LAKEHURST — Here's a nightmare scenario: A large explosion rocks one of the tunnels leading from New Jersey into Manhattan. In addition to derailed train cars there are cars stuck under rubble and people trapped in confined places.

It could happen — and it's a situation for which the state's first-responders need to be ready. So Friday, New Jersey Task Force 1 and others gathered at Lakehurst side of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, for a drill — practicing to rescue victims of a catastrophe.

Task Force leader Lt. Christopher Demaise said the goal of the state team is to complement local units and help provide continuous services at the scene.

"It's about taking our local resources, marrying them up with the state resources, federal resources, and taking advantage of this training environment to make sure we have these lines of communication established," he said.

The local contingent includes the Metro Urban Search and Rescue Strike Team with members from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Hackensack, Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Morristown, along with the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Group.

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There were also members of the New Jersey Army National Guard, and the Pennsylvania Task Force taking part in the drill as well.

Demaise said with the groups working together, they become more familiar with their limitations and can have cohesive plans of attack when the action moves away from training grounds and into the real world.

"No one entity can resolve an incident like this," he said. "It requires multiple disciplines and interoperability between those disciplines to be able to communicate the operation. The more that we train and exercise in this manner the better equipped we are."

In his regular work, Ron Klebacher is an EMS fellow at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. He said he is glad to apply the skills he has learned to this group. As the medical manager for the urban search and rescue team, Klebacher said, his group of six can provide a wide range of care to the members — from defibrillation to field surgical procedures.

"We can get them stabilized and then be evaced to one of the area hospitals," he said.

Spending close to 100 hours a year with the task force, Klebacher also said he learns a lot that he can take back to the hospital.

"When a catastrophe hits everybody runs away, but somebody has to be there to take care of the people that are there," he said.

As the training went on, many team members paid special attention to the four-legged members of the unit, who they said see their job more as a game than work. Charlie LaTerra, a K-9 specialist from Old Bridge with 12 years experience, said dogs like his black lab, Friday, can do things their human counterparts cannot.

"He's a live find dog. That's all he's trained to do. We put people in the pile, and he'll go in there and finish the pile off relatively quickly." He added, "When you take a little guy like him when he was 8 weeks old and you accomplish what you accomplish with him, it's a great feeling."

One of the people responsible for the overall exercise tucked into a far corner of the base was Gene Walsh, the exercise director.

"This makes people sharp to help citizens in a time of need," he said. "We're the best of the best and this help keeps the skills up."

Having worked as a firefighter in Jersey City, Walsh said, "this is my second home. I love this type of work."

The Lakehurst location is used at least twice a year for similar training events.

"We have probably one of the best training facilities to help mimic some of those scenarios, but we can't mimic everything that we encounter in the real world," Demaise said.

Demaise said communication is one of the most important parts of the drills.

"As you can see here today, all of us together on a regular basis can help mitigate some of those communication problems before the real event happens," Demaise said.

New Jersey Task Force 1 has been deployed several times over their nearly 20 years of operation. Most recently, it went to North Carolina to help with recovery from Hurricane Matthew, and has  also been activated during Superstorm Sandy, and various building collapses around the state.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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