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Newark Fire Facility Transformed into Disaster Area for Training

Metro USAR Strike Team hones emergency response skills during four-day course

It was a grisly scene at the Metro City Park & Ride Wednesday, where earlier in the morning a multi-story parking garage had collapsed not once, but twice, leaving dozens of victims buried beneath rubble and trapped inside their vehicles.

As night began to fall on the city, members of the Metro Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Strike Team raced against the clock, cutting through concrete slabs and flipping fallen buses to swiftly rescue victims from the simulated disaster.

For the fifth consecutive year, the strike team was back on Orange Street in Newark for the mandatory drill, honing their emergency response skills over an intense four days. The first-ever nighttime operations course is being held Monday through Thursday this week at Newark Fire Department's training center.

"Something could happen or go wrong, that's why we stress safety," said Tommy Mastroeni, a Newark firefighter with the department's division of special operations. "The more practice they get, the less likely they'll get hurt in real life."

The USAR team was created in wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and is made up of nearly 400 public safety officers from various fire departments in Northern Jersey including the Port Authority Police Department.

After initially touring the manmade course, a dozen members from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also trained in Newark Tuesday night, said Art Mauriello, battalion chief of NFD's division of special operations.

"They said, 'This is as real as it gets,'" he said.

Each year it takes Mauriello and his special operations team as long as eight months to design and construct the large-scale exercise, complete with smashed police cars and full-sized trailers and buses to make it as realistic as possible. Last year, a , leaving dozens dead.

This year's simulation was inspired by the 2010 parking garage collapse in Hackensack when two floors of the three-story structure caved in. Five different stations were created including both outdoor and indoor situations. Split into smaller teams, USAR members were briefed on the situation with a PowerPoint presentation before being given assignments and deployed into the field.

Some had to carefully rig upended cars in order to access victims, while the last leg of the drill involved slicing through concrete in order to reach victims inside a bus that collapsed into a tunnel.

"You have to work together as a team or else it doesn't work," said Mauriello.

Teams were a mix of Port Authority police and firefighters from Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Paterson, Morristown, Millburn, Bayonne, Hoboken, Hackensack, Hudson Regional, Middlesex, all of which are part of New Jersey's Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

At the end of the night, the individual teams are critiqued by fire personnel who supervise the drills as they're completed. Each station is then completely reset for the next batch of trainees, which takes nearly three hours to complete.

"Everything you see here is brought in at zero cost to Newark," said Mauriello, adding that the Newark Police Department supplies old patrol cars and other equipment to make the annual drill possible. He said the 600 members of NFD will also train at the facility before it's gutted for next year.

Looking ahead though, the USAR course may have to become more challenging; several teams zipped through the exercises in less time than officials expected, the result of four years of training being put to good use.

"We don't want to have it be so hard that they fail," said Mauriello, "but we don't want to make it so easy that they're done in an hour."

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