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Take a tour of the 'doomsday Disneyland'

By Jason Evans, CNN
updated 7:15 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Guardian Centers is an 830-acre disaster response training facility in Georgia
  • Privately run center prides itself on realistic training scenarios "on demand"
  • Clients work with the Centers to develop customized scenarios for training
  • The Centers founder hopes to expand to other parts of the United States

(CNN) -- Guardian Centers may be a place to practice how to respond to a disaster, but that doesn't mean real danger is nonexistent.

When we headed over to see its mock subway station, complete with eight cars donated from Washington's Metro system, we were told we had a limited window to view it. The reason -- they were going to be pumping actual toxic gas into the building to simulate a chemical attack.

As smoke rose from chunks of concrete representing an obliterated building, Chris Schaff put it this way: "As soon as you come in here, the pretend goes away."

He's a fire and rescue battalion chief with Fairfax County, Virginia, and his words carry a lot of weight. His elite team of urban search and rescue operatives has been deployed to numerous disasters, including Hurricane Sandy, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti quake.

A search and rescue dog finds role player Laurie Holland as the team works a mock steel building collapse during training for the U.S. Agency for International Development at the Guardian Centers facility in Perry, Georgia, on March 26. The training at the 834-acre site is the first of its kind and includes training for both domestic and international rescues. A search and rescue dog finds role player Laurie Holland as the team works a mock steel building collapse during training for the U.S. Agency for International Development at the Guardian Centers facility in Perry, Georgia, on March 26. The training at the 834-acre site is the first of its kind and includes training for both domestic and international rescues.
Disaster training at Guardian Centers
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Disaster training at Guardian Centers Disaster training at Guardian Centers

Luis Fernandez, a two-decades-plus veteran of disaster response, agreed the Perry, Georgia, facility passes muster.

"The temperature extremes, the building extremes, the noises, the environment, are incredibly lifelike," said Fernandez, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue chief of staff and.a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The brotherhood of Disaster City

From the aforementioned subway station, to a mock bridge with crushed cars, to a devastated structure made to look like the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Guardian Centers' 830-acre site is designed to allow a variety of responders to do a variety of drills in one location.

This kind of "doomsday Disneyland" owes its vision to Geoff Burkart, a telecommunications executive who was in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During Katrina, he saw "what was being done there, and what was not being done."

From there the idea was born, and a former Cold War missile plant became the location.

The subway station is especially convincing, fashioned from an elongated building originally designed to be an assembly line for the weapons.

Training for tragedy in 'Disaster City'

Open for less than two years, the Centers facility has changed the game for disaster response training. Clients can tell Burkart's team what their specific needs are. If it's a group from the Pacific Northwest, they can request the ground be saturated to simulate the region's heavy rainfall.

Many agencies have "script writers" that work with Guardian Centers on specifications, from smoke to rebar.

"We're primarily just a tool, and we want to be the best tool," Burkart said.

He doesn't want to slight government training facilities but points out the advantages to being privately run.

"We can adapt and provide everything the client needs almost on demand," he said.

And by being able to provide a number of different training types in one place, Burkart says, he's saving the taxpayers money.

Still, the process to create such scenarios takes time. A recent weeklong earthquake response drill for FEMA and the U.S. Agency for International Development took months to plan, according to spokespeople.

And things must always be changed up. A pair of dog handlers from a New Mexico search and rescue team pointed out that the animals are smart enough to remember where the holes in the rubble are.

As for Burkart, he hopes his vision will extend well beyond the rolling hills of central Georgia.

"If we can make this entire campus successful, we would like to put one of these in (each of) the four corners of the United States," he said.

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