Mpls. team preparing for the worst

The Minneapolis Emergency Preparedness team works behind the scenes on the region’s worst situations.

Floods, tornadoes, bridge collapses and riots. This team has been behind the recovery efforts for them all. They are the city of MinneapolisâÄô Emergency Preparedness team, and itâÄôs their job to do the behind the scenes coordination and planning for major disasters throughout the Midwest. Since the collapse of the I-35W Bridge, the team members have traveled all over the world to talk about how to handle disasters. Before 2002, the city of Minneapolis did not have a specific team set up for high-profile emergencies. Plans were in place to deal with emergency situations, but they were insufficient, Rocco Forte, director of the cityâÄôs emergency preparedness team, said . But in 2002, Forte, then chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department, spoke with Mayor R.T. Rybak about attending a training session at Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia to evaluate the cityâÄôs emergency practices. Forte said time spent in Virginia opened their eyes to holes in the cityâÄôs plan. âÄúOur plan was written correctly, but we didnâÄôt have the tools and the training to respond, so we failed most of our scenarios at Mount Weather,âÄù he said. After returning from Virginia, Forte set out to indentify gaps in the cityâÄôs emergency system and set up a five-year plan to improve its strategy. The five-year plan extended from July 2002 until July 2007, using federal grants and training to build the emergency preparedness group from the ground up. One month later, the bridge collapsed. âÄúYou are never lucky when you have an emergency âĦ but we were at the top of our game,âÄù Forte said. The current team consists of Forte, who handles city inspections part time, three full-time staff members and about eight other individuals who work on the team part time. Forte said the main job of the team is to coordinate resources for various disciplines during emergencies. âÄúRegardless of what happened when I was a fire chief, I looked at the fire side, and police look at the police side. Every discipline does it,âÄù he said. âÄúWe are the backup support system and we are making sure the right disciplines are in charge when they need to be in charge.âÄù During the bridge collapse, that meant staking out in the cityâÄôs small emergency operation center, watching the scene on three cameras while coordinating about ten groups, including police, fire, ambulance and Navy divers. When they are not managing disaster situations, members hold training sessions and apply for federal grants to improve emergency systems. Lisa Dressler, a full-time staff member and one of three deputy directors of the team, specializes in pre-planning for emergency situations. Dressler was working in emergency preparedness in Chicago on 9/11. âÄúWe needed to evacuate because we were near the Sears Tower , and I ended up working in the regional operations center.âÄù DresslerâÄôs job was to get aid to New York from Chicago as quickly and safely as possible. âÄúIt was crazy because there was no air transportation at the time,âÄù she said. âÄúSo we had to figure out how to get people there quickly by land.âÄù Laura Eiklenborg, another deputy director of the team , who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in public health in 2001, focuses her efforts on planning for health emergencies. It is EiklenborgâÄôs job to create a plan for issuing vaccines to more than 72,000 first responders in the area in the event of a pandemic. But more recently, Eiklenborg partnered with Clay County officials in Moorhead, Minn. to evacuate residential areas during the Red River flooding . âÄúTo be able to partner with such fabulous people and really make it easier for those populations to remain safe is why I do what I do,âÄù she said. For Eiklenborg, an important part of emergency preparedness is the connections made across the region. In 2008, the Minneapolis team headed out to Iowa to help with flooding , and responded to tornadoes in Hugo, Minn. âÄúWhatever is asked of us, we do,âÄù Forte said. âÄúWe go to other municipalities to help them with a disaster in any way we can, just like they came to us when the bridge collapsed.âÄù âÄúThey are a very proactive organization in planning, training and exercising,âÄù Kevin Leur, director of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said. âÄúThey really take it to heart âĦ they are a collaborative group that works with other agencies and partners to accomplish a mission.âÄù