When a Critical Incident Happens

In an effort to understand emergency management planning, this reporter met with city officials in Hopkins and Plymouth, Minnesota. With […]

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In an effort to understand emergency management planning, this reporter met with city officials in Hopkins and Plymouth, Minnesota. With this knowledge, individuals with special needs may take steps to mitigate such tragic incidents as occurred with Hurricane Katrina.

Part One of this report describes the process for managing a critical incident beginning at the local [city] level and proceeding to the federal [FEMA] level.

Police Lt. Dan Plekkenpol, the support services commander for Plymouth, described Plymouth’s emergency management plan. The plan is derived from MNWALK. This is an acronym for the state [Minnesota] requirements for a city. In other words, it outlines the things each city is required to have in its emergency management plan–see www.hsem.state.mn.us. These requirements are vital to a city in the event that its own resources are overwhelmed.

When a critical incident occurs in a city, the first response is at a local level. Through the use of MN-WALK, Plymouth has two source binders. One is a step-by-step procedure guide with special appendixes for managing critical incidents. Some examples of a critical incident are a school shooting, area flooding, tornado, chemical spill and a terrorist attack. Some are universal whereas others are specific to a region. In Minnesota regional threats include tornados, blizzards and flooding, to name a few.

Plymouth is also a member of the North Suburban Planning Group. This group is comprised of suburban cities in the northern area of Hennepin County. The purpose of the group is to pool resources and labor power in the event that a member city needs assistance in managing a critical incident. If more than one city is affected, this partnership ensures the most timely and efficient distribution of resources to affected cities.

If the North Suburban Planning Group is overwhelmed by a critical incident, the next level of assistance is Hennepin County. The emergency management director of the affected city (ies) contacts the Homeland Security Emergency Management Division of Hennepin County. County wide resources are brought to the aid of affected cities. The Minnesota Homeland Security Emergency Management Web site www.hsem.state.mn.us includes a complete listing by county of the coordinators, assistants and directors for each planning group within Hennepin County.

When the county’s resources are overwhelmed, the next contact is the state duty officer. The 24-hour Minnesota Duty Officer Program offers a single point of contact for both public and private sector entities to request state-level assistance www.hsem.state.mn.us.

The scope of this program includes incidents such as hazardous materials, radiological exposure, natural disasters (tornado, flood, fire, etc.), aircraft incidents and a host of other events where state-level assistance is needed.

When (and only when) state resources are overwhelmed, FEMA is contacted. At this point nationwide resources are brought in to assist with the incident. States (as well as counties) may also call upon other states within their region. A region may be defined by, for example, shared threats such as blizzards in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The purpose of Homeland Security Emergency Management programs from the local to the national level is the most efficient and timely distribution of resources to affected areas. Additional resources are also available through a program called National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster www.nvoad.org. There are also state divisions. The purpose of NVOAD is to coordinate planning efforts by voluntary organizations. Each member organization provides a thorough listing of the volunteer services and resources it provides. Member organizations include American Red Cross, Catholic Charities USA, Disaster Psychiatry Outreach, Mercy Medical Airlift, and a host of other organizations, including some in the government and private sector.

Lt. Plekkenpol encourages anyone with a disability to contact their local emergency manager to see what plans are in place. As someone with special needs, the individual may also benefit others by volunteering to help in the city’s emergency management planning for individuals with special needs. Voluntary organizations that service individuals with special needs may also benefit the greater community by becoming a member of NVOAD at a state or national level.

It is important to remember that the first respondents in any critical incident are, by law, local officials. In a disaster with the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, Lt. Plekkenpol indicated that some loss of life is inevitable. It is important to maintain a clear perspective of critical incident management. Individuals are encouraged to remember: When an entire city calls 9-1-1, emergency response teams are stretched thin and time is critical.

“There are many things people with special needs can do to mitigate their own circumstances, to help the locals help them,” said Lt. Plekkenpol. “Ask your emergency management director if the city offers any brochures, pamphlets or other items to help you prepare yourself for an emergency.” The National Organization for Disabilities www.nod.org offers free pamphlets with instructions for preparing emergency kits. By preparing these, individuals provide evacuation teams and critical incident respondents a listing of assistive technology devices, medications, companion animals and other items critical to the person’s special needs.

In addition to the emergency management plan, Lt. Plekkenpol emphasized the importance of working a plan before an incident occurs. By testing a variety of critical incident scenarios, problems, needs and resource shortages can be identified. Developing and working the plans at a local level helps to mitigate the crises and loss of life in a disaster situation.

Plymouth conducts table top exercises and critical incident enactments. To date Plymouth conducted an active shooter enactment at Armstrong and Wayzata high schools. The exercises included 150 students at Armstrong and 350 at Wayzata. They included role players from the police and fire departments, ambulance service and school district. Enactment scenarios included the triage and transportation of the injured, air care helicopter transports, lock downs, rally points and reunification points for students.

Cities that meet the state requirements for emergency management planning are eligible to apply for grant money to conduct table top exercises and critical incident enactments. Follow-up reports are required from the participants. This is another example of problem identification and crises mitigation in nationwide emergency management planning.

As residents with special needs, the important questions need to be asked first and foremost at the local (city) level of government. Individuals may also volunteer as a stake holder for table top exercises. Stake holders are those involved in the provision of resources or services as well as representatives of special populations. For Access Press readers, this is another avenue whereby individuals with disabilities may take steps to ensure that emergency management plans include provisions for those with special needs.

In summary, this article is not meant to mitigate the responsibility of FEMA or any other government entity involved in recent disaster situations such as Hurricane Katrina. Mistakes most likely occurred at many levels. What is most important now is for each individual to take steps to prepare for emergency situations. Each step taken at an individual level contributes to the response time available for emergency response teams to assist others with special needs.

The reporter extends a special thank you to Plymouth Mayor Judy Johnson, Police Chief Michael Goldstein and Lt. Plekkenpol for assisting with Part One of this article. A special thank you is also due for Hopkins Police Chief Craig Reid and the seven volunteers for Long Beach, Mississippi Project for their assistance in understanding the importance of emergency management planning in local government.

  • "Stay safe, Minnesota. Take steps to protect yourself & others from the COVID-19 virus."
  • "Stay safe, Minnesota. Take steps to protect yourself, & others from the COVID-19 virus."

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