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We're ready for our close-up


June 27, 2016
 

Photo: ​Representatives from state, county, and local agencies—as well as private companies and nonprofits—gather twice a year in Minnesota’s State Emergency Operations Center to practice their response to simulated radiological emergencies.
If you live anywhere near one of Minnesota’s two nuclear generating plants, you know that there is just the sliver of a chance that something could go wrong. But did you know that the Department of Public Safety holds what amounts to rehearsals twice per year to practice our response to just such an emergency?
 
It’s called a radiological emergency preparedness exercise (or REP exercise), and this year we’re fine-tuning our response to a simulated incident at the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant (we trade off years between it and the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant). And it’s not just us: We’re joined at the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) by other state agencies; Xcel Energy; representatives from nearby cities, counties and the State of Wisconsin; and volunteer organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Simultaneously, emergency responders field-test certain elements of the preparedness plan near the plant itself.
 

Part of what we practice is getting the right information out to you, the public, at the right time. If you live within a ten-mile radius of Prairie Island or any other nuclear generating plant, you can help by getting familiar with the emergency planning guide and calendar (PDF) the plant mails you every year (and keeping it in an easy-to-reach place in your home), which contains details such as:

 
  • How you would be notified of an emergency.
  • Evacuation or shelter-in-place instructions.
  • A map of the reception centers and evacuation routes.
  • Potential health effects.
  • How to create an evacuation plan.
  • What to bring with you if you need to evacuate your home.
 

Our REP exercises are required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and they actually attend one of them to evaluate our response (similarly, Xcel is required to pass these FEMA-mandated exercises in order to keep their license to operate the plant). That’s why we do two per year: The first, you could say, is a dress rehearsal, which gives us an opportunity to test our radiological emergency response plan and work out any kinks before FEMA sees it. The second REP drill for this year will take place this week, and now that rehearsal is over, we’re ready for our close-up!


 

Thinking about that oil train? So are we

 
 
 
June 23, 2016
 
  
 
Oil trains: Even if you see them every day, you probably don’t give them much thought. Nor should you—unless one of them derails, like the recent incidents in Cassleton, ND, and Callaway, MN. And if that happened, you’d want your first responders to know exactly what they’re doing, right?
 

oil train image

Photo: Up to 40 oil trains run through the Twin Cities
every week, so first responders need to know what to
do in case something goes wrong.​

 

 

That’s why Governor Mark Dayton signed legislation in July 2014 that requires the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) division to provide oil transportation awareness trainings to local jurisdictions – law enforcement, fire departments, and EMS – across the state. And because Canadian Pacific has an average of five and Burlington Northern Santa Fe has 21-35 crude oil trains rolling through the Twin Cities every week, it’s very important to be ready if something goes wrong. The legislation was funded for two years, and state lawmakers will be asking for a progress report in January 2017.
 
So between the legislation’s signing and May 2016, 5,634 first responders from 187 departments and agencies have been trained to understand the hazards posed by the transportation of oil and other hazardous substances and how to protect the public from them — and more sessions are scheduled.
 
Each awareness course runs about three hours and covers rail and pipeline safety, general hazardous materials overview, and response and cleanup. The St. Paul Fire Department will be wrapping up their awareness training at the end of June, and theirs also include a scenario of a rail or pipeline incident in the city of St. Paul, so that participants can develop plans for responding to an event of that size.
 
So next time you see an oil train, don’t give it any thought — except to know that HSEM is working hard to train first responders to keep you safe in an oil train-related emergency.
 
