With Minor Exceptions, System Worked

By Christopher Lee and Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 3, 2007

Minnesota officials said the emergency response to the deadly failure of a major bridge in Minneapolis went smoothly with the exception of some communications glitches, in an event that is being viewed as a good test of a large regional city's ability to respond to terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The Minneapolis police and fire chiefs and the Hennepin County sheriff jointly led rescue and recovery efforts after the 40-year-old Interstate 35W bridge plunged into the Mississippi River, killing at least four and injuring 79. The sheriff's office organized operations in the water while the fire department managed those on the ground and police officials secured the scene, officials said.

It was all part of a unified command set up according to the principles of the National Incident Management System, a federally devised plan to help governmental entities work together after terrorist attacks or natural catastrophes.

"It keeps us all on the same sheet of music," said David Berrisford, state incident manager for Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management division.

The response involved at least 75 state, local and federal agencies linked through a radio system that has been enhanced with some of the $170 million in federal homeland security grants the state has received since 2002, officials said.

Although the system -- rated among the nation's best this year by the Department of Homeland Security -- generally worked well, officials said, there were reports of it jamming at moments of peak use.

In one case, 20-second delays hampered the lone channel set aside for emergency medical services supervisors, said John Hick, emergency physician for Hennepin County Medical Center and an architect of the mass-casualty response plan for 29 hospitals in the region. Responders sometimes turned to cellphones, which worked only intermittently, he said, but even so, the system was a "miracle compared to what we used to have."

James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said cellular access is used only to augment shared radio frequencies. "This is a problem we run into in every single disaster," he said. "Everybody begins to use cellphones and the system jams up."

Kristi Rollwagen, deputy chief of emergency preparedness for Minneapolis, called cellular problems "just an inconvenience," adding: "It did not affect us operationally."

The state has spent about $10 million to develop rescue teams for collapsed structures. At least 20 members of the teams helped with rescue and recovery efforts using listening devices, trucks and other equipment, Rollwagen said.

The Minnesota National Guard launched a UH-60 medevac helicopter Wednesday night, said Maj. Patricia Baker, a spokeswoman. As many as 10,000 Guard members are ready to help, she said, adding that the deployment of 3,000 Guard soldiers to Iraq and elsewhere won't impede the efforts.

Area hospitals and ambulance services coped well with what turned out to be a relatively small number of victims compared with mass-casualty events they have trained for, officials said. Six ambulance services transported 55 victims within 1 hour 53 minutes of the first call.

In disasters large and small, it often takes days before problems with emergency response begin to emerge clearly. But so far, Berrisford said, "there haven't been any significant issues."

"Our first responders and our state agencies know how to respond -- and, quite frankly, we just do it," he said.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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