Preparing for the worst


Disasters happen. There are fires, floods, tornadoes. Trucks can overturn and burst into flames in the middle of rush hour.

When the Interstate 35W bridge went down last August, Minnesota public safety officers were put to the test. They had to respond quickly and efficiently. They had to communicate effectively, transport 121 victims from the site to medical facilities, and move large chunks of the bridge that had fallen.

“Without proper training, prior planning, multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary response, we would not have been successful,” said Tim Leslie, assistant commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

Leslie spoke before the House Public Safety Finance Division Feb. 14 in support of funding construction of an emergency and training center at Camp Ripley, where emergency services officials could meet and train. Funding for the center is included in the House capital investment finance bill, passed by the House March 6.

Plans for the future

In 1998, there were at least eight bills introduced seeking funding for public safety training facilities. That same year, the Legislature instructed the commissioner of public safety to provide a statewide master plan for fire and law enforcement training facilities in Minnesota.

The 1999 report, and a 2000 supplemental report, provided several recommendations on location, design, operations, funding and capacity. They stressed the use of existing facilities, the use of technology for realistic training, identifying regional funding resources, and the need for cooperation between federal, state and local governments.

Based on these reports, two sites rose to the top of numerous requests this year: Camp Ripley and a southeastern Minnesota public safety training facility near Rochester.

This session, 16 bills have been introduced for funding various state and regional public safety facilities.

“Why are there so many proposals this year? Because there is a need,” said Olmsted County Sheriff Steven Borchardt.

State emergency training site

Camp Ripley is a 53,000-acre, state-owned military training site about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, between Brainerd and Little Falls. It has two runways, a control tower, an administrative and operations building, helicopter pads, an aircraft hanger, and two crash fire rescue bays.

The House capital investment finance bill would provide $4 million for construction of a new homeland security and emergency management training and exercise center at Camp Ripley. This phase would include construction of an auditorium, a simulated emergency operations center, collapsed structures and a fire hydrant system for a simulated city.

An additional phase would include construction of a dormitory, cafeteria, a burn tower and emergency vehicle driving course, at an estimated cost of $10.91 million. Funding for this project will be requested during the 2010 session.

Rocco Forte, director of emergency preparedness for Minneapolis, said that the emergency services would not have been as successful as they were following the bridge collapse without the training they had received at a facility in Virginia. In the future, it would be even better if there was a Minnesota facility like Camp Ripley where other officials could receive training, he said.

“An emergency is the wrong time to exchange business cards,” Leslie said, quoting his boss. Camp Ripley would provide a location for state emergency professionals to meet and train together, he said.

New regional training site

The proposal for southeastern Minnesota calls for a regional training facility, smaller in scope than Camp Ripley. The 40-acre facility would include a burn tower, driving range and weapons training facility. Included in the capital investment bill is $3.65 million, with matching funds coming from Olmsted County and the City of Rochester.

Speaking before the House Capital Investment Finance Division, Borchardt stressed that the site is important because there is nothing like it nearby. Accessibility, he said, is a key for the many volunteer public safety officers who need training.

Borchardt said that it’s important for public safety officers to have opportunities to train regularly, especially when working with complicated equipment. But this is hard to do when there are no local training facilities. “We’re asking people to be near perfect with physical responses during the most harrowing times in their lives,” Borchardt said. “And it takes accessibility; that’s the only way it’s going to work.”

Each facility is also included in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s bonding recommendations.

The Senate capital investment bill, SF3295, sponsored by Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon), includes requested funding for both projects, as well.