 

Five reasons you should always wear a seat belt

 
June 20, 2016
 
Many of us are old enough to remember laxer attitudes toward seatbelts. Maybe you rode in the “way back” of your parents’ station wagon with your siblings or friends. Maybe your mom let you sit in the front seat when you were little, or even held you on your lap while she drove.
 
fastening a seat belt in a car
​Photo: Law enforcement will stop and ticket
unbelted drivers or passengers. A seat belt
violation can cost more than $100.
Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot since then (and you’ve survived to see it!), and we see time and again the good that comes of clicking that little strip of webbing—and the tragedy that can come when you don’t. But people will still make excuses for not wearing them and say law enforcement is wasting its time. That’s not true, so let’s take a look at why:
 
1. It’s unfair to cite me for choosing not to wear a seat belt! It’s a lot better than being thrown from your car in a crash. In 2015, 77 percent of vehicle occupants who were partially or fully ejected and died were not wearing a seat belt.
2. I’m not hurting anyone by not wearing my seatbelt. Do you have kids or a spouse? What happens to them if you die in a car crash? Also, anything in a car (including you) can become a projectile in a crash, injuring other passengers.
3. Cops shouldn’t be wasting their time (and my money) on this when they could be out getting real criminals. Law enforcement uses federal dollars to do overtime enforcement like this. It’s not taking anybody away from their regular duties.
4. I don’t need a seatbelt because I’m a very good driver. And you probably are. But what about everyone else on the road? You have no control over them.
5. People still die in car crashes even if they’re wearing seat belts. True, but death is much less likely with a seat belt, as is severe injury: In Minnesota in 1987, there were 4,176 vehicle occupants who suffered severe injuries in traffic crashes. As seat belt use steadily climbed, that number dropped to 745 in 2015.
 
Minnesota has just finished our annual Click It or Ticket enhanced enforcement campaign, which ran from May 23 to June 5, and the numbers are in: Citations have dropped steadily since 2013. Take a look at these numbers:
  • 2016: 7,233 seat belt citations.
  • 2015: 7,393 seat belt citations.
  • 2014: 10,874 seat belt citations.
  • 2013: 10,342 seat belt citations.
If you wear your seatbelt and require everyone else in your car to do so, good job! If you have friends that don’t, show them this blog so they’ll know they can be saved by the belt.
 
 
 
 
 

Gas leak? Here’s what to do and what happens next

 
 
June 16, 2016
 
 
Hopefully you won’t ever have to put this knowledge to practical use, but it’s important to be able to detect a gas leak in or near your home. Here are some tips on what to look for, what to do first, and what will happen next.
 
How do I detect a gas leak?
image of man inspecting a gas pipeline
Photo: A MNOPS inspector checks out a gas meters
outside of a home. If a gas leak at your home is suspected,
this is one thing you can expect MNOPS inspectors to do.​
 
If you’re outside and smell something like rotten eggs, see dirt or dust blowing from a hole in the ground, hear blowing or hissing sounds, or see dead vegetation, it could be a sign of a gas leak. Likewise if you’re indoors and smell rotten eggs or feel lightheaded, dizzy or nauseated.
 
There are other signs of gas leaks that have to do with your appliances themselves, such as an orange or yellow flame (as opposed to a crisp blue one). Pilot lights that blow out a lot, soot or black/brown scorch marks, and excessive condensation on windows are also possible indications of indoor gas leaks.
 
If I suspect a gas leak, what do I do?
 
First and foremost, get out. Take all people and pets with you, and alert the neighbors. As you’re evacuating, be sure to avoid using electrical devices such as light switches, phones, and garage door openers. These could provide a possible ignition source for the gas.
 
Once you’re in a safe place, call 911. Never try to locate the source of the leak or shut off any natural gas valves.
 
What happens after I call 911 in a gas emergency?
 
Your call will be responded to by any combination of police, fire service, and people from your gas company. They’ll be accompanied by investigators from the State Fire Marshal Division (SFMD) and inspectors from the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety (MNOPS). Why? Because they will be working together to figure out why the leak happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
 
MNOPS inspectors and SFMD investigators know how natural gas works, how dangerous a leak can be, and what to do about it. For one thing, the pipeline that runs up to your gas meter is operated and maintained by your gas company; from the meter in, it’s yours, and both must be investigated appropriately to determine the cause of the problem.
 
