by Dennis Dalman – firstname.lastname@example.org
For seven Sartell city employees, a recent visit to Alabama was like a tragic déja vu that reminded them of a sad and hectic week in late May of last year.
May 28, Labor Day, was the day the Verso paper mill exploded and burned, killing one employee and wounding several others.
The seven employees, along with other employees in the greater St. Cloud area, spent several days in disaster-training exercises in Anniston, Ala. They, along with other city employees in the area, flew to Atlanta, Ga. in mid-May and then boarded a bus there for a two-hour ride to Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. Their trip was totally paid for, including meals and lodging, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates the CDP.
The seven from Sartell and the others learned in a hands-on way the key factors in planning, training, responding and coordinating in times of disasters both natural and man-made. A vital part of the training was helping city officials to identify all of their emergency-responder resources and to note any drawbacks therein.
“It was good training for all of us,” said Sartell Mayor Joe Perske. “Absolutely, it was a good experience. We learned some potentially very valuable things about ways to respond.”
Perske and others in the Sartell contingent were surprised to learn many at the CDP were well aware of the Verso paper-mill disaster and how Sartell and other communities had pulled together in mutual-aid response to that disaster.
The other members of the Sartell group were Lucas Dingmann, firefighter; Patti Gartland, city administrator; Ben Kockler, firefighter; John Kothenbeutel, assistant director of Public Works; Sgt. Kelly Mader of the Sartell Police Department; and Dale Struffert, Sartell’s deputy police chief.
All of those officials, in one way or another, were involved with the Verso emergency, which lasted a full week. As Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes has pointed out during public talks, city forces had to do a lot of improvising and some guess work at the time Verso exploded because it was so unanticipated. Many things, Hughes said, were learned during that hectic week.
The training in Alabama covered disasters that could involve chemicals, ordnance (bombs), biological agents and radiological weapons. Many such disasters, horrific as it is to think about, could be caused by foreign or domestic terrorists. The CDP is the only facility in the nation that offers civilian training for such “toxic” disasters. Training involves both command and support teams and how all the players can learn to coordinate speedily and effectively. It stresses the vital importance of well trained first-responder teams.
On the third day of the course, participants formed into five groups of eight or nine people. Some of them came from other cities in the nation. Once the teams were formed, they were presented with a mock disaster to which they had to respond over a period of six hours. Each group had to quickly develop roles for each member. Then, as the mock disaster unfolded and changed willy-nilly, team members had to respond quickly to any new developments in their handling of the crisis, including how to release reliable information to the media. That is when the déja-vu of Verso came into play for the Sartell contingent. Good communication was crucial every step of the way, in the CDP exercises as in the real-life Verso tragedy.
The lessons taught at the CDP have already proved to be effective in planning and responses to disasters nationwide, including tornado strikes, floods, fires and the prevention of a car bomb in Times Square, New York City.
Now back home, the members of the Sartell contingent hope, of course, there will never be another disaster that sets off a massive emergency response, but if such a disaster should ever happen, they all said they feel they will be better prepared for it.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.