TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — "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 desolate 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."

Tuller stood outside the entrance and mostly allowed his younger firefighters to handle the action. 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."

The Bay Area Technical Rescue team — comprised of firefighters with the Tuller's crew and the Traverse City Metro and Elmwood Township fire departments — pool their resources for some of the region's more severe operations.

An annual training cycle on confined spaces, trench rescues and rope extrications each take about four months preparation before practice scenarios are conducted, but Metro Fire Assistant Chief Steve Apostal said they teach invaluable lessons.

Training last September at the Cherry Capital Airport, for example, allowed emergency personnel to realize potentially fatal faults in their communication lines. The issues were sorted out before they ever ran into a realistic problem, he said.

"It's always good to get together and work with others we don't normally work with on a day-to-day basis," Apostal said. "When something does fall apart or something bad happens, we know each other and we know how to communicate."

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.

___

Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com