EMRTC much more than just explosions

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Traditionally ranked as one of the best universities in the west, New Mexico Tech is also known as the nation’s premiere training site for first responders.

Just west of the New Mexico Tech golf course is the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), where firemen, EMTs, paramedics and law enforcement officers from all over the country congregate for the week-long Incident Response to Terrorist Bombing training at EMRTC.

“On the average we have 600 coming through Tech every month to take the course,” said John L. Meason, EMRTC director for the past 13 years. “We’ve trained over 26,000 first responders since 1998.”

The four-day, train-the-trainer course format is sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) and is designed for first responders who may respond to incidents involving explosives. At the end of the course participants are able to identify commercial and military explosives, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and readily available explosive formulations that terrorists have or could use.

Other training programs are sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

But not all of EMRTC’s clients have such serious or momentous concerns.

One company used the center’s explosive devices to create industrial-grade diamonds, for instance.

The entertainment industry has also taken advantage of EMRTC’s highly-secure facilities over the years. The television show “Mythbusters” has visited the site several times for various tests, as well as filming episodes testing “rocket skates” and “indestructo ball” from Warner Brothers’ roadrunner and coyote cartoons. Another Mythbusters experiment involved testing the metallurgical effects of a head on collision between two semis.

The series “Man vs. Cartoon” also tested “Road Runner” cartoon stunts such as “boulder drop,” “steel plates,” “cannonball rocket sled” and “hot air balloon anvil drop.” The core of EMRTC is providing a wide variety of services from ballistics and ordnance testing to anti-terrorist training for the USDHS and FEMA. Meason said the center accounts for 50 percent of all research money coming into the university.

“Right now we have a $140 million contract backlog,” Meason said. “That includes the site here and at Playas.”

New Mexico Tech purchased the town of Playas in southwestern New Mexico 10 years ago for anti-terrorism training. Playas, the former Phelps Dodge company town, gives EMRTC clients such as emergency personnel, border patrol agents and even the U.S. military a realistic training setting, and has been used to resemble a village in Afghanistan.

As director, Meason oversees the seven divisions of EMRTC, but as a lifelong academe, likes to be close to what’s going on, and has a predilection for learning as much as he can.

“I like to keep my fingers in the pie, visiting the classes and scientists and engineers, the field workers, technicians,” he said. “I always tell people I can never get too much information.

“I love to teach and did teach one year since I’ve been here, but couldn’t do it properly because of my travel schedule,” Meason said. “I felt the students didn’t get a fair shake with me being gone so much.”

Students are an integral part of EMRTC and employs anywhere from 20 to 80 at any one time, both graduate and undergraduate.

“The opportunities for a student worker here are many,” he said. “With all the government agencies and private industry projects going on here, student workers can make contacts. Some even develop a lot of personal relationships, and get hired, usually, by companies or government agencies that come here. They get to know the students because they’re assigned to their project. They know what they can do and what they’re capable of.”

Meason said depending on what’s assigned to them many of the students graduate with a security clearance.

“And that’s a big deal especially if you go to work with one of the big government contractors or the government itself,” he said.

Meason spent his early academic career as a professor of nuclear chemistry and physics at the University of Arkansas, and eventually chairing the physics department in the early 1970s.

A former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Meason retired as director of the applied technology test and simulation director at White Sands Missile Range on May 2, 2001.

He came to New Mexico Tech two weeks later.

“It’s one of the most forward thinking, aggressive universities and ranks with any of the best Ivy League schools for students interested in science and engineering,” he said. “Before coming here I didn’t know much about New Mexico Tech, except for occasional visits involving the TERA site.”

Meason admits that the one thing that he most appreciates is the progressive thinking of the school.

“One of the biggest rewards of working at EMRTC is the freedom to move into new areas, to grow and expand our technical expertise,” he said.