Firefighters train under former Traverse City hospital

Kyle Kaminski
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — “We’ve got him.”

Capt. Steve Ball knew his firefighters at the Traverse City Fire Department would save their man, even if the team was only rescuing a vinyl dummy on Dec. 4. It’s better to be safe than sorry, he said. At least they’re prepared.

Dozens of emergency personnel from three local fire departments descended into the brick-lined passageways that stretch beneath Grand Traverse Commons for an annual training exercise.

The underground passageways are remnants of a bygone era at the former Traverse City State Hospital. Chief Jim Tuller told the Traverse City Record Eagle that the tunnels stretch hundreds of feet and once allowed patients to travel between each building on the campus.

The underground network, barred from public access unless on a guided tour, still connect an array of utility lines. But for one night they set the stage for a drill that could someday help save the lives of Grand Traverse County residents.

“We never know what we’re going to get called to, so we have to be ready for everything,” Tuller said. “If it doesn’t involve bad guys with bullets, we’re there and that could mean we’re going anywhere.”

The scenario: A man is stranded deep inside the caverns. The air is toxic and they need to move quickly; the victim is trapped beneath a beam.

“We’ve not had any actual confined-space calls,” Tuller said. “If you don’t have to use it, that’s great. It’s a great insurance policy. But a lot of this training overlaps into other areas like natural disasters. It’s not just about manholes and tunnels.”

Crews used air bags to lift their “victim” from under the fallen beam. They fastened a steel beam to a pulley system and gently guided the vinyl mannequin from the tunnels to prepare for his next crisis situation.

Tuller said the dummy likely will be stuck in a trench by April.

“We’re always looking for unfamiliar territory,” Tuller said. “It keeps us on our toes.”

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons offers 90-minute and two-hour guided walking tours of the former Traverse City State Hospital Grounds. The tour ends with a walk through the steam tunnel system.