A Dream is Born-The Origin of the Permian Basin Regional Training Center (PBRTC)
When the 12 members of the extended Smith, Heady and Sumler families lay down to rest on the evening of August 18, 2000 at their campsite near the bridge over the Pecos and Delaware rivers in Eddy County, New Mexico, they had no idea that in less that 12 hours their peaceful calm would become a raging inferno. And that they would be engulfed in it, with no way out.
As they slept, the pressure in the 30-inch natural gas pipeline running over the bridge dropped from 650 psi to 300. The leak was pinpointed by the monitoring system at El Paso Natural Gas and an employee was dispatched to investigate and shut down the gas flow. But it would be too late for the unsuspecting campers.
At 5:35 a.m. on the morning of August 19, an emergency call came into the Carlsbad Police Department from a resident five miles from the campsite, who reported that an intense explosion had shaken his home and that a huge fire was burning nearby.
Immediately, Carlsbad Fire sent a fire truck and ambulance. The Loving Fire Department and the Eddy County, Joel, and Otis Volunteer Fire Departments also responded. Carlsbad Fire Chief Mike Reynolds recounted that the intensity of the fire required them to relocate more than one-half mile away.
Suddenly, screams erupted downstream. Responders crashed through dense underbrush and a salt cedar forest only to find five critically burned adults and one five-year-old child. Nearby were the dead bodies of four children and two adults. By the end of the day, three adults and one child of those rescued had died either in flight or at the hospital. The last two victims died the following week and one a month later. Twelve family members wiped out in moments, leaving the remaining family and community stunned with grief.
But out of the ashes of the tragic event the vision of building a regional training center began to emerge. The family won a civil lawsuit against the pipeline company, and Martha Chapman (Nana), related by blood and marriage to all the victims, spearheaded the contribution of a $10 million dollar endowment to the Carlsbad Community Foundation (The Foundation), in memory of the family. Another $2 million came from Waste Isolation Pilot Plant federal education funds.
In December 2002, a committee was formed to determine the center’s needs. Through 2003 and 2004, local, regional, federal and industrial public safety representatives from Eddy, Lea and Chavez Counties visited three facilities to establish benchmarks for the new plan. They published their Strategic Plan in April of 2004.
The following year the programming and design efforts got underway. Mark J. Maciha was named first executive director to act as facilitator of the training programs and the physical construction of the training center.
The Foundation purchased 95 acres of land from the City of Carlsbad in the industrial park near the Cavern City Airport. The Foundation established a new not-for-profit organization named the Permian Basin Regional Training Center (PBRTC). The new organization initially leased space in the existing Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Training Center (AMITC) building located in the industrial park. After lengthy negotiations with the City of Carlsbad and the US Economic Development Agency, the Carlsbad Department of Development sold the AMITC building to PBRTC.
The Foundation awarded contracts to Hermes Architects and Kimley-Horn to design the training center and to Greer Construction Company to build it. Kidde Fire Trainers received a contract for the props and fire generation equipment. Owner’s Representative for the Carlsbad Community Foundation was Paul Fegter, currently of The Interact Business Group.
The Permian Basin Regional Training Center held its grand opening April 14 – April 19, 2008. The theme of the dedication was hope. The highlight of the event was Thursday’s Open House when the family held a ribbon cutting and memorial dedication for the Bobby and Terry Smith Educational Center, in remembrance of family members who died in the fire. Other events throughout the week were held for neighbors, regional business, area leadership, and regional responders.
The new PBRTC offers fire training for structural fire, public fire prevention, law enforcement, confined space / trench rescue, aircraft fire / rescue, emergency vehicle operations, oil / gas industry, safety, emergency operations, and hazardous materials incidents.
State of the art training takes place in a cityscape with roadways, a two-story observation tower, a five-story hotel training tower, a two-story apartment / retail building, a one-story residence, eight types of outdoor fire training props, live-fire simulators for LPG emergencies, a railroad accident site, car extrication area, and a drafting pit. Mobile fire training for volunteer departments includes a 30-ft mobile structural training unit, a portable fire extinguisher trainer, and an over-the-road tractor. Government agencies and industrial companies also share the center’s use.
Additional plans include:
—Nana’s Fire and Safety School, which will focus on fire prevention and safety programs for children. The village will include a locomotive on 90 feet of track.
—An Indoor Shooting Range
—An Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC)
—The possible inclusion of the Border Patrol’s entire local training program
The Educational Center Building houses staff offices, classrooms and bays. PBRTC has hosted meetings and training courses in the building since 2006. Future expansion includes additional parking and more classrooms.The vision of Martha Chapman and her family has become a reality. They now have the assurance that the Permian Basin Regional Training Center will provide first responders the education, skills, and hands-on experience they will need to meet future catastrophes. Mark J. Maciha, PBRTC executive director, summed it up succinctly: “As a result of the accident, the dream of a regional fire training center was born.”