Harold’s on S. California Street has signs up to thank and welcome the first responders arriving in Socorro.
Stephanie McFadden | El Defensor Chieftain

After months of pandemic restrictions, the first responder classes are finally resuming at the Energetic Materials Research Training Center in Socorro.

“We’re getting back to the First Responder program at the pre-COVID pace,” said Van Romero, who heads up New Mexico Tech’s Division of Research. “We’re scheduling classes for just about every week of the year.”

EMRTC’s First Responder training locally was suspended on March 16, 2020. The hiatus was initially scheduled to end on June 30 but continued until May of this year.

“We are up and running in Socorro, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent back to normal,” Romero said. “Up until last Thursday, we’ve had to restrict the number of people in classes. Instead of 30 per class, we had something like 18 or 19 to meet social distancing requirements. Now that the state has gone back to normal, we are able to put more students into the classroom.”

Most of the students are vaccinated.

“A very high percentage of them are,” he said. “If students aren’t vaccinated, they’re required to wear a mask and social distance. And we will continue to do that.”

Tech’s First Responder program is part of a nationwide consortium under the Federal Emergency Management Agency that includes other universities and government installations.

Classes include Incident Response to Terrorist Bombings and Prevention of and Response to Suicide Bombing Incidents.

“Those are our most sought-after classes,” Romero said. “They are delivered on-site, as well as remotely.”

Van Romero, left, explains terrorist tactics with former Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small at a demonstration of a car bombing at EMRTC in August 2019.
John Larson | El Defensor Chieftain

Romero added that skills taught in one course, Medical Preparedness and Response to Bombing Incidents, could be applied to incidents such as the recent building collapse in Miami.

“You never know when a disaster is gonna happen,” he said. “Look at what’s happened down in Florida, the collapse of the building. Some of the things we teach to first responders in our class will be directly applicable to the collapse of a building. They need to know what the hazards are when they respond to something like that.

Remote courses are delivered by New Mexico Tech instructors in communities across the United States.

A new course we’re offering deals with a terrorist attack from unmanned aerial vehicles. In other words, drones,” he said. “That’s very popular right now.

“We see it almost every day in the news now. How some countries are using drones to carry out attacks,” Romero said. “We see it along the border, too. The cartels are using drones.”

That includes both quadcopters and drones.

“It’s a difficult problem at the border,” he said. “In a military situation, you have a variety of options.”

However, on U.S. soil, there are certain restrictions.

“There are FAA laws that must be considered,” Romero said. “For example, if you shoot at a drone it’s considered – legally – to be the same as shooting at a manned aircraft. Like shooting at an airplane.”

Federal Communications Commission regulations must also be considered on this side of the border.

“The FCC will not allow you to jam the signal,” he said. “So that’s another issue the students will learn about. On the other hand, we can intercept a signal and trace it back to the home base. That’s one of the things we talk about in the class.”

He said another solution is the deployment of nets, “and things like that. But a mile range isn’t out of the question. The law is that the signal has to be line-of-sight. But unfortunately, the bad guys don’t follow the law.”

Romero concedes that the reason the class is so popular is that it’s a difficult situation with which to deal.

“You have to have the right policies in place and the right training in order to deal with it,” he said.

He said despite the pandemic, SWAT training at Tech’s Playas location has continued uninterrupted since last fall.

“Things are getting back to what we would call the new normal in Playas a little bit quicker than in Socorro,” Romero said.

Located in Hidalgo County, the town of Playas was constructed by the Phelps Dodge Corporation to house the workforce of a nearby copper smelter that opened in 1971. When copper prices fell the smelter shut down and all but a handful of residents moved out.

In 2005, New Mexico Tech purchased the entire townsite for $5 million. Now known as the Playas Research and Training Center, the town boasts 270 houses, six apartment buildings, a post office, grocery/dry goods store, a medical clinic with a heliport, a bowling alley, grill, a rodeo arena, horse stables, a fitness center, a shooting range, an airstrip, and a swimming pool. Tech felt its realistic environment was perfect to perform training for first responders and counter-terrorism programs.

It was in late October 2020 that Romero’s office came up with the idea of a “Playas bubble.” On the first arrival, each SWAT team would live in a house in Playas and not be allowed to leave.

“We put two people in each house because the houses all have two bathrooms. So each person had their own bedroom, their own bath,” Romero said. “And we fed them ‘contactless meals.’ Where we essentially packaged up food for each meal.”

Although classes are back in session on the campus in Socorro, and hotels are seeing an increase in business, Romero said there have been some hurdles locally to overcome.

“First thing we learned was that we had to extend the lunch break for students because they just couldn’t get into town, served, and back to class in one hour,” he said. “And of course we had to modify some of the classes because of the building material shortage. But that’s starting to ease. We’ve seen a drop in prices and an increase in availability. Not back to normal but at least it’s going in the right direction.”

An additional issue involves varied out-of-state COVID-19 restrictions.

“There’s a desire to come to our classes but some people are restricted due to travel,” he said. “We’re anxious to get back to full speed and we hope to get the training out to people who need it as quickly as can be.”