Regardless of incident type, advance planning is the key to response
Imagine trying to convince 80 officials of various kinds — including the mayor — to drop what they’re doing to participate in a multi-day tabletop exercise. Now imagine trying to convince them to travel to a remote mountaintop more than a thousand miles away to attend this exercise. While that might seem like a mission bordering on the impossible, it’s exactly what the city of Minneapolis did in 2000, with crucial results.
“It showed the politicians that should something big happen, the city’s communications infrastructure wouldn’t be adequate,” said Scott Wiggins, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Communications Networks.
Something big did happen when the Interstate 35 Bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007. Wiggins showed slides from the incident during the National Emergency Communications Conference, which is being presented this week in Chicago by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications. The images were startling. Within seconds, the entire bridge was in the river. A total of 104 vehicles were affected, some of them landing in the water or getting pinned under the structure. Thirteen people were killed and another 145 were injured.
“Watching those clips brought back the tightness in my chest,” Wiggins said.
As a result of the tabletop exercise held seven years earlier, the state made changes to its communications infrastructure, including the incorporations of the city’s 800 MHz trunking system into the statewide ARMER (allied radio matrix for emergency response) system and deploying an updated computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) with GIS and regional coordination of frequencies. All of the efforts contributed to a solid response effort, Wiggins said, adding that the network handled 114,000 push-to-talk transmissions in the first six hours of the event, with only 1% encountering a busy signal.
Wiggins is a fan of tabletop exercises, though he pointed out that “you can’t simulate a bridge falling into the water.” Another fan is Jim Vlassopoulos, deputy chief of Washington D.C. Fire and EMS, who was in charge of communications for a completely different type of event. Where Wiggins had no time at all to prepare for the bridge collapse, Vlassopoulos had five months to get ready for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
While big events are nothing new in the nation’s capital, this particular event had some unique characteristics, Vlassopoulos said. First, there were heightened concerns regarding the potential for civil disturbances. Second, 1.8 million people and 3,000 tour buses descended on the National Mall. “We squeezed the equivalent of the populations of Boston, Miami and Atlanta into that area,” he said. Third, a plethora of responders ranging from volunteers to the U.S. Coast Guard had to be coordinated. “There were a lot of moving parts,” Vlassopoulos said. Finally, the day was cold — by Washington standards — with temperatures staying below the freezing mark. The crowds arrived far earlier than normal, well before 6 a.m., which increased hypothermia instances.
Nevertheless, all of the planning paid off, Vlassopoulos said. A special CAD system was put into place to monitor and coordinate the activities of the dozens of federal, state, district and local agencies that had a hand in keeping order. Neighboring Arlington, Va., contributed two talk-group channels, which allowed Vlassopoulos to put the Washington public works department onto the communications plan for the inauguration; typically public works communicates using a commercial P2T network. Arlington also contributed its cache of radios, each of which was programmed with the talk-group channels, which made it easy to get public works personnel onto the network.
A big help was early adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). “That will help you get through a lot of challenging situations,” Vlassopoulos said.
One lesson learned from the experience, according to Vlassopoulos, is that anticipating needs and leveraging outside infrastructure in advance of an event pays great dividends. “All we had to do was pick up the phone,” he said. “If you’re not partnering, you’re going to be behind the eight ball.”
Despite the extensive planning, not everything went smoothly for Wiggins and Vlassopoulos. In Minnesota, agencies from as far away as 30 miles were listening to transmissions even though they had no involvement in the bridge-collapse response. Tying up their frequencies in this manner affected the operations of those agencies, Wiggins said. “If you’re not part of the event, stay off the talk groups,” he said.
In Washington, people arrived for the inauguration far earlier than officials expected; as a result, not enough emergency medical system (EMS) personnel who were assigned to the event were in place when hypothermia began to set in. EMS personnel from stations throughout the city were sent to fill in the gaps — but they lacked the proper credentials to enter the highly secured area.
Busy signals also were a bigger-than-expected problem. “We had more than 12,000 busies and that affected operations,” Vlassopoulos said. “We now know we need to enhance our system, become P25-compliant and perhaps add some 700 MHz frequencies.”