Security academy planning grand training grounds in Väike-Maarja

Estonian Railways training exercise.
Estonian Railways training exercise. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The Estonian Academy of Security Sciences wants to spend €40 million expanding its Väike-Maarja training grounds and considers keeping rescue worker training in Paikuse to be economically unfeasible in the next decade.

About five years ago, residents of the town of Paikuse launched a signature campaign to keep the local police college from expanding its emergency vehicles training course. After a long time spent arguing, including in court, the school emerged victorious.

"Let us be frank, I doubt this opposition would just go away if we were to start building it there," Piret Lilleväli, the Ministry of Internal Affairs' undersecretary for assets, said, adding that the ministry no longer plans to construct the motordrome in Paikuse.

New plans see it as one of the key components of the Väike-Maarja training campus. The 450 meters long and 40 meters wide acceleration strip will be surrounded by a network of smaller roads. The end of the strip will have a slippery road training section. An off-road course complete with logs, hills and rock obstacles for police ATVs will be built some way off.

Lilleväli said that other expansions of the academy would also bother people in Paikuse. However, opposition from people in Pärnu County is not the only reason the campus, the price tag of which is estimated at €40 million, will be built next to the Rescue College in Väike-Maarja.

Marek Link, rector of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, explained that even though the complex is 25 years old and past its prime in places, it continues to offer training possibilities.

"The other reason is that the training campus to be constructed in Väike-Maarja will see to the needs of not just the academy but all agencies, including the Defense Forces and those responsible for critical infrastructure. Väike-Maarja is a good meeting place," Link suggested.

Trainings from hostage crisis through to press conference

The rector said that cooperation between various services is the most important aspect. This will be clearest in the tactical campus that will consist of various streets, complete with road markings and traffic lights. The streets will be lined with dozens of buildings most of which will only have their facades fleshed out.

But there are plans to construct a few residential buildings, the municipality center and a high-rise in full. Such a building complex would make it possible to simulate quite a few scenarios akin to what the Ukrainians are learning the hard way today.

"The police and rescue services need to be able to carry out their activities, save people and put out fires, even when battles are raging," Link said.

"We have lacked a venue for this kind of comprehensive training so far. Nor is a good alternative to be found in the Nordic and Baltic region. Therefore, Väike-Maarja will be something of a unique location," he added.

Link said that such a major complex will also make it possible to hold so-called chained trainings. There can be a million scenarios. The exercise could kick off with a car chase down the motordrome, continue as a hostage crisis in the high-rise and culminate in a press conference.

Another exercise could take place inside a Boeing 747 airliner. "We will need the aircraft not only for rescue events but other kinds of tactical training. For example, expulsion of people. Tactical units can also train for situations that may arise on board airliners. I believe it will also be an important training center for Tallinn Airport in the future," Link suggested.

The academy currently uses the wreckage of a Polish AN-26 cargo plane that crash landed on Lake Ülemiste years ago, while the husk has given all that it has to give by now.

So-called hot and cold buildings could help prepare for different scenarios. "The hot building will be where we can practice smoke diving and extinguishing fires, with the cold building used for follow-up processing. In other words, investigating the causes of the fire, how it spread and why," Link explained.

Ruined buildings and basements filled with water

The largest single object of the tactical campus will be a hall that looks like a supermarket from the outside. The tactical hall will have removable walls that can be used to imitate various rooms. Instructors can keep an eye on how students handle their assignments from raised walkways and bridges.

"There will also be various integrated virtual simulation elements. We can practice, record and review units' movement, positioning and tactics," Link said, adding that the Väike-Maarja training center's cave-in area should also be modernized.

"Our cave-in training possibilities have been modest so far," the rector admitted. The academy wants to add six new cave-in rescue simulators to its two existing ones that look like destroyed buildings from the outside.

In them, rescuers will face water-filled caves, broken electricity and gas systems, elevator shafts and a network of tunnels underneath the rubble. The simulators would make it possible to practice reaching people trapped underneath debris. An overpass is also planned that could be used to practice rescuing people from a car that's hanging off a bridge.

Various practice zones would cover an area of 67 hectares according to plans. They would also include an ammonia tank and a tipped-over fuel cistern in the chemical spill area, as well as a bigger railroad area, with both passenger and cargo train simulations, electrical trains and cars. A 420-meter strip of border will start at the border crossing point simulator.

Motordrome the first priority

Most of what has been described only exists on paper today. The ministry plans to apply for the funds in its 2024 and consecutive budget years.

"Preparation work is all but finished, and we are largely waiting for the funding decision. Once that happens, we could start work on the motordrome tomorrow," Link said, adding that it would take five or six years to complete the entire training area once construction is launched.

The ministry is prepared for a situation where not everything can be financed at once. Both Link and Piret Lilleväli said that the project's most expensive component, the emergency vehicles area, needs to be built first. "We are using private sector facilities today, and I think we will for some time yet, simply because our needs are greater today. Our calculations suggest we could run the complex 24/7, which would not be entirely feasible," Lilleväli said.

Marek Link believes that the Paikuse motordrome should also be fixed up. He suggested that the entire Paikuse Police School complex could use €4 million.

"We need to keep the Paikuse training center alive until Väike-Maarja is completed," the rector emphasized, "as it holds a lot of existing infrastructure for police chained exercises."

Academy could have three study locations instead of the current five

"Because the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences is a relatively small school, it makes little financial sense to organize training and teach people in multiple locations. The ten-year outlook is that Paikuse will be closed," Link revealed.

The rector said that thoroughly renovating Paikuse would cost at least as much as the new campus in Väike-Maarja.

Piret Lilleväli said that no decision has or will be made in the near future regarding the Paikuse school. However, she echoed Link in suggesting that there are no financial incentives for retaining the study complex.

"We have too many facilities," Lilleväli suggested. "But this cannot be the sole argument. I'm sure there are a number of factors speaking in favor of retaining the school in Paikuse. Therefore, any decision will sport a longer horizon."

The academy currently operates in five locations all over Estonia. Service dogs are still trained at the former Muraste Border Guard School and are looking at moving to Väike-Maarja too once the complex is finished.

The academy opened an in-service training base in Narva two years ago, with its main building on Kase tänav in Tallinn. Its new study building there was completed in 2019. Old student dormitories are also in line for renovations.

Piret Lilleväli asked the rhetorical question of whether keeping a higher education provider in Pärnu County could be reason enough to retain the Paikuse school. Marek Link, who hails from Pärnu, agreed that this aspect must not be overlooked but added that the course for dialing back infrastructure was plotted some years ago.

"In the long run, we will have Tallinn, Väike-Maarja and Narva," Link said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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