FEMA Course Lays Framework for Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Response

Emergency response was swift and massive, thanks to preparedness exercises.

by / November 10, 2008
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It happened almost instantaneously: there and then gone.

Just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis fell, killing 13 people and injuring 121 more. The span stood for 40 years, and then dropped without warning.

The fallen bridge left a jumble of twisted steel and pulverized concrete. Vehicles were hanging precariously over the river, lying like wreckage on the bank where they fell or sunk amid the swirling river waters.

The emergency response was swift and massive, bringing together myriad local and federal authorities. It was a response no doubt aided by years of communication bred by a post-9/11 FEMA course that developed relationships and cooperation throughout the years, and led to the purchase of a new radio system.

Minneapolis, Aug. 6, 2007 -- Bettina Hutchings, FEMA broadcast unit leader (right) and Mike Neapolitan, a video cameraman and technician with Mobile Video Services, preview video in the mobile satellite vehicle near the site of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. FEMA provided a five-person mobile video team to support the Minnesota Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Minneapolis and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office drew support from adjacent counties and cities, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy.

In the wake of the tragedy, the response was deemed a success, but of course, not without some lessons learned. Rescue and recovery were executed without injury despite treacherous conditions. Responders cooperated closely and the public was kept informed.

Ask those who were there and their testimony is uniform: Success was the result of human ties - ongoing personal connections that already existed between members of the area's many responder organizations. These connections and their foundations were laid long before the bridge went down.


Developing Ties

The response to the bridge collapse found its roots in a FEMA course held in the aftermath of 9/11. In March 2002, FEMA brought together city and county officials to perform preparedness exercises in a four-day integrated emergency management course.

"We fumbled our way through the first exercise, we got better on the second one, and by the third, we were pretty good," recalled Jim Clack, Minneapolis fire chief at the time and now chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department.

The course highlighted various shortcomings in the local response system, but more than that, the FEMA training began the process of relationship building among emergency professionals.

Clack said he made it a point after the FEMA training to talk to every city council member one on one. Others followed the same course, forging a network of personal ties that proved its worth on Aug. 1. "The theme around the whole thing was knowing the people personally and having their cell phone numbers in each others' cell phones," Clack said. "Those personal relationships were crucial."

Though professional friendships were clearly a factor, those on scene said that interpersonal connections, in another sense, played a key factor in the response effort. "People knew they had to take orders and report to somebody," said Rocco Forte, who as assistant city coordinator brings together city departments on emergency management issues. "That sounds very simplistic, but it is very important during a large event like this."

The bridge effort succeeded because a chain of command was present and trained people were in control, Forte said. "You needed somebody who has that paramilitary sense to them, and when they gave an order, you needed people who knew that order had to be followed."


Building Infrastructure

Interpersonal preparedness

may have been the deciding factor when catastrophe struck, but there were also tangible factors at play. The FEMA training had revealed substantial gaps in the area's response systems - gaps that were fortunately corrected before the bridge collapse.

In fiscal 2004, the city received more than $12 million through the Urban Area Security Initiative, and the state received smaller homeland security grants. The city and county took several specific steps in response to the FEMA training, which tested the city's Emergency Operations Plan and identified weaknesses. The report, I-35W Bridge Collapse and Response, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 1, 2007, from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Fire Administration, outlined some of these weaknesses and responses, including the following:

  • Communications. Faced with an outdated telecommunications system, Minneapolis earmarked $20 million to purchase new 800 MHz radios. Minneapolis and Hennepin County already had the 800 MHz system largely in place; the DHS money helped speed the acquisition of radios, while also expanding the system's capacity. The city also upgraded its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which is part of the 800 MHz system.
  • Emergency Dispatch. The city spent $5.2 million on a state-of-the-art CAD system that can map the locations of all GPS-equipped emergency response vehicles.
  • Special Operations Teams. Minneapolis created three special response teams - the fire department's hazardous materials and collapse structure teams, and the police department's bomb squad - at a cost of $8 million.

The federal grants helped fund changes in the areas of heavy rescue and hazardous materials handling, among other weak spots. "At the time, we didn't have a heavy-rescue team, so if a building had collapsed at that time, we had nobody who could safely go in and do some kind of rescue," said Tim Turnbull, director of emergency preparedness for Hennepin County.

