By Marisa Helms
Imagine it’s 3:35 p.m. on a balmy summer day. A line of severe thunderstorms is approaching your city. Are you ready? Hope so. Because, here comes trouble. ...
An F-3 tornado is sweeping through your town from the southwest. Once the tornado has passed, the news isn’t good. There are initial reports of several deaths and over 30 injuries. The property damage is massive. Several key buildings and homes have been destroyed, and there is debris everywhere. The utilities are down, the electricity is out, and there are no telephone communications.
Now—do you know the answers to these questions?:
This hypothetical scenario and the questions it raises were adapted from what’s called a “tabletop” training exercise. Jim Halstrom, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers (AMEM), says the purpose of a tabletop is to get multiple stakeholders to literally sit together at a table.
The tabletop facilitator leads the group through a disaster scenario. Each person at the table is given the opportunity to think about—and then tell the rest of the group—what their actions would be at any given step of the disaster response.
Halstrom says regularly scheduled tabletop exercises are one of the most beneficial things a city can do, and should be integrated into every city’s emergency management plan. “A disaster is chaos to start with, and it’s always better to go into it having a plan, and having trained in that plan, so that at least everyone has a frame¬work to operate from,” says Halstrom.
Working the plan in Burnsville
Burnsville City Manager Heather Johnston recently took part in a tabletop exercise with a tornado as the working scenario. She agrees that training based on the city’s emergency plan is invaluable.
“As a community, you’re going to have to respond to disasters, whether they’re natural or man-made,” says Johnston. “And your response is much improved if you plan ahead. It’s never going to be perfect, but the more you train, you fall back on what you know in a crisis.”
Burnsville’s emergency management structure includes employing a full-time emergency manager—a police sergeant who keeps the emergency plan up to date, coordinates internal emergency planning exercises with the county, and attends regional trainings. It also includes activating its “Emergency Operations Center”—a designated room at City Hall that serves as a central command center during major emergencies.
Johnston says through tabletop exercises and annual drills, city staff learn how to take on a supportive role to make sure the right resources flow to emergency responders in the field.
Additionally, city personnel are encouraged to take free online courses offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “so everyone can be speaking the same language,” says Johnston, in case FEMA officials arrive to help in a major disaster. “We are prepared, and we’re continually training and refining our training.”
One early test of Burnsville’s emergency plan came in 1998 when the city activated its first Emergency Operations Center during a major windstorm. Since then, Johnston says Burnsville’s emergency planning has evolved and has served as an essential guide when the city faced recent emergencies, including significant flooding and tornado damage in June 2012, flooding in June 2014, and a fire at Xcel’s local Black Dog generation plant in March 2015.
“While our first responders are instrumental in emergencies like these, preparedness and response requires the effort and attention from all of our city departments,” says Johnston. “For example, our public works crews have to maintain access for residents and emergency vehicles, our parks crews have to remove debris, our communications people need to make sure messages are getting out. It really is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation.”
Johnston says Burnsville’s emergency planning is enhanced by strong mutual aid agreements in place with neighboring cities, and an active volunteer program.
In 1999, Burnsville was the first city in the state to establish a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. The training was fully implemented in 2001 in collaboration with Richfield and Bloomington.
Today Burnsville’s CERT training is the foundation for the Mobile Volunteer Network (MVN), a group that is a part of the city’s emergency plan. As such, Burnsville offers quarterly classes to about 50 residents to train them in emergency response skills. These trained volunteers are empowered to help their neighbors in the immediate aftermath of a disaster until certified emergency workers arrive on the scene.
The basics of emergency planning
Minnesota Statutes, chapter 12 requires every political jurisdiction, including cities, to appoint a director of emergency management who develops a city’s emergency operations plan, among many other duties. Once a state of emergency is declared by the mayor, the plan takes full effect, guiding response and recovery decisions and possibly providing aid and assistance to those in need.
AMEM’s Halstrom says many smaller cities that don’t have the resources to hire a full-time director simply add emergency management duties to the job description of their mayor, fire chief, police chief, or other city personnel.
For cities looking to bolster or formalize their emergency response plan, there are many resources available, including county-level emergency management and statewide resources like AMEM as well as the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Halstrom says contemporary emergency planning uses a systematic, proactive “all hazards” approach that includes a basic framework of establishing an emergency command/operations center, establishing communications, and assessing damages, among many other things.
Halstrom says from that basic, “all hazards” approach, cities must think through specific threats they face whether it’s flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, windstorms, flu pandemics, or train derailments. A detailed response for each potential threat should be included in a city’s emergency plan with specific information about how the city prepares, mitigates, responds, and recovers in each type of disaster. These key emergency management terms are defined as follows:
Simply put, for cities out there that don’t have an active emergency program, Halstrom advises these five steps: identify an emergency manager, develop a plan, talk about the plan, exercise the plan, and keep updating the plan.
Advice from the front lines
The City of St. Peter is well rehearsed in activating its emergency management plan. The 1998 tornado that destroyed much of St. Peter, as well as the six major floods there since 1993, have given city and elected officials a “great history to understand what’s important,” says City Administrator Todd Prafke. Prafke says St. Peter is proud of its emergency response and recovery efforts, which he describes as “textbook,” and he says he regularly shares what he’s learned over the years with other city officials who contact him for advice.
“There’s a wonderful, terrible juxtaposition that occurs when you’re known as having had a devastating tornado,” says Prafke. “Do you really want to be known in history as the town that was destroyed by a tornado? No, you want to be known in history for your great recovery. But you can’t have a great response and recovery without a tornado.”
Essential emergency management elements
Prafke says the first step in good emergency management for city officials is understanding the difference between “having a disaster plan” and “planning for a disaster.”
He explains: “Since the time of the tornado, I have had this wonderful black binder on my desk, our emergency preparedness plan. It’s beautiful and yellowed, with old-fashioned tabs on it. It’s a wonderful thing to have, but it doesn’t mean much without the planning. Having a plan is a destination, but being prepared for a disaster is about the journey, not just the destination.”
Another significant element in a city’s emergency management planning, says Prafke, is lining up mutual aid agreements, and taking care of many other important details like having the names and numbers of all the suppliers, agencies, and people—nearby and around the state—who can help in an emergency.
Prafke adds that continuity is another critical component to ensure that everyone is up to speed with current updates to the emergency plan, and that staff and elected officials regularly take part in scenario training and drills.
Scenario training provides a commonality in the language of emergency management and a framework for everyone to understand their roles and the command structure, he says. This continuity is really important when there’s a disaster and people from all over show up to help your city.
“Use any sports team analogy—a football team, for example,” explains Prafke. “Everyone huddles together, they call the play, and everybody knows what to do during any number of decision points; they know what the play is and who gets to say ‘hike!’ and who gets the ball. The point is that people know their roles, so there’s no confusion where they stand, and what assets or gifts everyone is bringing.”
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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