UW-Madison students design ‘disaster’ for Wisconsin rescue training facility

May 30, 2008 By Renee Meiller

When University of Wisconsin–Madison civil and environmental engineering students Dan Zignego, Jake Varnes, Bill Schmitz and Nick Bobinski began a design project meant to be the crowning glory of their educational careers, they never thought it would turn into such a disaster.

Photo of ’rubble pile’

A jumbled mass of steel, concrete, wrecked vehicles and mannequin victims makes up Wing 2 of the 6,400-square-foot Rubble Pile at the React Center near Camp Douglas, Wis. Part of a unique Wisconsin facility that provides disaster- and complex-rescue training to hundreds of firefighters, Wing 2 of the Rubble Pile, which was designed by a team of four UW–Madison civil and environmental engineering students, simulates the wreckage created by an apartment-building collapse onto a parking garage.

Photo: courtesy REACT Center

Fortunately, a disaster is exactly what their client — state of Wisconsin REACT Center Director Michael Kunesh — wanted.

Operated via the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance and located near Camp Douglas, Wis., the REACT Center provides specialized disaster- and complex-rescue training to approximately 480 state firefighters. Among its key facilities is Wing 1 of the Rubble Pile, a jumbled mass of steel, concrete, wrecked vehicles and mannequin victims that enables trainees to simulate an eight-hour-long structural-collapse rescue.

During the exercise, six teams of eight trainees-fully clad in protective gear-enter the collapsed structure at various points. Dragging heavy hydraulic saws and drills, they wiggle through crevices as small as 2 feet in diameter. They cut through steel or concrete barriers and build rakers, or braces, to stabilize portions of the collapsed structure. And they locate, assess and transport mannequin survivors or victims out of the wreckage.

Designed by the UW–Madison students, Wing 2 opened this month. While it includes elements similar to the original wing, the students’ design makes the structural-collapse rescue more realistic, more intense-and easier to clean up and "reset" after the exercise. "It’s going to make trainees think more," says Kunesh. "It’s going to make them use their skills better."

Before the firefighters tackle the Rubble Pile, they undergo 80 hours of training and must demonstrate proficiency in confined spaces breaching, bracing structural walls, cutting metal, and navigating a challenging obstacle course.

A 30-year veteran firefighter who previously was homeland security program manger for the state of Wisconsin, Kunesh says the REACT Center grew out of training requests from firefighters across the state. He and his colleagues created Wing 1 of the Rubble Pile and, while it was both safe and effective as a training tool, the design needed some improvements.

"We knew what we wanted," says Kunesh. "We just didn’t know how to build it."

Enter the UW–Madison engineering students, who chose the "transportation" category of potential design challenges in civil and environmental engineering Professor Jeffrey Russell’s senior capstone design course, CEE 578.

At first, they were less than excited about the project they received. "You could sign up for general building, transportation or environmental for the senior design project," says student Dan Zignego. "We all signed up for transportation, thinking we were going to get a road to design. When we saw this thing, it was like, ‘Come on-this is a piece of junk. We want a road.’"

The students discarded their dream of creating a traditional civil engineering design, however, after they explored the Rubble Pile. "They left-and you could tell they were very excited," says Kunesh. "They saw it inside and out, and they understood it. They met with our lead instructor and talked about the curriculum and what we’re trying to accomplish with the training."

Back in Madison, the students set to work on a 40-by-160-foot design that simulates the rubble created by an apartment-building collapse onto a parking garage. With advice from industry mentor Finn Hubbard, state of Wisconsin bridge engineer, they conducted a soil analysis and specified a six-inch compacted-gravel pad, topped in critical areas with a strong material called Hollow Core, to alleviate settlement and load-distribution issues. They chose such common construction materials as jersey barriers, concrete pipe and manholes-not only to ensure their design was safe, but also to enable workers to remove rubble and replace barriers more efficiently. To make the new wing simpler to build, students laid their design out on a grid system with dimensions down to tenths of a foot.

Student Jake Varnes also spent hours creating an intricate 3-D model. "I think every design for a road I’ve ever seen is in 2-D, because you know how the parts are going to fit together, you know the road is just going to be right on top of the ground," he says. "For this, we were thinking that if we didn’t do a 3-D model, we would have pipes running into each other and going through places they shouldn’t be going. We kind of started it just to make sure everything made sense, but in the end, I think it worked out really well-just for demonstration of what it’s going to look like."

The Rubble Pile project forced the students to think outside the civil engineering box. "There was nothing standard," says student Bill Schmitz. "You couldn’t just go to a manual and it’d tell you to design any of this stuff. You just needed to think and use your engineering judgment."

Not only was designing "junk" a valuable educational experience for the students-it also landed Schmitz, Varnes and Bobinski jobs as project managers (Zignego graduated in December 2007 and began a job in Milwaukee) at the REACT Center. "Their job is to come out and make sure we’re building it right," says Kunesh.

Kunesh will be scheduling more training sessions because workers now can clear and reset the wing more quickly. In addition, the new wing will provide greater challenges for trainees. "Before, it was mostly move forward and cut, move forward and cut," he says. "Now, it’s move forward, cut, enter a void-which you can’t enter until you brace it-and work their way through that."

In addition, trainees now will spend an intense 24 hours-rather than eight-working their way through the Rubble Pile. "They will rotate shifts. So, they’ll work six hours, sleep six hours, and so on," says Kunesh. "And they will rotate the crews just like in a real disaster. The old wing never would have gotten us through 24 hours. And the old one exhausted the firefighters physically."

Kunesh calls working with the UW–Madison students a great partnership. He already anticipates another collaboration to produce a Rubble Pile Wing 3. "It’s always going to be constantly rebuilt," says Kunesh of the Rubble Pile. "We’re hoping that next year the university has a new group or two to design a new wing."