Planning, funding efforts begin for disaster training facilities in Lawrence County

by George Jared ([email protected]) 137 views 

Arkansas State University hopes to build an expansive disaster training facility at the Walnut Ridge Airport and at a site near Imboden. ASU Disaster Preparedness program Director Dr. Debbie Persell told Talk Business & Politics that her department has signed assurances that the 300 acres they seek for this project will be available if they can find the money to pay for the proposal.

The vision is to build a facility where different elements within a disaster response team – firefighters, police, first responders, paramedics, etc. – can work a disaster scenario with each other, Persell said. What they hope to do is create zones, such as a tornado zone, where there will be actual rumble and other obstacles that resemble the damage caused by a tornado, she said.

Other proposed zones might include a flood zone that replicates flooded areas, and earthquake zone, a hazardous materials spill zone, and others. Each will present real life obstacles that responders will have to overcome.

Different agencies can work together during in these scenarios and development more efficient response methods, she said. ASU would benefit because it already has a robust disaster preparedness program, and students could use the facilities for training and other purposes, she said.

“We want to try and bridge the gap between academia and practical application,” she said.

To build a classroom/research facility and the disaster zones will cost millions of dollars, and will be paid for through federal grants, foundation grants, and hopefully other entities that might want to partner in this venture, Persell said. The first step was to secure the land. Now, she is in the middle of writing at least 10 separate grant proposals seeking funds, she said.

Emergency response teams will primarily use the site, and that’s where the local economy could see a benefit, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp told Talk Business & Politics. If the project can be completed, thousands of emergency responders could come to Lawrence County each year, he said. Many of them will need lodging, food, fuel, and will spend money on other items in the area, he said.

The city has already signed a memorandum of understanding with ASU concerning some of the land the program is interested in. Walnut Ridge is the largest city in Lawrence County with a population of about 5,000, and is the county seat.

It may take years to complete the project if funding and partners can be found, but the project is already benefitting some, ASU Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Dr. Bill Smith said.

One specialty area on which the program will focus is farm medical safety issues, Smith said. For instance, if a worker falls into a grain bin, a very tedious and precise process must be followed to safely free that worker. Often, workers in that circumstance die, or are seriously injured, he said. Safe ways to extract that worker can be developed at the facility.

Scenarios for several farm medical issues, including falling off a tractor, can already be played out on the land that has been secured for the project, he said. In late July, ASU partnered with Black River Technical College for a joint farm medical training session at the Walnut Ridge Airport site, Persell said.

“Responders need these real-life interactions … it’s a better way to train,” she said.

If the facility can be built, it would allow ASU to possibly expand their disaster preparedness program, and it would also give ASU professors a treasure trove of data and other research material to examine and decipher, Persell said.

The next steps will be to procure funding for architectural designs, and to form committees for each of the proposed zones. These committees will be filled with experts in that particular arena of study, such as fire sciences, to come up with the best obstacles, she said.

Many different details of this proposal, including how or if these first responders groups will have to pay to use the facilities, have not been worked out yet. A timetable hasn’t been established, either. This project could serve as a national model for disaster preparedness and training if they can get it done right, she said.

“Right now, we need funding. All of these questions can’t and won’t get answered until we know how much funding we can get,” she said.