Wireless network plays key role in hours after collapse

Just hours after the I-35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, city officials and first responders at the scene had electronic access to large maps of the area, aerial photography and live video of the bridge.

It was information that was critical in establishing a security perimeter, determining factors that could hinder rescue efforts and getting clear images of exactly what the site had looked like before the collapse. And, city officials say, it wouldn’t have been possible to put that information at the fingertips of emergency responders without the citywide Wi-Fi network.

Minneapolis Chief Information Officer Lynn Willenbring said the wireless network, which is still under construction, worked better than city officials had hoped.

“It was a crucial piece of Minneapolis’ response to this tragedy,” Willenbring said. “We would not have been able to respond as efficiently and as effectively had we not had that communications capability.”

In making the case for a citywide Wi-Fi network, city officials frequently noted that one of its main purposes is to serve as a powerful communications tool for city employees. Police officers and firefighters, for instance, will be able to access images from building security cameras from laptops in their cars and file incident reports in the field once the entire network is completed later this year.

The city chose Minnetonka-based U.S. Internet Wireless (USIW) to build the network, and the city will serve as the network’s anchor tenant. Although the network isn’t complete, the Downtown portion was the first to be constructed. Jim Farstad, a technical consultant who has been working with the city on the implementation of the network, said it was not completely up and running around the bridge area at the time of the collapse.

Within 16 hours of the disaster, however, USIW had brought in additional equipment to extend the network in the immediate area of the bridge and had Wi-Fi there fully functional, Farstad said.

“It was amazing how we went from having no network to having a very effective tool,” Farstad said.

The expanded network allowed city, county, state and federal agencies on the scene to access maps, aerial photography and video of the collapse site. Officials were able to install three cameras — two donated and one purchased by the city — at the scene. Two are installed on the 10th Avenue Bridge, which runs parallel to the I-35W Bridge, and the other is installed on the ground. Officials in the city’s Emergency Operations Center in the basement of City Hall and the Incident Command Center near the site of the bridge collapse are able to control the cameras and pan around the scene.

In the Emergency Operations Center, the images from the cameras are projected on three large screens at the end of the room. Part of the collapsed bridge could be seen on the screen, as well as a large barge in the middle of the river where recovery personnel were performing some of their work. Mayor R.T. Rybak said having live images of the scene in the immediate aftermath of the collapse was helpful to officials coordinating the emergency response.

“By seeing the site and being able to move those cameras around, it gave us a holistic view,” Rybak said.

Rocco Forte, the city’s director of emergency preparedness, said the cameras also enabled organizers to best determine where additional resources were needed.

“It gives us the ability to get them the tools and equipment needed quickly,” Forte said.

The city’s police and fire department command vans also have computer capabilities, Willenbring said, and were able to utilize the Wi-Fi network at the scene. All information — including maps, photos, video and links to various agency sites — was published to an internal website to which all emergency responders had access, she said.

USIW officials also opened up the completed Downtown portion of the network to all users free of charge for the first 24 hours after the incident. Company officials did this after they realized the large volume of cell phones in the area were overloading the cellular system and the wireless network could open up another line of communication. A wireless network that normally has just under 1,000 registered users had 6,000 users the night of the bridge collapse and the following day, according to city officials.

“It gave people an alternative way to communicate with other people and to gain access to information,” Farstad said.

Kurt Lange, U.S. Internet co-founder and vice president of systems and customer service, said the company wanted to do what it could to help out in the immediate aftermath of the bridge collapse. Opening up the network to nonsubscribers in the immediate hours after the collapse did not compromise the network’s role as a public safety tool, he said, so officials saw no reason not to provide one more way for those in the area to let people know they were OK or to check on others.

“This is one of the primary reasons a municipality puts in one of these networks,” Lange said. “The downside is that it’s also a reason you never want to have to use this for.”

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected] or 436-4373.