 

Take advantage of the calm before the storm

 
June 13, 2016
 
Where were you on June 11, 2014? Even if you don’t remember the date, you probably remember the torrential rains that visited us more than two years ago. The flooding. The mudslides. The $55 million in damages that prompted a federal disaster declaration.
 
house with tree laying on roof due to storm damage
Photo: Whether or not your house looked like this two years ago,
now’s the time to prepare for the next severe weather.​
And even if none of your possessions or property were damaged or destroyed, you were probably affected in some way. Maybe it was harder to get to and from work because of a washed-out road. Maybe your basement flooded. Maybe some of your kids’ activities, like soccer or summer camp, got called off.
 
It would be silly to pretend we’re never going to have another storm like that. So you could get complacent, or you could use the calm before the next storm—whenever that ends up being—to take a good look at what has changed for you in the last two years.
 
What has changed? Have you moved? Do you have a different job or car? Have you added to your family? All of these factors affect your emergency preparedness. So make a mental catalog of the differences between now and two years ago, and ask yourself:
  • How will my family receive emergency alerts and warnings? How will we communicate with one another if we have no landline, cell phone or internet service?
  • Where do I go for shelter if a storm strikes or if I’m evacuated from my home? What about if I’m at work? My child’s soccer game? The lake?
  • Is my home prepared to withstand a storm? Do I have adequate insurance for my home and other property? What about my vehicle(s)? What about flood insurance?
  • If my kids are at summer camp or a friend’s house when a disaster happens, do I know how to find them? Do their counselors or caregivers have several ways of contacting me?
  • Do I have an emergency kit prepared that includes three days of essentials for every family member in the event of a disaster?  Where is our medical and other important documentation located?
 
Being prepared for severe weather isn’t just about having a raincoat handy. It’s about knowing what you need to do and where you need to go in the event that a storm turns into a disaster. And the more prepared you are, the easier it will be to recover.
 
 

Everything you need to know about a fire, they learned in fire investigation school

 
 
 
June 9, 2016
 
 
 
A uniformed fire investigator arrives at the charred remains of what was once a family’s home. Halfway through the rubble he pauses, picks up an unidentifiable object, sniffs it, and says, “Ah. The couch was doused with gasoline and lit with a red plastic Bic lighter. This fire was arson, started by the homeowner at exactly 1:06 this morning.”
 
 
 
a fire investigator at the scene of a fire
Photo: Fire Investigator Steve Wolf steadies himself
against the collapsed second floor as he works to
determine the cause of a fire in
The Mason Jar in Winona.​
Of course, the fire investigator in question says this into a camera, because he is actually an actor in a TV show. Because that’s not even close to how fire investigation works in real life.
 
 
 
No, real fire investigation is a much more complicated and time consuming process than most people realize. For one thing, it involves much more than good observation skills and gut instinct: Fire investigators have to go to school and get certified in order to do their work (watch this news story for great insight into what the Minnesota school is like).
 
 
 
Not every fire is the same—not by a longshot. And not every fire investigation is the same, either. The type and use of building, the number of jurisdictions involved, and the presence of pending litigation all affect the length of an investigation. Not to mention that the evidence investigators are looking for is often either burned beyond recognition, buried among ashes, or as small as a grain of sand—or all three. And when they finally do find it, it has to be sent to a lab to be analyzed. All of which takes time.
 
 
 
The Minnesota State Fire Marshal division has 11 investigators scattered throughout the state, each working out of a home office in their assigned area. But they can’t make it to every fire scene—hence the school, so that representatives from local fire departments and learn fire investigation techniques themselves. What’s more there is a National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, and investigators have to follow the hundreds of guidelines it contains.
 
 
 
So next time you see a TV fire investigator jumping to a conclusion 30 seconds after laying eyes on a fire scene, rest assured that Minnesota’s real fire investigators are much more thorough and professional. It’s one of the most important things the State Fire Marshal Division does, and they take pride in it.
 
 
 
 
 

How a tarp and some tow straps can save your life

 
 
 
June 6, 2016
 
 
 
When your kids were babies and you were getting ready to go somewhere in the car, did you ever put them in their car seats, look at the straps, and think, “Eh, I really don’t feel like buckling them in. They’ll be fine while we drive on the highway”? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. You took the extra few seconds (or minutes, if they were particularly wriggly) to buckle them in securely, because you know that makes them safer and you value their wellbeing.
 