It took several years to set up the new 800 MHz radios, but all of them were fully deployed by the time of the bridge collapse. "That probably was a lifesaver," Turnbull said. With policies in place as to which channel each agency, it was possible to dispatch effectively and still have necessary conversations between different agencies. "Everybody could talk to everybody else."


Stuttering Start

Though the radios aided coordination among participants, the DHS report cited synchronization issues in the few minutes immediately after the event. Fire officials set up command on a nearby bridge where they could view the rescue action, while police established a separate post. "It would have been helpful if police command had been established with fire command on the bridge at the beginning of response activities, so that a true unified command operation could be managed," the report states.

Turnbull said there was some confusion at first. A member of the sheriff's office couldn't get into the police command post, which had been closed to outsiders. A quick call to the police remedied the situation, but the anecdote shows the perils of insufficient coordination.

The confusion between the on-scene command posts was offset to a large degree by the almost instant lighting-up of an emergency operations center (EOC) in City Hall.

In retrospect, those on the scene say early coordination issues may have arisen out of a less-than-perfect application of existing protocols. In the initial minutes, "we didn't follow 100 percent the NIMS [National Incident Management System] model," Clack said. "We had kind of a loosely unified command, by which I mean we were not always successful in getting everyone into one place."

As recovery stretched from minutes to hours, responders turned increasingly to NIMS, and with a positive effect, according to Rich Stanek, Minneapolis sheriff.

"If you understand NIMS and know what it means, it gives you that sense of organization within chaos," he said. "And we all had that training: Here's who is

working on rescue, here's who is working on recovery, here's who is going to coordinate the media. At the same time, someone has the role of thinking ahead three or four days out."

As the command structure took shape, leaders were simultaneously able to ensure that the many agencies on scene could coordinate their efforts.


Early Activation

With rescuers rushing in from surrounding towns and cities, coordinators worked with dispatchers in these surrounding areas to ensure posts would be filled as personnel converged on the bridge.

Interagency cooperation probably helped keep the scene accident-free. "We didn't have anyone suffer a major injury on that scene, and yet we had hundreds of responders," Clack said. Lacking an incident safety officer of its own, the police department quickly coordinated with fire to get such an individual on scene. This in turn made it easy to clear nonessential personnel from the area as Navy divers began the treacherous work of underwater searching.

Overall, the DHS report stated that "early activation of a Multiagency Coordinating (MAC) Group prevented the city from being overwhelmed and enabled rapid access to community resources."

While the swift and steady improvement of coordination efforts stands as a testament to the bridge response effort, other shortcomings could not be remedied on scene. One example was crowding at the city's EOC.

As response teams came together, a room designed for 20 people soon held 60 or more. The DHS report says the crowding could become a safety issue.
"That was terrible," Turnbull said. He added that the city has since taken action and expects to complete a multimillion dollar upgrade to the facility within the next two years.

Crowding, communications and coordination were all factors as emergency responders moved to make sense out of the chaos in the river. At the same time, phones began ringing almost immediately with calls from friends and relatives.

"Within a minute it's on the national news, and you haven't even got your shoes tied yet," Turnbull said. "There were calls coming from all over the country."

Training and protocol prevailed in what might have been a major logistics burden. One highlight was the police chaplaincy corps readiness to pick up the ball and begin working with families almost at once. "They were the ones who were clearly the most experienced and most sensitive people in terms of how to deal with this," Turnbull said.


Best Practices

Although the DHS report cited many deficiencies in the bridge collapse response, it also singled out some examples of best practices.

At the top of the list is the matter of interpersonal connections:

"Strong working relationships and knowledge of roles and procedures were arguably the greatest strengths of the Minneapolis emergency services community's response. The city had invested heavily in the development of those relationships, which were built through plan development, universal NIMS training, appropriate use of exercises and strategic planning over several years.

"These factors contributed heavily to creating an environment in which key players not only knew each other, but were familiar with the operations and disaster assignments of others. When it came time to pull together efficiently as a team - they did."

Fire Chief Clack tracks those relationships back to 2002's FEMA exercise. "We got to know each other very well then because we were immersed with each other 10 hours a day, away from the city," he said.

Those interconnections run deep, Turnbull said. Ongoing conversations cross every jurisdictional line, between police and fire and EMS, state and local, and public and private sectors.

"If there is a key to success, it is in the fact that the people in the Twin Cities area all know each other," Turnbull said. "We all work together, we have built a strong relationship with one another, and that is something that has been going on for years." There is tacit recognition that when disasters happen, "we are all going to have to work together."


Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.