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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Minnesota's trauma translates to lessons in disaster management

Two history making disasters in August taught emergency managers in Minnesota and around the nation what works and what doesn't when the unthinkable becomes reality. Now lawmakers want to tap into that knowledge as the state gears up for the next big one.

"State and local efforts need to be well-coordinated, ready to move at a moment's notice and prepared to see the long-term recovery process through to the end," Representative Ryan Winkler said Wednesday.

Winkler and Senator Linda Higgins convened a legislative working group on disaster planning at the Capitol. Most of what they heard was pretty positive news, which is that training and interagency coordination paid off during the traumatic events of 2007.

"We had our collapsed structure team on site within 8 minutes," Rocco Forte testified.

The former Minneapolis fire chief now heads the city's emergency preparedness office, and was at the center of the storm, so to speak, the night the 35-W bridge collapsed. He ran the emergency operations center which was the nerve center of the massive rescue effort.

"We had victims in the water, we had victims in the debris, we had victims on the banks, and we had victims on the bridge itself."

Forte said had the bridge fallen down five years earlier it would have been a much more chaotic situation. But on that night years of planning, training and building strong relationships with other agencies paid off for the survivors.

"Through mutual aid we were able to take our force of 100 firefighters to about 600 firefighters in a matter of about a half hour."

He said the city's investment in 800 megahertz radios enabled unprecedented communication among emergency responders from different jurisdictions.

Forte remarked that level of cooperation doesn't come naturally. It takes a plan, and getting every agency on the same page before tragedy strikes.

"So not only Minneapolis knew the plan we were going to follow but all the partners who came in and worked with us knew and understood our plan beforehand."

The job of the Emergency Operations Center, he asserts, is to think of what rescuers will need and move it into position before they even arrive.

"For instance it's nighttime and we realize we're going to need lights. We realize we need generators, so we started moving that equipment up to staging areas before they get there."

Forte said the agency has already made some upgrades to its plans as a direct result of the bridge collapse, including having more stockpiles of medication on hand for episodes involving a large number of victims and rescuers.

If anything caught the emergency experts by surprise it was the speed at which sightseers converged on the huge accident scene, which added another layer of complication.

"After about the first 20 minutes of this incident we started having civilians coming in and taking trophy pictures," Forte said.

"At the time we didn't know what caused the bridge to collapse. It could have been terrorism, so we had to treat it as a crime scene."

The legislators also heard testimony on the National Guard's response to the flash floods in southeast Minnesota, which claimed seven lives in August.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Waage remembered the urgent plea from the Winona County Sheriff, which came at 2:30am August 18.

"He said he had families hanging in trees and rooftops and vehicles swept away," Waage told lawmakers.

He said in the past it would take as long as three days to get the Guard mobilized, but that morning units started arriving within four hours.

"We were in a pretty good position to send units pretty quickly because the two units we selected were already drilling and were exercising for just such an event." Waage reflected.

What worked against them was the region's hilly terrain and blank spots for cell phone reception.

"You're surrounded on all sides by high bluffs and we have a lot of line-of-sight equipment," Waage said.

"What we were short of was satellite communication, and even then, satellites require a large horizon and we didn't have that horizon."

The heroes that come to mind first are the emergency responders and average citizens that put themselves in harm's way to help victims in the river and the rubble. The people coordinating the effort can't be ignored.


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