Emergency Preparedness after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

In Minneapolis, Rocco Forté, the assistant city coordinator for Regulatory Services, is responsible for emergency preparedness. Forté served as the chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department, where he also served as director of the city’s emergency preparedness operations. After 30 years of fire service, he retired and transferred to his current job, but the emergency preparedness functions transferred with him.
“I was the best trained for it, so it was logical to move the responsibilities with the position,” Forté told HSToday. “I think we will be leaning toward a separate division of emergency preparedness in the next few years.”
Forté retired from the fire department in 2004, so as the assistant city coordinator for Regulatory Services, he was the incident commander when the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1. The city’s emergency response forces handled the collapse very well, Forté said, but they did learn a few things that they should fix before the Republican National Convention comes to town.
“The lessons that we learned from the bridge collapse, quite frankly, are that the systems that we built work, the investments that we made in the communications, tools, equipment, training and planning work. There are some minor gaps that we’re looking at as we move forward to plan for the RNC,” Forté declared.
Forté learned, however, that he would like to have a bigger emergency operations center staffed with the right people at the right time with the right equipment.
“For a bridge collapse, that’s a little tricky because it happened immediately. For the RNC, we know the dates that it is coming. We’ll have the correct people in our emergency operations center [EOC],” he commented.
“We didn’t have a television in the EOC. We want to see the latest news as it breaks. It’s minor things like that. We have an excellent system and we have multiple committees set up. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will work very well together in the planning and implementation if something should happen during the RNC,” he added.
Forté credits an intense training session conducted in Virginia five years ago under a grant from FEMA with identifying gaps in the city’s emergency preparedness. The city’s first responders ran through scenarios including a building collapse, high-rise fires, tornadoes and a pandemic.
“Five years ago, the city of Minneapolis took our emergency operations plan to Virginia and did five days of scenarios to test our plan,” Forté recalled. “Quite frankly, we didn’t do very well. We did a gap analysisbased on that experience. We came back to Minneapolis and put between $50 million and $55 million into our radio systems, our computer-aided dispatch, our collapsed structure team, our HAZMAT team and training for our firefighters, our police officers and our health.”
Out of about $55 million in emergency preparedness spending, about $30 million came from grants. That grant money helped purchase a collapsed structure rig, a vital piece of equipment identified as a need during the FEMA training five years ago. Forté estimated that it would have taken Minneapolis 48 to 72 hours to obtain a rig from the federal government after the building collapse if it didn’t already have one; instead, it took eight minutes.
“We put $5 million into equipment and training in a collapsed structure. Politically, that’s not the easiest thing to do to get money for these different disaster scenarios when most people think they won’t happen,” Forté stated. “But because we did the gap analysis and identified our weaknesses, our council gave us the money we needed. We bought the right equipment and got the right people trained, and it paid off during this emergency. I see a lot of those concepts being implemented during the RNC.”

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