In the two hours after the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center (MECC) fielded about 600 calls, triple the normal load for a weekday rush hour. The region's 800 MHz public-safety radio system also carried extraordinary traffic — 113,000 push-to-talk transmissions in the first six hours of the emergency. For outstanding performance in the face of such challenges, the MECC earned the E911 Institute's Outstanding Call Center Award for 2007.

Staff at the MECC quickly organized themselves to handle incoming communications, including a torrent of media inquiries as well as calls from witnesses, injured victims and people who were worried about loved ones.

“They were able to split off media calls from people on the bridge. They had their own triage thing going there,” said Heather Hunt, the center's operations manager.

Communicators and first responders faced some unusual circumstances, such as the media helicopters that crowded above the bridge. Not only did their noise inhibit rescue operations, but the heavy air traffic also threatened to trigger a second disaster.

“Our folks realized we had to get the [Federal Aviation Administration] involved to do something about the air space directly above the bridge,” said John Dejung, MECC executive director. “We worked with the FAA center to restrict the air space.”

Having established operating procedures for a bridge collapse helped in the response, Dejung said. So did six months of experience with a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system with automatic vehicle location (AVL).

Well-trained staff performed almost flawlessly throughout the incident, Hunt said. “There were many successes and not very many failures or areas for improvement at the PSAP level.”