Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Exemplary Disaster Response in Minneapolis

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has released a new technical report on last August's collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. It should be an inspiration for every jurisdiction to set dual goals:

  1. To the extent possible, prevent and mitigate the risk of disaster in the first place. (It's worth remembering that this was a thoroughly preventable disaster.)
  2. In the case that a disaster does happen, earn an after-action report as good as this one.
While the bridge collapse was no Hurricane Katrina, it was still a complex event involving two different disaster sites/access points (one on each side of the river), multiple jurisdictions, and a witches' brew of hazards. Yet the response was exemplary in many respects because local officials had prepared rigorously:
Local and State staff and officials from fire, law enforcement, emergency management, and public works received immediate alerts and, having trained together in classroom settings and through field exercises, knew what to do and with whom they needed to coordinate their response. Years of investing time and money into identifying gaps in the city’s disaster preparedness capabilities; acquiring radios for an interagency, linked 800 MHz system; and participating in training on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and on the organizational basis for that system (the Incident Command System (ICS) and Unified Command) paid off substantially during response and recovery operations.

In 2002, Minneapolis elected officials and key staff took a hard look at its state of preparedness ... and conducted a risk assessment that identified areas where improvements were needed. The city wasted no time in resolving the gaps, aggressively pursuing Federal grant dollars, e.g., the Urban Area Security Initiative, and general fund dollars to pay for radio and communications upgrades, equipment, and training that together elevated its level of preparedness.

The local response to the bridge disaster—and the coordination with metro, State, and Federal partners—demonstrated the extraordinary value of comprehensive disaster planning and training. The City of Minneapolis was as well prepared as any local jurisdiction could be to handle a major incident.
The critical element was a collaborative working relationship that had been established among all agencies involved in the response. There is simply no substitute for a trusting working relationship to get things done:
The excellent working relationships that had been developed through joint interagency training, planning, and previous emergency incidents was one of the primary reasons that response and recovery operations went as smoothly as they did. As one leader commented “We didn’t view it as a Minneapolis incident; it was a city/county/State incident.”

When key personnel from the primary response agencies were asked to what they attributed their excellent response, without exception they answered, “relationships.” Those relationships were developed as a result of all the planning, training, and exercises that multiple agencies and levels of government shared in recent years. Responders knew whom to call for what resources. They knew to work through the established chain of command. They knew each other’s names and faces and had built a level of trust that made it possible to move quickly through channels and procedures. ... Turf battles, not uncommon in events of this size, were not a factor because of the relationships that had been developed over the years.
If there were just one factor that predicts success or failure in a crisis situation, collaboration is it.

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