Ridge Visits First Responder Training Site

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Wednesday toured the Center for National Response (search), a training center for police, firefighters and emergency medical teams from across the country.

Ridge pledged to urge continued funding for the center, located in a one-time highway tunnel tucked into the West Virginia mountains. At the site, first responders are trained how to respond to accidents ranging from chemical spills to terrorist attacks.

"It's an impressive operation and has the capacity to (create) realistic training scenes," Ridge said.

The 2,800-feet-long tunnel is four stories high and includes wrecked automobiles, stalled city buses and a New York City subway car. Operators can expose first responders to whatever conditions they wish to train in.

The former West Virginia Memorial Tunnel was built in 1953 as part of the West Virginia Turnpike. It became obsolete when the highway was widened from two lanes to four and was converted into the training center, which is operated by the West Virginia National Guard (search).

Since May 2000, 17,489 military and civilian first responders have trained at the center. It has been used to train military officers to recognize the hazards of caves such as those used by insurgents in Afghanistan (search). It also has been used by law enforcement, search and rescue and emergency medical responders.

While Ridge praised the operation, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (search) criticized the Bush administration for opposing increased funding for training and equipment at the site.

"The Bush White House tells people to be vigilant of terrorists on one hand then slashes funding for police officers and firefighters with the other," said Byrd, D-W.Va., who is the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Committee and co-chairman of the Senate's National Security Working Group (search).

Byrd said the Bush administration has proposed cutting funds for first responders by $729 million.

Ridge disputed Byrd's statements, saying the administration has approved $3.5 billion for first responders. He said that was a 920 percent increase over what the center has received over the past three years.

Ridge said there is now $8 billion "in the pipeline" and a pending appropriation for an additional $3 billion.