Taking terrorism preparedness into the neighborhoods

City officials plan to use police, firefighters, block clubs and specially trained citizens groups in an emergency

Deputy Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Preparedness Dick Turner said that since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he's worked to better prepare Minneapolis for potential terrorist attacks. However, with two recent federal grants, he's focusing on retooling the city's emergency plan and taking emergency preparedness out to the neighborhoods, too.

Much of Turner's work involves coordinating city police, fire, schools, state agencies and the American Red Cross.

For example, if a terrorist attack does occur, Turner said identifying neighborhood shelter space is the responsibility of the American Red Cross. Anne McDonald, disaster specialist for the Red Cross Minneapolis chapter, said they have 40 agreements with potential shelter, feeding and service centers throughout Minneapolis, including 21 in Southwest.

The specific locations aren't being made public, she said, because the facilities used depend on the type of disaster and where it occurs, McDonald said.

Facility agreements were updated as the Iraqi war loomed closer, she said.

Citizen training

In response to community concerns and a speech by President George W. Bush urging citizen action, Turner said his office is starting up a program aimed at residents and community, to educate and make emergency preparedness for terrorist attacks more localized. "We're going to go out and train people in the neighborhoods to form teams and take care of their neighbors," he said.

Turner's office received a $51,000 federal grant in March to start the program, called the Community Emergency Response Teams. There will be at least 14 teams in the city, with approximately one team per city council ward. Teams will consist of 20 residents.

The fire department will conduct resident training and include 21 hours of basic medical, search-and-rescue and fire training over seven nights.

Turner said the training isn't so residents can replace professionals, but to teach skills they can use waiting for emergency responders. He hopes to have the training running by year's end.

Lt. Scott Gerlicher, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Minneapolis Police Department, said the police SAFE teams would work with the neighborhood block clubs to involve residents in emergency preparedness training. Recent police budget cuts have trimmed the number of SAFE crime-prevention units from 25 to 14 citywide. Police officials have not specified cuts in Southwest.

What else can residents do to be prepared?

Gerlicher said residents should prepare for a terrorist attack much like they'd prepare for a storm -- stock bottled water, candles and flashlights. He said a good preventative measure is to be aware of your surroundings; you'll be more likely to notice something out of the ordinary and set up communication plans with family.

Turner said he recommends residents contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a guidebook called "Are You Ready? A Guide to Citizen Preparedness." He said the book offers preparedness tactics for everything from natural disasters to terrorism and bio-chemical attacks.

A family emergency plan, Turner said, is also a must. He said meeting by the tree in the back yard no longer suffices, because people are scattered during the day at school and work. Therefore, families need a common plan in case of a disaster or attack, such as using a family member out of the area to check in with during a disaster.

McDonald said training for disasters is also available through the Red Cross for those who want to serve as disaster service volunteers.

She said Red Cross volunteers will come to neighborhood groups and organizations to give free disaster education, tailoring it to the group, whether it contains children, families or the elderly.

FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said the main thing he urges residents to do is to remain vigilant and responsive to suspicious activity, heeding the warnings of terror alerts. "You can't become complacent, like 'Oh, it's another alert,'" he said. "We do them for a reason."

Practice, practice, practice

Throughout the past year, Turner said numerous training exercises have been a priority. Some exercises cost as much as $20,000, simulating local chemical and biological attacks and reviewing the coordination of local agencies.

The FBI's McCabe said he went through the training and found it extremely helpful, making steps to coordinate government and law enforcement if a terrorist attack occurs.

"Sometimes not everyone knows each other's role," he said.

For example, McCabe said the site of a terrorist attack is considered an FBI crime scene, but local emergency units are supposed to handle search-and-rescue efforts.

Turner agreed that the training exercises were valuable, but more needs to be done updating the city's emergency plan for more current terrorist threats and helping residents prepare for them.

New city emergency plan

Turner said he received an $87,000 federal grant in January to rewrite the city's emergency plan to include terrorist threats. The money can also be spent on emergency planning and department training.

Turner said each city department helps write the plan, which will make it comprehensive. He said even Animal Control is contributing, explaining what to do about household pets if a terrorist disaster happens. The plan will be finished by December.

Gerlicher said the police department, like others, is constantly revising the document based on changing threats.

He said the police role is different from the Fire Department, which has primary responsibility because of search-and-rescue expertise.

Gerlicher said the police are prepared and trained to emphasize security and traffic/crowd control.

Other preparedness measures include training for threats to specific high-profile targets in the city. Turner said such targets are mostly downtown, but he doesn't want to list them because of safety concerns. Terrorists "look for something symbolic and high profile," he said.

In an emergency, Turner said his office would set up an Emergency Operations Center in the basement of City Hall. The center was opened when the war against Iraq started, but has since been closed. The FBI and the Minneapolis Chapter of the American Red Cross also have similar operation centers.