Terrorist attacks forced new emergency approachST. PAUL — Even the dark smoke clouds billowing out of the Twin Towers, a Pennsylvania field and the Pentagon 10 years ago contained a silver lining.
By: Don Davis, Worthington Daily Globe
ST. PAUL — Even the dark smoke clouds billowing out of the Twin Towers, a Pennsylvania field and the Pentagon 10 years ago contained a silver lining.
The East Coast terrorist attacks that killed 2,975 people convinced, and in a way forced, emergency workers to work closer with each other preparing for the next big disaster, whether it be manmade or natural. At the same time, it opened the door to much improved day-to-day contact among government officials.
“You don’t exchange business cards after the incident,” said Michael Starkey, the Minnesota Agriculture Department’s emergency response specialist.
Instead, each government agency needs a person or department prepared for emergencies and they need to work together constantly.
“That was one of the good things that came out of something that obviously was very horrible,” Starkey said.
Signs of the emphasis on communications among agencies and preparedness to respond to emergencies are evident across Minnesota government. For instance, the signs can be seen when the state responds to flood threats, with an emergency operations center established staffed by representatives of every agency that could conceivably be involved in a flood.
“I think as a state, on the whole, we actually are much better prepared to respond to natural disasters because of what has changed because of Sept. 11,” said Kris Eide, Minnesota’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division director.
While the terrorist attacks prompted a massive overhaul of the country’s emergency preparedness and response operations, pouring $400 million of federal money into Minnesota alone, natural disasters and more routine emergency response benefited the most.
“The possibility of natural things happening is much greater than a terrorist attack, particularly in greater Minnesota,” Eide said.
About 100 state employees are full-time emergency workers, preparing and responding for events as varied as someone being trapped in a silo to lessening damage done by an economic catastrophe. Local, state and federal officials could find themselves working together to help a community recover from a tornado or responding to a deadly bridge collapse.
Officials from many state agencies agree with Eide that they are better prepared now to tackle a wide range of problems.
In the Health Department, for instance, dealing with the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak was easier because of emergency-response plans put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.
The changes occurred nationally and a federally required movement to an “incident command” system of dealing with emergencies gets much of the credit.
The system means that instead of having a plan that deals with tornadoes, one with floods, one with terrorist attacks on power plants, etc., a generic plan is put in place that can be adapted to any emergency. And, as important as anything, emergency responders of all kinds work together in advance of any incident so they can communicate well, both in terms of technology and terminology.
“The hazard changes, but the response kind of remains the same,” Eide said.
A recent case of anthrax exposure, which ended up being natural not intentional, is an example of improved communication.
Assistant Health Commissioner Aggie Leitheiser said the state had warned hospitals statewide about anthrax illness symptoms and if they are found what to do and who to contact.
“Those are kind of skills were would not have had the capacity to do,” Leitheiser said of the time before Sept. 11.
Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.