ELMA – Smoke spewed out of a tunnel 27 feet underground as a team of Seattle firefighters emerged in full gear from the heat and the flames under the strict timing of a commander with a stop watch.
On hand to observe and participate were firefighters from Grays Harbor Fire District 5, the New York Fire Department and the Ventura, Calif., Fire Department, along with several media crews watching outside in a slice of earth converted to a staging area for the highly specialized subterranean fire drill.
The first day of emergency tunnel training in two of the Satsop Business Park’s old cooling-tower pipes was an unqualified success. The tunnels have been equipped and set up for about 30 firefighters this week in a pair of 12-foot diameter pipes that have been transformed into the business park’s new tunnel rescue training complex.
Wednesday marked the first use of what is planned as a long-term training enterprise at the former site of the abandoned Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear project.
The pair of parallel water pipes were once designed to carry water to and from the twin cooling towers. “One was dissected and the other was opened up to allow for three separate areas to set up various training scenarios,” a business park news release explained.
Tami Garrow, Satsop Business Park CEO, also was among the observers as firefighters were performing drills in two of the tunnels simultaneously.
“This is really just the beginning,” she said. “That is the whole goal.”
Digging out a portion of the pipe, dissecting the one pipe, excavating and installing needed safety and utility systems cost about $250,000, she said. The park worked with Hari Sharma, engineering manager of Berglund, Schmidt & Associates Inc. in Hoquiam, to help design the systems.
“It’s lit, it’s got ventilation and it’s got electricity, so the people who build the tunnels, the laborers’ unions and others are going to train inside these things, too,” Garrow said. The business park is in the process of being consolidated with the Grays Harbor Port.
The tunnels eventually will be equipped with rails and small tunnel cars, called lokies, and will also be used for training already being conducted at the business park by Northwest Laborers-Employers Training Trust, which first came up with the idea of creating a world-class tunnel safety and training facility at Satsop.
“They became aware of this facility and there was just a lot of interest and excitement in unearthing this,” Garrow said.
Mike Warren, director of the trust, said his group has been doing tunnel training at the business park for the past several years. Much of that was based on construction of tunnels, but there was a need to provide a facility where emergency responders could train in real-life situations.
Sound Transit also needed a training facility for its tunnel workers.
Prior to this week, the Seattle Fire Department and other fire departments across the country did such training in West Virginia.
“It just seemed like a no-brainer to take this and create something that meant they didn’t have to go to West Virginia, and neither does anybody else who needs that kind of training,” Garrow said.
The Seattle Fire Department has been contracted to provide tunnel rescue service for the Sound Transit Light Rail System. A group has been staying in Elma for the past two weeks, and Garrow noted the Seattle department has had a long-term relationship with the business park to do other on-site training before the tunnels were added to the options.
“We couldn’t have designed this without them because they knew what they needed,” she said.
Warren said there is no other tunnel training center like the one at Satsop anywhere on the West Coast, and the only thing remotely comparable would be mining-training shafts used by the Colorado School of Mines.
“Where else can you do a live fire in a tunnel situation,” Warren said. “And over at the other tower, we’ve got our tunnel and props where we are doing our tunnel boring machine training.”
Coming up, Warren said the Training Trust will be conducting a class in how to lay rail, pipes and other equipment in the converted pipes, which were uncovered about two years ago.
“We’ll assemble all that and create as much of a realistic tunnel as we can,” Warren said. Northwest Laborers-Employer Training Trust, he noted, has already trained about 200 people at Satsop and also has offered classes in construction, use of power tools, fence-building, concrete placement and shaft work classes.
The Seattle Fire Department plans to use the new tunnel facility at least 30 times a year, and Garrow envisions many other fire departments and also military uses for the facility. A group from Joint Base Lewis-McChord was at the site recently.
“They are really looking to incorporate this into their training curriculum,” Garrow said.
Nathan Hoover, Satsop Business Park project coordinator, said users of the training complex will pay a daily or weekly fee to use it, which estimates say will amount to about $10,000 per week.
“It would depend on how many users actually come and use it,” Hoover said, noting that the Training Trust also plans to use the facility about 30 days a year. “I see a lot of potential for the Army to use it for all sorts of reasons.”
While Garrow is retiring at the end of the year and the business park Public Development Authority is about to be consolidated under Grays Harbor Port management, both Warren and Garrow said the changes won’t have any affect on the use of the training center, which will continue to be managed in large part by Warren.
“I think it came together fairly well,” Warren said. “What Tami and her PDA staff have done so far has just been an outstanding job.”