From a bomb shelter three stories underground in Albany, N.Y., Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman recently worked 15-hour days to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
His 10-person team of highly trained emergency management personnel from Minnesota spent most of Thanksgiving week in New York's emergency operations center, coordinating the shipment of light towers to Long Island and setting up a warehouse to store and distribute donations from various groups and businesses. Another 70 Minnesotans also staffed the center, part of a nationwide on-call pool that responds to nature's worst disasters.
Besides offering beleaguered rescue workers a needed break, the hurricane exposed Prillaman to a real-life experience that can't be duplicated through his hundreds of hours of classroom study or simulated exercises. Brooklyn Park, which is near the Mississippi River and Coon Rapids Dam, isn't immune to a potential large-scale crisis, he said. Although his expenses and salary will be reimbursed, several team members were willing to absorb some costs because they recognized "this is training you just can't buy."
"We spend all this time training and investing in something we pray we will never have to use," said Prillaman, who is also Brooklyn Park's emergency management director.
He is part of a government-created national incident management system that can be deployed to areas that have been hit by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires or other events. States along the East Coast were requesting workers before and after Sandy hit. It was classified as a Type 1 situation similar to Hurricane Katrina. Teams need to be self-sufficient and not rely on any local support, said Prillaman.
Once the states make requests, team members submit what resources they can offer and how much it will cost. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact then chooses the teams that are the best fit, and Minnesota teams are often picked because of their national reputation in emergency management, he said.
Prillaman's team flew into Albany on Nov. 16 and returned home on Thanksgiving Day. The operation center was built during the Cold War and most days his team never saw daylight, he said.
His team had more than 2,000 gas and generated-light towers at their disposal. They had to find drivers, trucks and fuel to deliver the towers and develop a tracking and demobilization plan for them. Although he wasn't able to view the damage from Sandy firsthand, he heard stories and saw pictures from the trenches because "they were in the central nerve center for the whole storm."
His team had a few more creature comforts than other workers, such as staying in a hotel. Others slept in makeshift accommodations, including the umpire's locker room at Citibank Field, home of the New York Mets.
"There were fire departments that were completely wiped off the map," he said.
The attitude of Prillaman's team was that the more quickly they responded to requests, the sooner residents would see a return to normalcy. That attitude helped the team keep better track of equipment and lessen money spent on assets that were rented, he said.
"I feel we made a difference," he said. "But I have to give New York credit. They could have adopted the attitude of not needing help and run people into the ground. But they decided to bring in outside help early."
Prillaman was an emergency responder as an assistant fire chief in Harrisburg, Pa., for 13 years before coming to Brooklyn Park nearly five years ago. He worked with a team that helped the city of Wadena, Minn., after a tornado there in 2010.
He did manage to make it home from New York on Thanksgiving Day and spend time with his family. He didn't realize his level of exhaustion until he thought he would take a short nap at 3 p.m. - and slept right through to 8 a.m.
"I clearly was in need of catching up," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465