Brooklyn Park fire chief gets real-life disaster recovery experience

Terry Stoltzman, emergency management director for Anoka County, works in the underground operations center in Albany, New York. Stoltzman led the Minnesota team Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman served on just before Thanksgiving. (Photo courtesy of Ken Prillaman)

Terry Stoltzman, emergency management director for Anoka County, works in the underground operations center in Albany, New York. Stoltzman led the Minnesota team Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman served on just before Thanksgiving. (Photo courtesy of Ken Prillaman)

A chance to help with disaster relief in New York taught Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman a lot about managing large-scale emergencies.

“Even when there’s a tremendous amount of training, the reality is when you see it first-hand, it leaves a bigger impression,” he said.

As a member of the Minnesota All Hazards Incident Management Team, Prillaman spent about a week in Albany, New York assisting with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. He flew out of Minneapolis Nov. 16 and returned Thanksgiving Day.

“Gaining some on-the-job experience, particularly in a storm the size of Sandy, is a tremendous training opportunity,” he said.

Minnesota’s incident management team consists of about 70 members statewide, who represent a variety of disciplines. They train together to be prepared to respond to large-scale emergencies.

The team is one of many across the nation sanctioned and trained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These teams can be activated and mobilized by an Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is essentially a state-to-state mutual aid agreement.

Prillaman’s team was the seventh from Minnesota to go to New York. Assigned to the logistics section, the team operated from a hardened, underground facility built during the Cold War and worked 12-hour shifts. For a three-day period Prillaman and his team didn’t see the sun, because they reported to the emergency operations center before sunrise and left after dark.

As part of the logistics section, Prillaman helped respond to the needs of the emergency personnel and organizations on the ground. That included managing everything from food and fuel to pumps and generators to hotel rooms and laptops.

“There’s a complexity here that, until you’ve trained and until you’ve had the experience of being in the midst of one of these, you don’t fully appreciate,” Prillaman said. “… Even a relatively small event is far more complicated than what most people would believe.”

According to Prillaman, New York distributed about 2,500 gasoline-powered light towers. But after deploying those units, the state had to have a plan to deliver fuel to 2,500 locations, which requires fuel trucks, drivers and routes.

“Some of that you kind of take for granted,” Prillaman said. “… In the midst of an emergency, you can’t make those assumptions.”

The logistics team also helped ensure the state could get all its equipment back or returned to vendors.

“The job that the logistics team does in general is a very critical job to make sure the event runs well and ends well,” Prillman said.

The Minnesota team also spent two and a half days setting up a donations management system, including establishing a 100,000-square-foot warehouse to accept and distributed supply donations.

Prillaman considered the experience more than an opportunity to lend a hand to another state. He said it will help him prepare Brooklyn Park to handle emergencies in the future.

“Seeing an event like this first-hand, on this scale … gave us all, I think, some valuable insight into some of the things that, with a little more planning, we could avoid,” he said.

For example, after processing thousands of requests for equipment and supplies, Prillaman and the team realized that with a little more advance training, the request process could become much more efficient.

He also recognized the need to update Brooklyn Park’s purchase order system so it could run smoothly in case of an emergency. With the current process it would take a day or two to get a purchase order approved. Normally that works well, but in an emergency, that would be too long.

“As an organization, we need to do some work internally about how do we take a good process … and turn it into a one- to two-hour process under (emergency) scenarios,” he said. “And the time to figure that out is now, not when you’ve got a tornado that you’re dealing with.”

All this on-the-job experience Prillman received ultimately won’t cost Brooklyn Park anything. Although the city is paying the $3,000-3,500 in expenses up front, New York will reimburse not only the costs, but also Prillaman’s salary and benefits for the time he served.

“Even if we had to pay for it, I’ve gone to conferences and not gotten out of it what I got out of a week in an emergency operations center,” he said.

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