Behind-the-scenes: First-responders prepare for the unpredictable

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We’ve all seen the dramatic images from across Illinois: the horrible aftermath of the tornadoes that struck our state just over a week ago.

What few of us have ever seen is the training that goes into responding to just that type of disaster what our first-responders go through to maintain a constant state of readiness.

Tonight, WGN goes inside that world. We were recently granted exclusive access to a world-class training facility in Cook County.

Rescuing victims of a building collapse, getting in and getting people out through a hole quickly chopped in a wall, is all part of a drill at Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.

“It’s practice, it’s repetition, it’s introducing them to environments that they can’t predict,” said academy Executive Director Bob Lahey. “And we provide them with the unpredictable.”

Like walls that change and floors that shift — a building that moves on hydraulic legs.

Imagine taking apart a crushed car, literally by cutting it into jagged chunks and peeling out the windshield in a space you have to crawl in while the unpredictable is happening, and the clock is ticking.”

On the rubble pile next door, a highly trained search and rescue dog — one of just two in the state — leads his handler to within 10 feet of another victim.

“We train about a thousand hours a year to keep him on that cutting edge,” said Scott Peirson with the Des Plaines Fire Department.

Nearby, police drill in riot gear while firefighters stage a trench rescue and crawl through tunnels filled with toxic air to save mannequins.

“The longer you’re without breathing air, the more critical that time-frame is,” said Bill Petersen with the Park Ridge Fire Department.

If all that’s happening — but not really happening — you’re at the Northeastern Illinois Training Academy. And when you get done there, you’re ready for just about anything.

No question it’s a busy place, and its existence is a first for Cook County and Chicagoans — 27 different jurisdictions and their first-responders on one enormous 20-acre site. Training for just about any eventuality, from a building collapse to an active shooter scenario to a natural disaster.

“In this world, we’re always trying to consider what the possibilities are, and that’s why we’re always looking at what has happened, whether it’s a Hurricane Sandy or what’s going on in the Philippines, natural events or man-made ones, and train for those as well and try to stay ahead of the curve and what might happen next.” said Michael Masters, executive director of the Cook County Department of Homeland SEcurity and Emergency Management.

In this case, “next”didn’t take long. Days after WGN met with Masters and his team, tornadoes struck Illinois. And the people who trained at the academy were sent to help.

But a lot had to be done before any of that could even happen, because  Masters — a veteran of the marines, the police department and city hall — came to Cook County’s Department of Homeland Security at what some would call the worst possible time.

“It was one of the two places in the county that we knew was under federal investigation for mismanagement of federal funds. So his first obligation was sort of to clean up internally,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

So Masters is cleaning up internally so his life-saving men and women could get dirty in the field. Removing the stain of municipal corruption so cook county, despite an often questionable reputation, could build something considered truly world-class.

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