35W Collapse: Citywide Wi-Fi Improved Emergency Response


When Minneapolis started planning for its citywide wireless internet network, it faced criticism from the left, the right, and even the editorial board of the Pioneer Press (Feb. 3, 2006). But as analysis of the emergency response to the 35W bridge collapse emerges, the network, still being installed through parts of the city, proved to be an invaluable tool in the immediate hours after disaster struck.

“Thank goodness we had it in and that this piece of the network was already up and operational,” city of Minneapolis CIO Lynn Willenbring told online magazine Computer World. “We could not have been as effective if it were not for that.”

The network had been installed in the area around the bridge just a few months prior and is a public-private partnership between the city of Minneapolis and Minnesota-based USI Wireless.

Joe Caldwell, CEO of USI Wireless, made the quick decision to open the wireless network right after the bridge collapsed. “I was trying to get the traffic off the cell network so the cell network could be used for first responders,” Caldwell told Computer World. The network was free to the public and to emergency workers who were able to quickly transfer large files, including maps of the site, between the Command Post and the collapse site.

“We have been able to get information to the command center readily, and we are talking heavy files, GIS-based mapping … that are just critical,” said Willenbring.

more inside
Andy Birkey :: 35W Collapse: Citywide Wi-Fi Improved Emergency Response
According to the Pioneer Press, there were several steps that made the network a time-saver for emergency responders. Open the network up and make it free. Boost the system: only part of the collapse site had coverage, so USI Wireless quickly set up equipment to boost the signal. Add cameras. USI Wireless quickly added webcams to areas surrounding the site giving the network of emergency workers a better look.

James Farstad, program manager for Minneapolis’ wireless initiative, has written a detailed review of how the wireless network functioned and how it could serve as a model for other cities in emergency situations:

As the event unfolded, a number of immediate potential uses of the wireless network became apparent. They included opening an alternate path to electronic communication and information for City personnel; extending the Wi-fi network infrastructure to fully blanket the scene of the bridge collapse for emergency personnel on-site connectivity; implementing live multiple perspective camera coverage of the scene for EOC and Command Post uses; and providing Community links to City of Minneapolis resources, Hospital Emergency Coordination Units, State of Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT ) traffic routing information, Red Cross Blood Bank collection points, and local and national news outlets.

The 35W collapse is believed to be the first time a municipal wireless network has been put to the test during a major emergency.

Farstad related the cooperation between the government’s emergency response and USI Wireless as indicative of positive note during some of Minneapolis’ darkest hours. “If our Elected Officials and City, County, State and Federal staff and our Community can sustain the spirit of teamwork that has been experienced this week in Minneapolis, throughout the rebuilding effort, I promise you, that new bridge will serve to connect this City, on many levels, for decades to come.”