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June 2014 Archive

'Tis the Season For Fireworks Injuries

Respect for the Law, Respect for Dangers Help Reduce Risks
 
Posted Monday June 30, 2014
 
Fireworks.
 
The really dangerous ones are contraband in Minnesota (if it flies or explodes, it’s illegal for possession, sale or use by unlicensed persons) and the legal ones are not particularly safe. Yet it’s something “everybody does.”
 
That’s why, some people say, the 4th of July is so much fun! And that’s why, other people say, 60 people were injured by fireworks last year in Minnesota, and $94,000 in property was damaged or destroyed.
 
Respect is one key to safety, and respect for the law is a good place to start. The law is clear. It doesn’t change because fireworks go off over the lake, or because the neighbors don’t mind or the grass is wet.
 
And then there’s respect for the reality of fireworks. They are explosives.
 
Example of legal fireworks.
Photo: Fireworks being lit safely
with the use of a candle lighter.
Even a sparkler — that pretty little thing with such a cute name — is, in fact, a metal wire covered with an explosive mixture of chemicals. The burning tip exceeds 1,200 degrees. People bake cakes at 350 degrees and won’t allow children near the oven. But every summer, they give children a box of slow-burning, spark-showering metal sticks along with some matches, and say, “Have fun!”
 
People who are interested in safety use legal fireworks and respect the power of fire. They supervise their kids, and insist that their children wear shoes. They keep a container of water nearby the sparkler activity and teach children to put spent wires in water. And they don’t tolerate misuse of fireworks. Even playful aggression can lead to serious injuries.
 
Respect for the power of fire means reading the directions on each type of fireworks, and using them far away from animals, buildings, storage tanks, dry brush or any combustible material. It means recognizing when someone may have enjoyed too many alcoholic beverages to exhibit responsible behavior, and making sure they’re not endangering others. And — this is important — it means never using a damaged device, and never, ever trying to re-light a “dud.”
 
Minnesota fireworks statute clearly defines the term fireworks and includes “…the type of balloons which require fire underneath to propel them…”
 
That’s a reference to those romantic “sky lanterns” that are used at weddings and other events to create an “unforgettable visual experience.” Guests light a candle, allow the bag or canopy to fill with hot air, and then let go into the sky a burning candle…without knowing where or how it will come to rest.
 
You might see them and ask whether you’d want someone turning those things loose near your home. The answer would probably be no — and that’s why they’re illegal in Minnesota.
 
The sounds and lights of fireworks have already begun. Minnesotans will be hearing the bang, pop and whiz of illegal fireworks in streets and yards all over the state. They’ll listen and hope that all neighborhood parents are aware and responsible. They’ll probably wish that everyone would show respect — for the law, for their neighbors and for the power of fireworks to injure and destroy.

 

Individuals and Businesses Should Report Damage Immediately

 
Posted Thursday June 26, 2014
 
The flooding situation in Minnesota is still unsettled — not to say “fluid — as rivers are cresting or expected to crest, this week. As usual, that depends on whether the recent rains persist. Residents are doing their best to protect property in the meantime, as government officials do their best to assess damage and find money to pay for repairs. The process is the same every time floods occur; only the damage locations and the numbers change.
 
In the process described in Monday’s post, FEMA officials and state agencies are assessing damage in county-after-county, preparing preliminary damage assessments that will determine whether Governor Dayton requests a presidential disaster declaration. That declaration would make available federal money for public infrastructure repair.
 
But public infrastructure isn’t the only thing that gets damaged in a flood.
 
Photo: Homeowners with sandbags in place along
Rainy Lake in Koochiching County.
Businesses and individuals can suffer flood damage to their property. It’s best to learn about flood protection and insurance before a flood occurs, but in either case, property owners need information and answers — and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) website, FloodSmart.gov is a good place to start.
 
Report Your Damage
Federal and state disaster assistance typically covers only uninsured public infrastructure, but individuals and business owners should report flood damage immediately to their county emergency managers. Financial assistance in the form of low-interest loans may still be possible through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
 
The Department of Public Safety and other state agencies are keeping a close eye on developments across the state as water rises and falls...and Minnesotans see their property damaged and their lives changed. Everything possible will be done to assure help from the state and federal level.
 
