Preparing for the Worst

The theme of this year's Managing Performance conference is "Performance Under Pressure." There's probably no city government more equipped to talk about that topic right now than Minneapolis.
by | October 2, 2008

The theme of this year's Managing Performance conference is "Performance Under Pressure." There's probably no city government more equipped to talk about that topic right now than Minneapolis.

The city has received stellar marks for the way it handled last summer's collapse of the I-35 bridge. Minneapolis officials reacted swiftly and efficiently, with an expertly coordinated response on everything from emergency search-and-rescue to family counseling to handling the hundreds of local, national and international media outlets that descended on the scene.

It was, by all accounts, a nearly perfect response to an emergency. (Watch the city's video about its experience.)

Turns out? It was the result of years of preparation and training.

R.T. Rybak was elected mayor of Minneapolis in the immediate wake of 9/11. (He quite literally won the mayoral primary on Sept. 11, 2001.)  So when he came in to office and established his leadership team, emergency preparedness was a huge concern, as it was for cities across the country.

But while cities everywhere were concerned about their disaster preparedness and first-response capabilities, Rybak and his folks actually did something.

In March 2002, Rybak led 60 city employees (plus 10 county employees and 10 state workers) to the National Emergency Training Center in Mount Weather, Virginia, for a Minneapolis-specific course.

Then, in July 2002 the city launched a five-year, $60 million investment in improving its emergency response capabilities. About $20 million of that was used to build an interoperable communications system for first responders. Other new initiatives included an emergency operations center, security cameras located throughout the city and -- most importantly -- an action plan for how to handle a catastrophe.

The initiative was completed July 31, 2007 -- one month before the bridge collapse.

As Rocco Forte, the city's emergency management director, told attendees at the Governing conference, part of the particular challenge of the bridge collapse was that the incident touched on every level of government. "Here we had a federal bridge, maintained by the state, that fell into a county river, with the city of Minneapolis on both sides."

In all, Forte said, 140 agencies were involved in the response effort. But the city's preparations allowed it to coordinate all the different players involved. "Five years ago, there's no doubt in my mind that we would have stopped and looked around and said, 'Okay, who's in charge here?' But now we were able to immediately identify who's in command and put our first responders in place."

In addition to learning how to hone its response during the first critical hours after a disaster, Rybak said, Minnesota's preparations helped it incorporate other, longer term considerations as well. In a crisis like the bridge collapse, agencies like public works and family counseling services can be a critical -- and often overlooked -- part of the response.

"Everyone always talks about the first responders," Rybak said, "and they should: Those are the people who are risking their lives on the front lines. But we also need to remember the second responders, the third responders and the fourth responders."

So as it turns out -- and I know this is gonna sound ridiculous -- investment in planning and preparation for emergency response can actually make a real difference. Crazy, right?!

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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