 
 
load of cement blocks on a truck
Photo: This unsecured load caused a fatal crash that killed a
17-year-old here in Minnesota. June 6 is Secure Your Load Day.
Now let’s tweak the scenario. Let’s replace your car with a truck, the car seat with the pickup bed, and your baby with, say, a two-by-four. Or a hammer. Or a mattress. You would strap that down too, right? Make sure it wouldn’t get sucked off your vehicle by wind, or slip off in the rain, or fly off when you take a tight corner? Keep it from flying into someone else’s windshield and gravely injuring or even killing them? Of course you would. But not everyone thinks like you.
 
 
 
Which is why today, June 6, is the first-ever Secure Your Load Day. Because everyone who carries a load on their vehicle needs to know that a 20-pound object traveling at 55 mph has a devastating 1000 pounds of force. Nationwide, there are 51,000 unsecured load incidents annually, which kill 440 people and injure 10,000 more. But it’s completely preventable.
 
 
 
Robin Abel, whose daughter was horribly injured by an unsecured load in Seattle, Wash., in 2004, suggests thinking about it this way: “Secure your load as if everyone you love is driving in the car behind you.” Besides, here in Minnesota, it’s the law. It’s illegal to have a vehicle moving on the road unless any load it’s carrying “is securely covered to prevent any leaking, blowing, shifting or dropping.”
 
 
 
And because you don’t have control over whether other people secure their loads, there are two things to remember: First, if you see someone driving with an unsecured load, call law enforcement with the license plate number and vehicle description. Second, if you end up driving behind someone with an unsecured load, drop back to put plenty of distance between yourself and the vehicle, and if you can do so safely, pass it.
 
 
 
So grab that tarp and those tow straps. Because if you make sure that load isn’t going anywhere, you could save lives.
 
 
 
 
 

No matter where you are, 911 has your number

 
 
 
June 2, 2016
 
 
 
Remember how exciting it was when you could finally change cell phone carriers without giving up your number? Or how nice it was not to have to change your number when you moved? Cell phones have allowed us to keep our contact information consistent even when our physical location isn’t – and although that’s very convenient for us, it can be quite difficult for 911 service providers and dispatchers.
 
 
 
Say, for example, that you live in Minnesota (a fact your cell phone number happens to reflect), but you have to travel to North Dakota. While there, you experience an emergency that requires you to call 911 from your cell phone. Your call will get routed to the 911 call answering center nearest whatever cell tower is providing a signal to your phone. But if that cell tower is just over the border in Minnesota, the dispatcher will have to transfer you to a call center in North Dakota, who can send emergency services to your location.
 
 
 
​Photo: Even if your surroundings look like this,
emergency services will be able to find
you if you call 911.
Until recently, it wasn’t possible to transfer a callback number or location along with a phone call between counties or states (although Minnesota can now do so between counties throughout the state). And if the 911 dispatcher doesn’t know where you are, they can’t get you help. This is because of something called “interoperability,” which, in this case, enables the 911 systems of different counties to work together — a capability that wasn’t provided by most 911 service providers. Similarly, if (as sometimes happens with cell phones) the call drops, the dispatcher needs to be able to call you back – and again, this requires interoperability so that the correct call center can reach you and send the help you need. 
 
 
 
Which is why the Minnesota 911 Program, a program under the Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communication Networks, is conducting interoperability tests between Minnesota and North Dakota this week. They’re making sure that all 911 call centers in the counties along the border can transfer calls along with their callback numbers and location information. All four wireless carriers in the area are being tested, and all have thus far tested successfully.
 
 
 
So next time you’re on the road here in Minnesota or nearby in North Dakota, go ahead and follow that safety instinct to bring your cell phone with you. Because you can now rest assured that, if you meet with an emergency and call 911, all the pieces are in place for help to get to you as quickly as possible.