Emergency department puts preparedness to use

The Department of Emergency Management trains year-round to prepare for disasters.

Mitch Anderson

While no one expected the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge on Wednesday evening, not everyone was caught unprepared by it.

The University Department of Emergency Management has been training for years for an assortment of dangerous scenarios – from pandemic flu to terrorism to natural disasters – and Wednesday night, they put those skills to use.

Although its title and focus have changed over the years, the DEM has been crafting contingency plans for all emergency scenarios since it was first created in the 1960s.

The department trains year-round to prepare for, respond to, recover from and reduce the effects of such disasters.

As vice president of University services, Kathleen O’Brien oversees the Department of Public Safety, the governing agency of the DEM.

She said the department’s main goal is to coordinate with other agencies to best serve the needs of the University and Minneapolis communities.

“In an emergency, we view the University as both a risk – emergencies can happen here – and a resource,” O’Brien said. “When this tragedy happened on Wednesday, we started playing the role of a resource. We’ve been a resource as first responders, in helping with the recovery effort and now in helping to move forward from this event.”

Resources from the University have been used in every aspect in dealing with the aftermath of the collapse.

Eleven University police officers were among the first people on the scene of the disaster. They helped survivors to safety, tended to the injured and secured the area, according to a report obtained from University President Bob Bruininks.

The report said members of the University Medical Reserve Corps mental health team provided support and grief counseling for those directly affected by the collapse and the

University of Minnesota Medical Center treated 40 victims injured in the disaster.

In addition to the human assets, the University also provided physical and tactical resources as well.

The Law School’s Mondale Hall is serving as a joint information center for many state, local and national agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency,

the National Transportation Safety Board, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minneapolis Police Department, among others.

University Parking and Transportation Services has also turned over the West Bank Office Building parking ramp to local authorities to use as a staging area for recovery operations, and baseball fields near the Law School are being used as helicopter landing pads.

University Police Department Chief Greg Hestness and Deputy Chief Steve Johnson both provided support in the East and West Bank incident command centers, making sure the federal and state officials in charge got the information they needed.

Hestness said one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with such a large crisis is organizing the dozens of agencies and departments so their resources can be used as effectively as possible.

“You need someone in a command and oversight position to say we don’t need 50 first responders on the east end of the bridge, we need 20 on the west end,” he said. “It’s really about organization and communication within departments and making sure resources don’t get wasted.”

O’Brien said she was pleased with the overall response efforts and thought the well-trained response was a big reason why fatalities were relatively low.

“Federal officials have said that the coordination and response in this tragedy operated as well as any they’ve seen anywhere,” she said. “It was really a textbook response and reflected well on the training that first responders and emergency managers had done to train themselves.”