cedaredge, Colo. resident was part of the team evaluating how crews performed during the drill.And that performance seemed to get better as the drill went on. “To see the progress made in the last 24-hour period is just amazing,” Glenn said. “It’s providing a real foundation of knowledge.”While practice may never make perfect in this case, practice is essential. “Because of this we’re getting a better understanding of how things would operate,” said Julie Anderson, a supervisor in the Vail emergency dispatch center. “I love these exercises,” Glenn added. It’s the most valuable thing we do. And it’s great to see the pride that all these people take in the jobs they do.” ============The drill”The Kaltenberg Incident” sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum book. It’s actually the name of a four-day drill held at Lionshead. Vail Resorts, which owns the property, has changed the name of the old gondola building to “The Kaltenberg Building” for the exercise. The basics of the drill are:

• A building in Lionshead has collapsed, killing at least six people.• A small container of radioactive cobalt was found in a garage. The FBI has arrested a suspect and the material.• Rescuers must find victims, both living and dead, and get them out of the debris.• Nearly 400 people from around Colorado and the nation are participating.• Once the drill is over, work continues on the Arrabelle at Vail Square condo/hotel project.=====================Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or Daily, Vail Colorado

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