As a Minnesota resident, please take time to learn about flooding, protection and recovery before our state undergoes another round of damaging floods. And as you do that, watch this blog spot for updates on the availability of funding for public asset recovery.

 

 

As Flooding Continues, HSEM Works to Assess Damage, Find Solutions

 
Posted Monday June 23, 2014
 
After a long, tough winter, many Minnesotans awoke Memorial Day weekend to find that summer had arrived. Spring had lasted long enough to coax the robins back — but it gave way to summer so quickly we hardly saw it happen. And then about June 10 it started raining. And raining. And raining.
 
By the middle of June, it had rained too much. On June 19, the Minneapolis Star Tribune referred to “rainfall of historic proportions” that had “turned Minnesota into a vast wetland.” Rising water began to threaten communities and a lot of public infrastructure along with private assets.
 
When potential disasters like this occur, before the water even starts to recede, the Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) Division begins a process to support recovery.
 
Residents preparing sandbags after flooding in Cottonwood County.
Photo: Cottonwood County residents sandbagging
in response to recent flooding.
By activating the State Emergency Operations Center, they begin to work with county emergency managers, identify hardest-hit areas and encourage input from state and county agencies involved in damage prevention, flood recovery and funding for repairs.
 
Counties conduct and report initial damage assessments. Based on those, HSEM may invite FEMA to join teams of experts from HSEM and local governments to assess and verify damage to public infrastructure — including things like roads, bridges, schools, courthouses, parks, utilities, fire and law enforcement facilities, and transportation systems. The results are called Preliminary Damage Assessments, or PDAs, and are essential in the funding process.
 
PDA totals must meet a certain threshold before the governor can request a Presidential Disaster Declaration that makes Minnesota eligible for federal funding. The state threshold is $7.3 million; per county, damage must equal the county population times $3.50.
 
In Minnesota, 2014 legislation assured that we have a state Disaster Assistance Contingency Account to help communities recover from disaster, even when federal aid is not available. The same legislation requires the state to fund eligible expenses not covered by federal aid in a federally-declared disaster, to avoid forcing communities to find monies for recovery.
 
Meanwhile, on June 19, the governor declared a State of Emergency in 35 Minnesota counties, which makes available to them a wide range of state resources coordinated by HSEM. He also directed the Minnesota National Guard to send 120 soldiers to two of our hard-hit counties to begin helping with flood-damage recovery. HSEM and local emergency managers will help direct their activities.
 
The people of Minnesota, HSEM staff, the governor’s office and others are waiting, at this point, to see whether the damage from this flood meets requirements for federal aid, and where the greatest need will be when assessments are complete. They are readying the state “response machine” to go into action, and this blog spot will carry an update later this week.
 
 

 

A Minnesota AMBER Alert -- How (and Why) It Works


Posted Monday June 16, 2014
The scenario: A child has been abducted in Minnesota. The circumstances fit all the criteria on the Minnesota AMBER Plan Checklist.

Specifically:
  • The victim is 17 years of age or younger.
  • Police believe the abducted child is in danger of being injured or killed.
  • The assistance of the public can help law enforcement locate the victim.
  • All or most of the following information is available:
    • When/where the child was abducted
    • Description of the child
    • Description of the abductor
    • Vehicle description and last known direction of travel
    • Relationship of suspect to victim, if any
At the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) — the designated AMBER Plan coordinating agency in Minnesota — all known information is reviewed to confirm that criteria are met. After gathering additional data and photographs, the BCA coordinates the activation of an AMBER Alert via the Minnesota Crime Alert Network, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEAS).
Amber Alert logo
​Photo: There have been 28 alerts and 28 children recovered in the AMBER Alert program's history.

If you own a cell phone you might be familiar with WEAS, even if you don’t know the name. WEAS is used to notify the public about severe weather, AMBER Alerts and presidential alerts (in the case of a national disaster). You can opt out of severe weather and AMBER alerts, but you’d miss a lot of valuable information. These alerts are sent based on the location of your phone, so you receive only critical information based on your location.

