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Emergency Communications Experts Discuss Unplanned, Planned Response Events

April 22, 2009
By Henry Kenyon

CHICAGO - Two case studies were the topic of discussion during the final presentation of the first day of the National Conference on Emergency Communications. The discussions centered around two large-scale multijurisdictional responses: one unplanned and one planned.

Scott Wiggins, director, division of emergency communication networks, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, described the details about the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. The bridge collapsed because of a design flaw and the additional weight on the bridge caused by the equipment needed for ongoing construction.

Wiggins explained that the event involved a number of variables: water rescues, fires and an unknown substance leak. In total 176 agencies responded to the event. A number of different communications systems were employed, including 27,000 push-to-talk devices. Although a multitude of systems were used, the longest period of connection wait-times was 95 seconds. By the following morning, only 1 percent of the push-to-talk devices received a busy signal.

Demetrios "Jim" Vlassopoulos, deputy fire chief, Washington, D.C., Fire and Emergency Management Services Department, shared his experiences during preparations for the 2009 presidential inauguration. He explained the number of challenges the event posed, including communications coordination for more than 70 federal, city and regional agencies. Vlassopoulos' organization was primarily responsible for emergency transport during the event. He pointed out that many of the thousands of people who showed up for the event arrived extremely early, before the emergency medical tents were set up. This put extra stress on the local 9-11 service.

The Secret Service was the lead agency in charge of the National Special Security Event. Many of the emergency personnel attended meetings up to five months prior to the January 2009 event, and these were extremely beneficial, Vlassopoulos said. A communications plan was coordinated during this time that involved additional meetings with local representatives; the final communications systems were provided by a contractor.

Private and public networks were used that provided data, text messaging, video and voice communications; various infrastructures were melded to achieve interoperability. Extensive testing in addition to tabletop exercises took place prior to the event so problems could be mitigated, he explained. Washington, D.C., emergency personnel took advantage of federal and state resources, many of which also are available to other jurisdictions.

The Council of Governments was instrumental in coordinating activities before the event, Vlassopoulos added. He added that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, actually were not the impetus for this level of coordination. Instead, the aircraft crash into the 14th Street bridge, which occurred in the 1980s, started the ball rolling for metropolitan coordination, he pointed out.

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