Rocco Forté is assistant city coordinator, emergency preparedness and regulatory services for the City of Minneapolis. In addition to his duties managing the regulatory operations of the city, his primary responsibility is to establish and maintain the emergency preparedness framework for the city—prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. This includes maintaining the city’s Emergency Operations Plan, coordination of city planning and preparation for disaster, emergency response training, including development of emergency response plans in coordination with other local, county, state, and federal government agencies. Following the collapse of the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River on August 1, 2007, he commanded the city’s emergency operations center for the 10 days it was operational. Forté retired from the Minneapolis Fire Department in 2004 after 30 years of service. He served as chief of Minneapolis the last six years of his career, as assistant chief for the prior nine. As chief, he earned the Chief Fire Officer Designation by the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
My main responsibility is to develop and implement an emergency operations plan. I work very closely with the first responders and all of our 3,500 city workers so that we can constantly evaluate our capabilities and set up training programs or buy the tools and equipment that we need to be successful when and if we have disasters in the city. With regard to the regulatory services side, we are more proactive. We’re in charge of all the inspectors and the buildings, so we can kind of coordinate anything to do with buildings themselves, from the blueprint to where the hazardous materials are kept to who owns the building, etc., and we feed that into our emergency operations plan. So we have a proactive and a reactive side.
What assets and threats make your city and region unique?
Minneapolis itself is 56 square miles with 380,000 people; the metro area has approximately 3 million people in it. Despite being a small city, we have all the major professional sports. That brings quite a number of people into our city during games, and you always have soft targets with the large crowds. Plus we have the University of Minnesota right in the heart of the city. And we’re built around lakes and the Mississippi River, so we have to make sure that we have resources on different sides of the river and resources on different sides of the lakes to moderate response times. And then in just the last two years alone, we’ve had tornados, floods, ice storms, and snow storms. So we get a little bit of everything up here.
What were the greatest lessons learned from the response to the I-35W bridge collapse?
There were 190 people and 111 vehicles on the bridge when it collapsed, and we had every type of rescue situation you could imagine. We had people on the banks of the river, people in the debris of the bridge, in their cars, in the water, and underwater. We were able to use our mutual-aid agreements—we actually had 173 different agencies that worked together—and the fact that we were able to get everything to come together so quickly, to put our incident action plan together, implement the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and really get that going very quickly was remarkable.
We only had 13 people who died out of those 190; we had all the rest of them to the hospital within three hours, and not one first responder spent a minute in the hospital based on the fact that we had safety officers involved through our NIMS program.
I would say that the biggest success was the fact that we planned in advance, we worked together, we trained together, and when the event happened, we were ready to implement our plan, and we pretty much knew each other and what we were doing.
What were the region’s primary lessons learned from the incident?
I would say that happened five years before the incident. We went to the federal government’s Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia in July of 2002 to test our emergency operations plan, and quite frankly we failed miserably. We didn’t have the tools or the equipment or the training to implement our plan. So we worked on a five-year plan, finished it in July of 2007, and the bridge fell a month later. So we were at the top of our game.
In those five years, we did several things. First, we developed relationships with the parties on the other side of our mutual-aid agreements. We did a lot of that through our governance structure from the federal Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program. Second, we developed our communications system. We have an 800 MHz radio system that had 114,000 radio pushes during that disaster, and it worked extremely well. Third was planning. When you do planning, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Can you implement that plan? If you can’t, you have to identify what tools and training and equipment you need, and you have to be courageous and go to your elected officials and tell them your true needs, and keep chipping away at it.