The EAS broadcasts AMBER Alerts to radio and television. The Crime Alert Network message goes to all media plus and 10,000 schools, bus stations, gas stations, hotels, motels and other locations. MnDOT message boards along our highways, ClearChannel billboards and other tools are used to blanket the state with AMBER Alert messages — all with the effect that shortly after the alert goes out, most of Minnesota becomes aware of a missing child.

Last year, an 8-month-old child was abducted from his Minneapolis home by a female acquaintance of his mother’s, and the BCA issued an AMBER Alert. Because of a tip called in by a teenaged girl who received the alert on her phone, the infant was recovered and the suspect was apprehended less than an hour after the alert went out.

AMBER is a backronym that stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. The program was originally named for Amber Hagerman, a Texas 9-year-old abducted and murdered in 1996.

Since the beginning of Minnesota’s AMBER Alert program, there have been 28 alerts and 28 children recovered. In many cases, the children were located due to assistance from the people of Minnesota.

You can opt to receive AMBER alerts by email or fax, in addition to, or instead of receiving them on your phone. Anyone with information on an active AMBER Alert is urged to contact 911.

 

Social Media, Public Input Boost Public Safety in Minnesota

 
Posted Thursday June 12, 2014
On May 30, a semi-tractor with a 53-foot trailer passed a stopped school bus by taking the shoulder, running by at highway speed between the bus and a sixth-grade girl who was about to board it. The incident took place near Paynesville, Minnesota, and was captured by a dashboard camera.

Shortly after the event took place, the State Patrol Facebook page carried a request for public input that read: The Minnesota State Patrol is looking for the public's help tracking down a semi that illegally passed a stopped school bus May 30, nearly hitting a young female student waiting alongside the highway… Anyone with information about this incident or the semi is asked to call Minnesota State Patrol…

Posted on the Minnesota State Patrol Facebook page by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the dash-cam video went viral. It had 487,854 views within 24 hours. During the same time, it was shared via Facebook 1,747 times and viewed on the DPS YouTube channel 83,278 times.
 
A week later, on June 6, it was the most-watched video on that channel at 355,591 views.
Photo of school bus stop arm violation
Photo: Social media and public cooperation likely helped convince this semi driver to contact authorities.
The Patrol’s next Facebook post on that topic was this:
The driver of the semi that illegally passed a school bus and was caught on video turned himself in Tuesday night. Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word.
 
 
The DPS mission is all about protecting citizens through prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, education and enforcement. Apprehension is a big part of the enforcement piece, and social media and public cooperation make a significant contribution.
 
A fatal hit-and-run incident near Hinckley on June 17 last year involved a young man who had pulled over on a freeway exit ramp due to mechanical problems when he was struck by a vehicle that fled the scene. The State Patrol released information on a suspect vehicle — a Ford F-150 XLT four-door pickup truck with right-front damage. Soon after, a tip that came to Bloomington police was handed over to the State Patrol, and troopers followed the lead to a vehicle registered to the alleged perpetrator. The man later pled guilty to a charge of vehicular homicide.
 
 
Citizens assist the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, too. In February 2013, an 8-month-old child was abducted from his Minneapolis home by a female acquaintance of his mother’s, and the BCA issued an AMBER Alert. (AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but was named for Amber Hagerman, a Texas 9-year-old abducted and murdered in 1996.)
 
The Alert was sent to Minnesota cell phones (you can opt to receive AMBER Alerts via email or fax at no charge) and moments later, a teenager who received the alert on her phone spotted the vehicle used in the abduction. Minneapolis police officers located the abducted child unharmed in the basement of the home where the vehicle was found, and the suspect was apprehended outside the home within an hour of the alert going out.

State Fire Marshal fire investigators regularly receive tips from citizens on the Arson Hotline, many of which help solve cases and deter the crime of arson in Minnesota. And the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division “See Something, Say Something” campaign is helping people stay safer at large gatherings and events.

The speed and efficiency of social media, along with Minnesotans’ sense of civic duty, makes the Department of Public Safety more successful at its mission. Working cooperatively is a key to better communities and a better state — and your awareness and input help keep Minnesota safer every day.

