The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis last fall brought to light festering problems with the safety of the nation's aging infrastructure. However, the lesser-known story from that incident is what did not go wrong: the emergency response.

Within two hours of the collapse, the scene was cleared. Thirteen people died and 86 were injured, but those numbers could have been much higher given the rush-hour conditions in the metropolitan area. Key to the success of the response was the city's communication technology, which held up to the demands of the situation. Public safety radios worked. Cell phone service was amplified. Wireless broadband service in the downtown area was opened to everyone. The city's 311 center helped field calls. And strong, cooperative relationships among first responders and local officials pulled it all together.

However, through the tightly woven safety net the city had created for emergencies, in the aftermath, holes still emerged. The tragic event showed city leaders that they had plenty to be proud of but still more work to do.

American City & County spoke with Minneapolis 911 Center Director John Dejung shortly after a presentation at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials' International Annual Conference last month, in which he discussed the lessons the city learned from the incident. Following the “each one, teach one” educational practice, he is eager to share the city's lessons.

Communication is key

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, the problems with public safety radios were widely reported. Firefighters did not receive alerts to evacuate buildings, could not understand commands and could not talk to other emergency workers.

Since then, many cities and counties have installed equipment and systems that will not have those same problems. Minneapolis was one of them.

When the first calls reporting the bridge collapse reached the city's 911 center at 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, the fully staffed center hit high gear, sending police, fire and rescue crews to the scene within minutes. The city had planned and practiced for large-scale emergencies, including a bridge collapse. “I thought terrorism as soon as I heard the bridge collapsed, and I thought back to 2001 and 2002 when we were receiving intelligence reports about threats to bridges,” Dejung says. “We had planned a standard operating procedure in the 911 center for a bridge collapse and certainly had thought about bridge collapse after 9/11 when there were threats to bridges.”

Although the city's emergency response plan called for a unified command post for police and fire, separate but nearby areas were established so the fire commander could have a better view of the rescue operations and police officers could have plenty of room. Any problems because of the separation were overcome with 800-megahertz (MHz) radios, and as first responders raced in from surrounding jurisdictions to help, those that did not have compatible radios used some spares Minneapolis had on hand, or they paired up with city emergency crews. “We've done that routinely over the last few years, and they use that concept to overcome the communications problem,” Dejung says.

For other responders without radios, cell phones became the communication tool of choice. And, while first responders' cell phones have wireless priority service during emergencies, other city employees do not. So, soon after the bridge collapse, Dejung called the local cell service providers to ask for more signal capacity near the bridge to accommodate residents and first responders on the scene. “That would be a lesson learned: to be prepared to have in place, pre-deploy or ask quickly for cell site augmentation, whether it be a cellular on wheels or some sort of arrangement with cell providers in the region to beef up their throughput,” Dejung says. “Secondly, there has to be a realization that there's too much going on for everyone in the municipality, the county and the state to rely on getting through on the radio circuits. In Minneapolis, the tactical radio talk groups get priority, so others will turn to cell phones, and you need to plan for it.”

The communications system also was challenged by a flood of calls to the city's 311 center, which had been operating since 2006. While 311 helped relieve some call volume from the 911 center, the incident revealed a need for better coordination between 911, 311 and public information staffs. “It was a wake-up call,” Dejung says. “We had anticipated 311's value, but we hadn't put into place the process to fully leverage it for an emergency. 311 was very helpful and will be even more so in the future to siphon off calls from 911. And, the 311 center needs to work hand-in-glove with the public information officers.”

Fortunately, a Wi-Fi network had been established in the downtown area near the bridge and had been operating for several months. Soon after the collapse, the Wi-Fi provider opened the wireless Internet network to everyone, which relieved some calls to 911 and 311 for information. “It was kind of serendipity that the one and only place in Minneapolis that the Wi-Fi system was fully implemented at that point was the downtown area,” Dejung says.

The wireless Internet service also prompted the city to install IP-based surveillance cameras near the site to keep watch over the recovery effort, which lasted 20 days. The video images fed into the city's command post and emergency operations center (EOC) inside the 911 facility so managers could see what was happening without having to travel to the site.

Consider the EOC and families

Although the EOC was activated, phones were its only communications, so other technology had to be installed quickly. The EOC was housed in a small conference room, but seeing the need for a larger area, and in preparation for the Republican National Convention this month, the city has expanded the EOC by knocking out a wall to an adjacent room. New technology also has been installed. “Now, we've got teleconferencing equipment, monitors for CNN and The Weather Channel,” Dejung says. “We've got computers preset for planning, operations and safety, and we have computer drops for the EOC members to plug laptops into. All of that stuff, we scurried to put into place for the bridge collapse. Now, it's preset. And, we're building a new EOC, which will be much more adequate.”

Alerting appropriate staff of the emergency proved to be a stumbling block, which city officials have worked to correct. A mass notification system was in place for 911 staff to automatically notify city officials of an emergency. However, some of the contacts were out of date, so the city has become more vigilant about updating contact information for key officials in that system. And, local officials and staffers have been reminded of the importance of being within reach of a cell phone at all times. “There has been a realization that you might get called when you're running around a lake for two hours, so take your cell phone with you,” Dejung says.

During the recovery effort, the city established a resource center for residents who suspected family members were involved in the bridge collapse to visit for updates, counseling and other assistance. But, city officials did not have a plan to set one up or much advice on how to do it, so they made it all up as they went along. “We spent a lot of time organizing and coordinating the family resource center, and that's something administrators need to be thinking a lot about and don't have a whole lot of guidance on,” Dejung says.

Develop strong relationships

Besides the communication technology that was in place and worked well, the success of the rescue and recovery efforts can be credited to the area's leadership, who invested the time and money for extensive emergency planning and training. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Hennepin County leaders attended the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Integrated Emergency Management course at its Mount Weather facilities in Virginia.

The four-day program taught the local leaders their expected roles during an emergency and how to plan a response, and since then, the region has staged several mock emergencies to practice their skills. “You're going to fight like you trained, so you have to train as if something is going to happen, because sooner or later, it probably will,” Dejung says. “It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when something is going to happen.”

Through that continued training and planning, relationships developed that proved more essential than the technology. “It was primarily the relationships we had forged just by working together and training together that allowed Minneapolis and St. Paul and Bloomington and all the others to work together successfully,” Dejung says. “All the egos were checked at the door, and if we had no technology whatsoever, we'd still be able to hang on to those relationships.”

In the end, for all of the planning and communications infrastructure that played a role in the rescue and recovery, Dejung recognizes other factors were at work and could not have been predicted, planned or guaranteed. “God was on duty for this one,” he says. “And, he was being merciful.”

Lindsay Isaacs is American City & County's managing editor.