White Oak Rescue Team stands ready should emergencies arise

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Personnel at Arnold Engineering Development Complex Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9 have taken this proverb urging prudence to heart. For around the past quarter century, a group has been in place at the facility, ready to respond should disaster strike.

The White Oak Rescue Team, or WORT, was established in the late 1990s, not long after Tunnel 9 became an Air Force facility in 1997. The WORT is made up of trained and certified Tunnel 9 employees with both the Department of Defense and AEDC Test Operations and Sustainment contractor. Its purpose is to provide immediate lifesaving actions in the event of an emergency until county emergency responders arrive.

According to Dawnsherrae Bryant, AEDC White Oak Safety, Quality, Industrial Hygiene and Emergency Management coordinator and WORT manager, it would take a minimum of 10 minutes and potentially several hours for the nearest emergency response agency to arrive on scene should an emergency occur at Tunnel 9.

“The WORT members provide a sense of confidence to our workforce in knowing that we have this capability that if we ever are in peril, they will answer the call,” said original WORT member William Betz. 

The team was originally established to allow personnel to more safely work and enter the multiple confined spaces around the site. The location of Tunnel 9 within the Washington, D.C., metro area also played into the move toward an in-house solution. Tunnel 9 is located in White Oak, Maryland, on the Food and Drug Administration White Oak Campus. Unlike other AEDC units located on military installations, Tunnel 9 does not have its own fire department or medical clinic. Instead, those at Tunnel 9 relied heavily upon local county response. AEDC White Oak management determined a local quick response team was needed if an accidental release of nitrogen or accident was to occur.

Among the responsibilities of the WORT is confined space rescue. A confined space is defined as a space large enough for an employee to enter and perform assigned work but one that has restricted means for entry or exit, meaning there is usually only one way in and out. Confined spaces are not designed for continuous employee occupancy. Examples of confined spaces at Tunnel 9, which are most typically accessed by engineers, customers and technicians, include test cells, the heater pit and vacuum sphere.

“The combination of slow response time from emergency vehicles due to traffic and unscheduled permits required for confined space entry at Tunnel 9 warrants having a WORT,” Bryant said. “Sometimes, when there is a need to perform inspections and repairs in the test cell and sphere, the WORT takes these opportunities to practice in these areas.”

The WORT has the capability to extract a victim from a confined space environment that could become an oxygen-deficient area. Team members are also trained to administer first aid, including performing CPR and using an automated external defibrillator, until the arrival of professional medical response personnel.

 All team members are notified prior to any confined space entry at Tunnel 9. Each of its members are contacted and asked if they are available to standby for an entry.

“We proceed with the confined space permit once we have a full team,” Bryant said.

The WORT is currently comprised of nine members and includes engineers, engineer technicians, information technology personnel and the deputy director of Tunnel 9. The current members are Zenas Crisostomo, George Moraru, Addison Spicer, Mariusz Zarzecki, Nicholas Frederick and Jake Johnson. They are joined by Bryant and WORT co-leads Jason McDonald and Terry Mullin.

Mullin was part of the original WORT, and several other members of that inaugural team are still employed at Tunnel 9, though they no longer participate on the WORT. Those employees are William Betz, Chester DiBenedetto, Raymond Schlegel, Arnold Collier and AEDC White Oak Site Director Joe Coblish.

Membership on the WORT is voluntary, but those looking to join must first successfully complete training at Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, or MFRI, in College Park, Maryland. Candidates are required to traverse a maze with no visibility. This helps assess whether an individual is claustrophobic.

“I have never witnessed this, but one of the original members Mr. Betz, believes a few volunteers in the past could not get past this portion of the training,” Bryant said.

Those who complete the MFRI initial three-day training course become part of the WORT. This training includes learning how to rescue and secure people to spine boards, tying figure-eight rescue knots, using tripods for the recovery of bodies, using multi-gas detection meters and basic first aid. Bryant said along with the knowledge gained, the training also builds a sense of comradery among those who will be joining the WORT.

“We get to work together and learn each other’s strengths,” she said. “I also think that this helps in our everyday work environment.”

To remain on the WORT, members are required to go to a one-day annual refresher training at MFRI. The team also looks to conduct at least one training session onsite at Tunnel 9 per year. Bryant and AEDC White Oak security specialist Taurean Gray have worked with the local fire department to incorporate the WORT in past fire drills and onsite emergency response training sessions. In addition, McDonald created an online program that prompts WORT members to perform monthly inspections of rescue equipment and gear.

Bryant admits finding time and opportunities for WORT members to train has been a struggle recently due to the intensity of the Tunnel 9 test schedule and the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the team maintains the training at MFRI and team members are always at the ready to provide a quick response if called upon.

“Once the all-call alarm is sounded, our WORT can dress, assemble and be on the site of the incident usually within 2 minutes,” Bryant said.

The past 25 years at White Oak have been filled with many technical accomplishments at Tunnel 9, with a few challenges mixed in for good measure. Despite these ups and downs and a revolving membership, Bryant said one constant for nearly the entirety of this time period has been the willingness of WORT members to respond whenever their help has been needed.

“Through it all, the WORT has never failed to answer the call,” she said.