9/11 forced state to form better emergency response plan

Even the dark smoke clouds billowing out of the Twin Towers, a Pennsylvania field and the Pentagon 10 years ago contained a silver lining.

The East Coast terrorist attacks that killed 2,975 people convinced, and in a way forced, emergency workers to work closer with each other preparing for the next big disaster, whether it be manmade or natural. At the same time, it opened the door to much improved day-to-day contact among government officials.

“You don’t exchange business cards after the incident,” said Michael Starkey, the Minnesota Agriculture Department’s emergency response specialist.

Instead, each government agency needs a person or department prepared for emergencies and they need to work together constantly.

“That was one of the good things that came out of something that obviously was very horrible,” Starkey said.

Signs of the emphasis on communications among agencies and preparedness to respond to emergencies are evident across Minnesota government. For instance, the signs can be seen when the state responds to flood threats, with an emergency operations center established staffed by representatives of every agency that could conceivably be involved in a flood.

“I think as a state, on the whole, we actually are much better prepared to respond to natural disasters because of what has changed because of Sept. 11,” said Kris Eide, Minnesota’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division director.

While the terrorist attacks prompted a massive overhaul of the country’s emergency preparedness and response operations, pouring $400 million of federal money into Minnesota alone, natural disasters and more routine emergency response benefited the most.

“The possibility of natural things happening is much greater than a terrorist attack, particularly in greater Minnesota,” Eide said.

About 100 state employees are full-time emergency workers, preparing and responding for events as varied as someone being trapped in a silo to lessening damage done by an economic catastrophe. Local, state and federal officials could find themselves working together to help a community recover from a tornado or responding to a deadly bridge collapse.

Officials from many state agencies agree with Eide that they are better prepared now to tackle a wide range of problems.

In the Health Department, for instance, dealing with the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak was easier because of emergency-response plans put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.

The changes occurred nationally and a federally required movement to an “incident command” system of dealing with emergencies gets much of the credit.

The system means that instead of having a plan that deals with tornadoes, one with floods, one with terrorist attacks on power plants, etc., a generic plan is put in place that can be adapted to any emergency. And, as important as anything, emergency responders of all kinds work together in advance of any incident so they can communicate well, both in terms of technology and terminology.

“The hazard changes, but the response kind of remains the same,” Eide said.

A recent case of anthrax exposure, which ended up being natural not intentional, is an example of improved communication.

Assistant Health Commissioner Aggie Leitheiser said the state had warned hospitals statewide about anthrax illness symptoms and if they are found what to do and who to contact.

“Those are kind of skills were would not have had the capacity to do,” Leitheiser said of the time before Sept. 11.

Another example of how involving more people helps the public, also from the Health DepartmenteHehEAT, came during northeast Minnesota forest fires, In the past, Leitheiser said, firefighters would have been responsible for evacuating nursing homes.

“The firefighters probably would try to take grandma and put her in a school gymnasium somewhere,” Leitheiser said.

Now, the assistant commissioner added, the Health Department would help move nursing home residents to other health-care facilities, leaving firefighters more time to fight fires.

People with experience in specific areas now are more likely to be involved in emergency response.

“It would have been handled, and handled well, previously, but not it would be smoother and easier” for both patients and emergency workers, said Jane Braun, the Health Department’s emergency preparedness director.

Things may run smoother because emergency officials are drilling down to find more details.

“One thing that truly evolved in the last 10 years is moving from things that you may have thought about vaguely or you might not have even thought about to ‘Yes, we have thought about this and we have a plan to our plan operational,’” Braun said.

Leitheiser said nowhere has that been more evident than when fighting floods, especially along the Red River.

“We went from in the ‘90s ‘oh my goodness, there is a flood, what should we do?’ to we have pre-planning meetings before the flood,” Leitheiser said.

Leitheiser said that in the 1997 Red River flood, it took six weeks to provide mental health assistance for stress management. It took six days in 2009.

Eide said the new system, including expanded planning and infrastructure to back it up, all came together when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis Aug. 1, 2007.

“The bridge collapse was a watershed incident,” Eide said. “Everything we had been training for … all came true that day.”

Planning and relationship building all paid off when response to the collapse proved to be as smooth as possible.

Now that they have a plan they like, state officials are looking at other places where help may be needed to improve security.

The Agriculture Department, for instance, is looking into security gaps that could threaten food.

“I don’t know if we have a good, clear idea yet” of all the weak spots in the food chain, Starkey said, but once they are identified, a plan will be put in place to handle them.

Eide said the same type of investigation is going on throughout state government, even reaching the private sector. She said the state has reached out to industries such as banking in an effort to prevent an economic disaster.

In government, one of Eide’s top priorities is protecting computer systems from outside intruders.

In 2001, when Eide was assistant emergency management director, such things were not discussed in the office. At that time, the agency was to coordinate preparedness for the state and coordinate state agency response to an emergency.

Now, she said, the job is growing. “If it means we need to expand the scope, then we need to be able to find a way to do that.”

Eide said she hopes changes in the past decade mean Minnesotans notice a quicker response to emergencies, “but I think a lot of people just take their public safety for granted and they don’t know what has changed unless they are a survivor of a public disaster.”

 

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