N.M. Town an Anti-Terrorism Training Ground

In the New Mexico desert, a state-supported university runs a training ground for first responders — police, fire and medical personnel — from across the country. They are taught everything from bomb scene forensics to hostage negotiations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Once upon a time, Playas, New Mexico was a thriving company town developed by a copper smelter, complete with a Copper Pins bowling alley and a Feel Good Lounge. Then the smelter closed, the town died, and nowadays it's a place where the worst possible terrorist scenarios are played out. Four years ago, a small engineering college bought the town for $5 million provided by the Department of Homeland Security and turned it into a training ground for first responders. Reporter Doug Fine paid a visit, and has this report. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The $5 million spent to buy the town of Playas did not come from the Department of Homeland Security.]

DOUG FINE: On Mesquite Street, a swingset sits outside a single-story home. It looks like suburbia anywhere, normal down to the names on the mailboxes. But something isn't right, like the quiet moments before a gun battle in an old Western. You have a feeling something very bad is about to happen.

Mr. ROB HASKINS(ph) (Instructor, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology): We have a terrorist cell that is working in the community. That terrorist cell is suspected and known to be using improvised explosive devices, and with that, they have the potential for using suicide-bombing techniques.

FINE: That's Rob Haskins, a New Mexico Tech instructor. He's speaking to a bleacher filled with 50 cops, firefighters and other first responders from around the country.

(Soundbite of explosion)

(Soundbite of siren)

FINE: The explosion was detonated by a SWAT team that appears from behind a neighboring house. They swarm in and, not more than three minutes after the assault, the bad guys with their plastic weapons are subdued, and a female hostage is rescued.

Mr. HASKINS: The terrorists put a device on her. It may be unpleasant, but she's going to have to be completely disrobed. Devices have been hidden in bras and all before.

FINE: Haskins says trainees are supposed to get a real sense of a worst-case scenario. Indeed, West Virginia National Guard Staff Sergeant Michael Angel(ph) says he's never seen anything like it.

Staff Sergeant MICHAEL ANGEL (West Virginia National Guard): Only on TV.

FINE: What do you feel that, if anything, you learned from it?

Staff Sgt. ANGEL: It's good to know what it's going to look like in the aftermath because chances are, we're going to show up when it's over, and so any type of bombing in the U.S., we can be responding to.

FINE: When the smoke clears, the trainees congregate in the fictional cell's safe house to learn how the plot has been foiled and the hostage freed. Kim Kwame(ph), another New Mexico Tech instructor, gives the eerie tour.

Mr. KIM KWAME (Instructor, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology): What you see here is a typical improvised bomb-making factory, using the types of precursors that are available on the open market and based on the types of explosives that the terrorists are using throughout the world.

FINE: Over the course of a week, these first responders are taught everything from bomb scene forensics to hostage negotiations. Dennis Schrader is FEMA's deputy administrator for preparedness. His agency partly funds the Playas training, and he says that today's graphic demonstrations are necessary.

Mr. DENNIS SCHRADER (Deputy Administrator for Preparedness, FEMA): We're trying to get some standard protocols. The way we're going to be safer is having more and more state and local people around the country prepared to act when we need them.

FINE: And so more explosions in the New Mexico desert. This one is a letter bomb demonstration, set up in a pretend office building, complete with mannequins in business suits sitting at their desktop computers.

Unidentified Man: Three, two, one.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

FINE: More than 5,500 first responders have come to Playas for this training, bringing in $12 million of federal funds a year to New Mexico Tech. Tech officials say that as long as domestic security is a national priority, the money will keep rolling in. For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

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Correction June 2, 2008

The audio for this story incorrectly states that the $5 million spent to buy the town of Playas came from the Department of Homeland Security. We regret the error.

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