The most important part of commuting you’ve never heard of: training TBAs

BAYONNE, N.J. — They're initials that usually stand for "to be announced," but TBA also means something that's the opposite of waiting for action. Instead, at the center of a lot of activity that affects millions of commuters every day are TBAs — tunnel and bridge agents —who are first responders with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

PIX11 News shadowed them for emergency training on Thursday.

"They're very well versed," said John Baum, the manager of technical training for the Port Authority. He oversees all of the TBA training, which prepares about 30 agents a year for their four main emergency tasks. "Extrication, firefighting, medical [response] and towing," Baum told PIX11 News. "So they combine all those training skills in one."

So when cars or buses or trucks get stuck in the tunnels or bridges connecting New York and New Jersey, slowing -- or stopping -- traffic, it's usually due to some sort of vehicle problem, such as a breakdown (most common, according to TBA trainers), a crash (less common), or a vehicle fire (least common). TBAs are trained to make the scene safe, clear the problem, and get traffic moving again.

The Port Authority gave PIX11 News full access to its technical training academy here on Thursday, when two activities were being focused on by the instructors and trainees.

The first was an extrication -- a word that sounds less grittily manual than it is. Senior technical trainer Keith Badler described the exercise precisely.

"In case somebody gets trapped in [a] car, we've got to take the roof off," he said. "We're gonna do that by cutting [door] posts and bending [the roof] back."

Then, with a minor assist from a PIX11 News crew, the trainees Badler was supervising proceeded to do just that.

"These tools I've never used before," including the Jaws of Life and other high-powered extrication tools, were what TBA trainee Iawata Evangelista described as his favorite part of his course of study. "To break cars apart," he said, "is fascinating."

The other training activity that the group, made up mostly of men, underwent was towing. It was, however, not just any street tow. The Port Authority has a fleet of custom built Mack tow trucks that are barely longer than a pickup, but are custom engineered to be able to turn around in either of the tunnels the Port Authority oversees, and to be able to tow a tractor-trailer.

At training, each aspiring full-rank TBA has to be able to maneuver the tow truck from the opposite direction of a disabled tractor-trailer or box truck, and tow it away.

"Our barriers are the width of a tunnel," said senior technical trainer Richard Michitsch. He was referring to the obstacle course set up at the academy for tow driving. Its side barriers are the same width as the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.

"Turn around and move the vehicle," is how Michitsch described the tow training activity. However, the execution of that activity was considerably more complex than it sounded.

It was only after a trainee with a commercial driver's license maneuvered the tow truck, lowered the tow, attached it properly to the box truck he needed to tow, and then, on hands and knees, went through a lengthy set of steps to secure the truck that needed to be towed, that the process was complete.

The next unit of training for the group is car fire firefighting.

It takes four-and-a-half months for TBA trainees to complete their training regimen.