 

Governor Dayton's 'Plain Language' Initiative is About Customer Service

 
Posted Monday June 9, 2014
 
On a popular television sit-com there’s a character named Sheldon Cooper. He’s a theoretical physicist so determined to prove his superiority to others, he would never say he was getting ready for the day if he could say that he was “performing his morning ablutions.”
 
His references to everything from bedbugs (“bloodsucking hemipterans”) to breakfast (“initial sustenance of the day”) take the least direct path to the point.
 
When a TV character communicates that way, it’s amusing because it’s too extreme to be believable. When government sounds like that, it’s not funny at all. It’s annoying precisely because it’s believable; everyone knows the meaning of “government gobbledygook.”
plainlanguage_a200px.jpg
 
Photo: Plain Language is about making government easier to understand.
That’s the situation Governor Dayton intends to change with his Plain Language initiative. This spring, he issued Executive Order 14-07 directing every state agency to examine forms and documents, reports and websites to find and eliminate language that leaves state government customers shaking their heads.
 
This is a quote from his website:
 
To make state government better for the people it serves, Governor Dayton has implemented the state’s first-ever Plain Language policy. The Governor’s Plain Language initiative directs all state agencies to use commonly used language, write in clear and concise sentences, and reduce the use of jargon and acronyms that make state government nearly impossible to understand.
 
Governor Dayton even asked for classes to help people eliminate vocabulary understandable only by government insiders — to cease and desist with linguistic convolutions that delude some individuals into believing their work sounds important, when all they do is confound the consumer. (In plain language: Leave out the jargon and stop making things so complicated.)
 
That’s right — special classes. Changing your writing style is harder than you’d think if you’ve been saying, “It’s more difficult than you might imagine to alter the way in which you express yourself” for years.
 
While there are thousands of state documents and web pages agencies must review, and more being created every day, they’re already becoming easier to understand. Employees are attending classes and appreciating the content. They’re learning that the way information is arranged makes it faster to read, that internal headlines in a document help people find what they want faster, and that ditching the jargon really isn’t that difficult. They’re agreeing that making government sound simple isn’t easy in every case — but it always improves customer service.
 
 

 

My License is Expiring!

 
Posted Thursday June 5, 2014
 
When does your driver’s license expire?
 
The first response to that question is usually, “On my birthday.” Naturally, the next question is, “In what year?” That’s when things get sticky. In fact, you might want to check right now, and then come back to this post, because it’s all about what to do when the date draws near.
In the interest of brevity, you’ll be reading mostly about the average Class D license. That’s what you have if you don’t drive a commercial vehicle, ride a motorcycle, or have endorsements on your license. Class D is the license that roughly 87 percent of Minnesota drivers carry.
 
What to do and when to do it
 
Visit a driver’s license office or Driver and Vehicle Services exam station to complete an application for renewal. Take along your current driver’s license, your Social Security Number and supporting documentation if you intend to change the name on your license. They’ll take a new picture and check your vision. You will pay a renewal fee to cover the cost of processing the new license.
 
Photo of a resident at a license renewal office.
Photo: Resident at a license renewal office.
Then they’ll cut the corner off your expiring license and give you a receipt that’s good for 60 days or until you receive your new license in the mail. Minnesota is a “central issue” state, which means you don’t get your license on the spot. It’s mailed to the address on your license, and it cannot be forwarded — so if you’re going to move, plan that into the process.
 
Special considerations regarding your age
  • A parent or legal guardian must sign the application for anyone younger than 18 years of age.
  • If you’re under 18, there are special rules related to Minnesota’s Graduated Driver’s License system.
  • If you’re turning 21, don’t renew your license until three weeks before your 21st birthday. See rules mentioned above.
 
Enhanced driver’s license (EDL)

Enhanced driver’s licenses are now available for Minnesota residents. In addition to serving as a typical driver's license, the card allows a Minnesota resident to re-enter the U.S. by land or sea when returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean. This flexibility speeds your passage across the border. Learn more about this option.
 
