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The Minnesota Metric

When most practitioners and observers think of cities or states where homeland security capabilities are on the leading edge, places such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Florida are mentioned. As accomplished as each of those areas and other locations may be in the homeland arena, there is one state that changed the metric of success – Minnesota.

While known to most Americans more for its arctic winters, the Nordic heritage of its residents, and the land of 10,000 lakes, the 32nd state changed the dynamic of America’s homeland security experience during a tragic summer evening.

As thousands of weary commuters made their respective ways home during the evening rush hour of Aug. 1, 2007, the westward span of Minneapolis’ I-35 Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring more than 140 others.

The imagery captured by everything from television cameras to cell phones showed a sight only imaginable in a Hollywood film. Cars, motorcycles, and buses were strewn along the fractured remnants of the bridge, with several more trapped under tons of steel, shattered concrete, and the churning waters of the Mississippi.

As quickly as the event occurred, the area was inundated with city, regional, and state emergency personnel and equipment that sprang into action. With their emergency operations under way, other federal emergency personnel (FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, etc.) quickly joined these first responders, looking to assist. With so many parties rushing to deliver assistance, confusion and conflict between them was anticipated, but rather than getting in one another’s way, each of the respective responders played their particular role and worked cooperatively and cohesively with the others.

As shocking as the bridge collapse was, the skill and effectiveness of the response was also cause for considerable attention.

Cars and roadway litter the river where the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. FEMA photo by Gene Romano.

Following the well-chronicled dysfunction of emergency response in New York City on 9/11 and New Orleans during Katrina, the level of chaos and confusion experienced in the past had become the anticipated performance expectation. To the welcome surprise of many, such a poor performance metric was not achieved.

As for why things went as well as they did in the midst of so much unprecedented destruction, police, emergency/rescue personnel, transportation officials, regional elected leaders, state agencies, and other responders to the I-35 Bridge collapse all pointed to two things that made the difference: training and interoperable communications tools. When combined, the two enabled an almost seamless response.

Training

Because of training investments that had been made in preceding years, elected leaders and first responders (local, regional, and national) had forged the necessary relationships to work together. Each of these players understood what they brought to an emergency and was able to put into action the plans and skills they had developed and refined together when their community needed it most. Without those relationships and enhanced understanding, many of the I-35 responders attested to news media and in incident reports that more lives would have been lost, additional injuries incurred, and community recovery further delayed.

Interoperable Communications Tools

Besides training, the state’s use of interoperable communications tools, specifically 800 MHz mobile radio communications, also enhanced the bridge collapse response. Utilizing federal grant dollars from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other funding sources, the state, through its Department of Public Safety, established Minnesota’s Emergency Communication Networks. By creating one of the country’s first complete interoperability plans and establishing Statewide Radio Boards to govern its operational protocols, and having the funding (federal, state, local, tribal, and nongovernmental) to support it, Minnesota’s first responders were connected and operational from the moment the first 9-1-1 call came into Minneapolis. While there were still some minor issues that occurred during the I-35 Bridge collapse response, the overall communications system performed exceptionally well under pressure.

A 25-foot Coast Guard smallboat from Sector Upper Mississippi River patrols a safety zone near the site of the Minnesota bridge collapse. The Coast Guard enforced seven-mile closure of the Mississippi River between mile markers 847 and 854 was being done to support local responder’s efforts to search for victims and remove debris from the waterway. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier.

Minnesota’s investments in training, relationship building, equipment, and operational protocols demonstrated the value of preparedness. Emblematic of the state’s history of “rugged individualism” and Midwest values for collaboration and cooperation amidst various challenges (e.g., severe weather, flooding, etc.), Minnesota’s actions on a tragic August evening helped change what had been the anticipated metric for homeland security action – dysfunction.

While there were 13 people killed in the I-35W Bridge collapse incident, this region showed the country and the world what happens when people plan, prepare, and partner together. The habitual failures that had occurred on 9/11 and the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes in communications interoperability, confused incident command structure, lack of coordinated response, and other breakdowns did not occur in Minnesota.

When examining the coverage of events from 9/11, the 2003 East Coast blackout, Hurricane Katrina, and so forth, it is easy to track the same recurring failures that have occurred time after time. Minnesota broke that cycle. In spite of the 13 lives lost and over 140 injuries in the I-35W Bridge collapse, Minnesota’s actions were a “tragic success.”

While training, exercises, and operational plan development will never provide the photo ops that many elected officials covet when they bring homeland security dollars “home,” they do enable the metric and dividend taxpayers expect – performance when it matters.

Knowing what to do, how to do it, and who is ready to assist during an emergency makes the difference every time – a metric Minnesota has shown in action. Metrics of saved lives, coordinated actions, reliable and interoperable communications, and improved emergency response have proven the value of Minnesota’s investment strategy in people, programs, and resources. They recognize that when they all come together, the performance metrics will speak for themselves, and that’s what makes them a national model for homeland security success.

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2009 Edition.

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...