Preparing for the worst

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January 6, 2003 // UPDATED 4:11 pm - April 27, 2007
By: Tim Neuenschwander
Tim Neuenschwander

As war looms, but 9/11 panic fades, city leaders are solidifying a

Downtown disaster plan

The scene is a constant across the Minneapolis skyline: as flights filter from the international airport through the city's airspace, planes commonly pass the Downtown skyscrapers en route to their destination. The daily occurrence transpires without so much as a second thought to many, even though the scene can be reminiscent of that frightening day known as 9/11.

But in a new world spawned from the

terrorist attacks of a year ago, the question remains: What would happen if a plane suddenly barreled into one of the Downtown buildings? Or a terrorist tried a chemical attack? These are questions constantly on the mind of Fire Department Deputy Chief Dick Turner.

As the city's Director of Emergency Preparedness, Turner is charged with coordinating the overall emergency plan for the city in a crisis situation. The plan, which is reviewed annually and updated every three to four years, covers the city's response to incidents such as riots, natural disasters, severe weather and terrorist strikes.

"It generally covers something that can not be handled with the normal, day-to-day operations of the city," Turner said of the plan, which encompasses the police and fire departments, city officials and coordinators, and a number of outside sources such as Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The plan, Turner said, focuses on setting up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) if a crisis arises. The EOC supports the efforts of an on-site commander to manage any disaster.

Turner said that the plan provides an outline of procedures to follow in the event of a crisis, but how the situation is handled lies solely on the shoulders of the incident commander and their corresponding department.

By the very nature of emergencies, Turner said that the on-scene commander's job is handled by someone in the fire or police department nearly 95 percent of the time, as they are commonly the primary responders during a crisis.

While the fire department focuses on saving lives and structures, law enforcement officers pay attention to a potential crime scene and evidence; Turner said that the work of the two departments often overlaps.

\"If it was a fire or a building collapse, the fire department would be the primary responder. But if it\'s civil unrest or a bomb, it\'s going to be the police department,\" Turner said. \"So if it was a fire dept./fighters caused by a bomb Downtown, the fire would be the primary responder until the situation was stabilized and then it would turn into a crime scene and the police would take over. And somewhere in there they would be working together.\"

Assistant Fire Chief Ulie Seal echoed that sentiment, stressing cooperation.

\"In the case of the Oklahoma City bombing, during the recovery operations, fire and law enforcement worked very close together so that while they were doing victim recovery they weren\'t destroying evidence that law enforcement was there to collect,\" Seal said. \"So law enforcement agencies will be involved fairly quickly, even while we are rescuing people and putting out fires.\"

Post-9/11 changes

While the emergency plan was appended following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Turner said that the events of Sept. 11 forced the city to further evaluate its response to threats of terrorism. He said the strategy is now being redrawn to account for the possibility of a biological or chemical attack.

In the event of such an attack, Turner said, the city would have two options to protect citizens.

If a chemical agent was evident and the air was considered unsafe, the city could declare a "shelter-in-place." That, essentially, means stay where you are, turn off air-conditioning and air-circulating units, close windows and doors, and seal them up if possible.

Turner said the city is preparing an instructional video to show what to do if a "shelter-in-place" is needed.

If the event required an evacuation, Turner said the city would call on the Metropolitan Transit Council's buses to shuttle people out of Downtown. While Turner was reluctant about divulging details on how fast people could be evacuated, he said he was confident in the partnership between the Metro Transit and the city if it involved carrying citizens to safety.

\"Every time we\'ve asked for assistance or buses for a fire or whatever, they\'ve pulled buses off their routes,\" Turner explained. \"We use them for apartment fires and things where we have to shelter people temporarily. They bring in buses and whatever we need. They\'re really good.\"

The plan lacks a specific section regarding citizens' responsibilities in a crisis. Turner said that the best thing for individuals to do is report an incident to the proper authorities.

Fire department responsibilities

Seal said that because the fire department is often the first to a scene, it plays an important role in the emergency plan.

"We've had a hazardous materials response unit and we've responded to rescues and emergency medicals for years and years, so being a part of the emergency response plan is natural for us," Seal said. "Whenever somebody calls us, it's because a situation has degenerated into chaos. And we're charged with trying to bring order out of that chaos to make people safe again."

Seal said that the plan is important in handling an emergency situation, as it allows departments to better coordinate the resources needed to resolve the issue.

Even though a fire department could never prepare for the incidents of Sept. 11, Seal said that the Minneapolis firefighters have been able to fight fires in high-rises with relative success throughout the years.

Seal said the fire department has a separate set of Standard Operating Procedures for handling high-rise fires. Some of the difficulties they encounter include connecting to the system\'s built-in sprinkler system, accessing water on the upper - levels of buildings and the lack of ventilation in the high reaches of skyscrapers.

Police responsibilities

A major Downtown incident would inevitably involve the services of the Minneapolis Police First Precinct.

In addition to the precinct's patrol responsibilities, Inspector Rob Allen said the station is also in charge of the Emergency Response Unit, which includes the SWAT team and the bomb and arson squads.

As the host to a number of public events throughout the year, Allen said that the Downtown area could be seen as a potential target for terrorists. With crowds from the Metrodome, the Target Center and other attractions potentially swelling the Downtown crowd to over 100,000 people, Allen said that his department has had to reassess the way they handle event nights.

In the past, Allen said crowd control was the main police concern. In a post-9/11 world, he said, other factors intrude.

For example, Allen, who is also commander of the First Precinct, said the police department now undergoes a stringent threat assessment for each event, elevating their level of concern if it draws large crowds, has any symbolic significance or draws national attention to the city. He said that police pay close attention to professional sporting events and city-sponsored events, such as the Hennepin Avenue and Basilica block parties. Allen also said the world climate also figures into his threat calculations.

The department is also working with individual building owners on safety and evacuation plans, Allen said. Individuals are also being trained to do vulnerability assessments so they can address potential weaknesses in their security before they are exploited.

While Allen said these steps are important to ensuring safety Downtown, he noted that the attacks of Sept. 11 prove that no plan is infallible. Just as the world is constantly changing, so are the possible threats to public safety.

"We think we are doing a good job on anticipating and plugging any holes in the fence of preparing for major events," Allen said. "But one of our challenges is to keep thinking of ways that we are vulnerable and to attack those before something happens. That's the part that requires imagination and planning, and it's something that we have to keep on doing."

Even though a terrorism section in the plan is awaiting approval, Turner said that the city has taken steps to prepare for a worst-case scenario. In one instance, city officials and agency heads attended a five-day training session on terrorism responses sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Also, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul recently held a joint conference at the Downtown Convention Center to address concerns over a biological attack. Turner said the experiences have been enlightening for the participants, as they\'ve given the cities a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of their current systems.

\"We identified the problems for training some of the staff at different agencies and that additional training is required," Turner said. "Also, communication between some groups, even within the cities, needs to be improved."

Turner said more training would be done next year, with additional exercises.

Despite the possible threat to public safety, the city is restricting some information from the public.

Turner explained that even though the emergency plan is available for public viewing, the city would no longer release copies for fear of a security breach. He added that even though the city is required by law to list the locations of hazardous materials, they are also attempting to keep that information confidential.

"We were a little more open in the past and we would give that information out, but we're kind of holding it a little closer to the vest now," Turner said. "For a terrorist, that was just giving them an open book."