Snowbirds
 
Are you going to be out-of-state when your license expires? Renew early (before you head out of town) or by mail with an Out-of-State Driver’s License Application. Applicants who renew by mail are required to complete a vision screen and pay the renewal fee. For your new card, DVS will use the photo and signature on record; you must visit a driver’s license office within 30 days of your return to Minnesota to have a new photo taken.
 
To request the Out-Of-State Driver’s License/ID Card Renewal Guide, contact DVS by phone (651) 297-3298 or email.
 
Endorsements

If you have license endorsements or special circumstances, you can refer to the DVS website for information you’ll need.
 

Fire Investigation - Like CSI With Ashes

 
Posted Monday June 2, 2014
 
There are 11 fire investigators in the State Fire Marshal Division of the Department of Public Safety (SFMD), and they investigate or consult on about 300 fires every year. Sometimes they work independently and sometimes together. In every case, careful fact-gathering and attention to detail are the means to solving the puzzle of how and why a fire started. Fire investigation is a little like “CSI” — but with a lot more ashes.
 
At the end of each year, Minnesota fire departments report to the SFMD on incidents in their service area. When, where, what burned, extent of damage, injuries or fatalities — that sort of thing. Data are compiled and published annually.
 
In the Fire in Minnesota Report Minnesota Fire Clock section you’ll see that year-round, on average, a fire is reported in Minnesota every 30 seconds. A building fire is reported about every 90 minutes. There’s an arson fire every 6.5 hours.
 
That’s nearly four arsons a day, in a state with 784 fire departments, only a handful of which have professional fire investigators in their communities. They need assistance from the SFMD, and when they ask, one of those 11 investigators shows up.
 
Fire investigators at the scene of a fire.
Photo: Fire investigators from the State Fire Marshal Division analyze the scene of a fire.
Usually, the one assigned to the investigative district closest to the incident reports for duty. The goal is to first determine whether a crime has been committed, and then attempt to discover the cause and origin of the fire. Fatal fires get priority, because the cause of death must be determined ASAP to rule out homicide. Secondly, investigators look for signs of arson. Finally evidence is examined to find the exact cause and origin of the fire.
 
The best time to start a fire investigation is before the fire goes out. Some fires require more than one investigator due to the number of people who need to be interviewed. Sometimes the SFMD teams up with insurance company investigators.
 
SFMD investigators talk with the local fire incident commander and local police. They take photos at the scene and then find owners or occupants to begin interviews. Neighbors, passers-by, and witnesses of any kind can be valuable. Investigation is a “people-person” job because investigators often work with people who have just lost everything, including animals or family members. The ability to communicate appropriately can make the difference between success and failure.
 
Investigators look for security cameras and collect evidence like fingerprints, traces of DNA, and other evidence left behind by arsonists or observers. They collect photos of the structure before it burned. They go inside and conduct a scientific process that leads from the least amount of damage to the most, deducing what ignited first. They sift ashes and submit evidence to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension labs for testing. They’re always looking for a crime — but they identify accidental fires quickly, because they want insurance companies to start owners or occupants on the road to recovery as soon as possible.
 
Nonetheless, close to 25 percent of fire causes are left “undetermined.” They know that unattended cooking is the number-one cause of residential fires. They know that heating, open flames and arson are numbers two, three and four. But it’s the nature of fire to destroy evidence, and according to the rules of fire investigation, there must be hard evidence to point to one cause.
 
SFMD investigators are tenacious. Arson investigations have resulted in conviction five years after the crime. Minnesota’s conviction rate is higher than the national average, which is about two percent. In 2012, 14 arson arrests resulted in 12 convictions, with 12 other suspected arson cases pending.
 
The Arson Reward Tip Line at 1-800-723-2020 is a great tool for arson investigators, and one you should remember in case you see or hear anything related to a fire under investigation. The line is co-sponsored by insurance companies and the SFMD; if information leads to arson conviction, there’s a financial reward. Tips come in every week, some related to crime and others that help investigators locate a person they need to interview. You can call anonymously or identify yourself — just don’t hesitate to assist if you can.
 
Investigators tend to be the kind of people obsessed with finding answers, and they’re working for all Minnesotans. If citizens understand what they do and help them, their already impressive success rate can go even higher.