Dave Gisch retiring as Dakota County emergency director

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2013 - 6:15 PM

After 29 years, he's got plenty of war stories to tell -- simulated war stories, that is.

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Dave Gisch

Over the course of his career, Dave Gisch got to blow up buses, crash trains and airplanes, create industrial accidents and cause trouble at the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

Well, not literally. But it was part of his job as Dakota County emergency preparedness director to plan and pull off simulated incidents to train law enforcement, fire and other emergency responders in case the real thing did happen.

Gisch, 63, started a new chapter in his life when he retired Friday after 29 years in the job. He's moved north to Baudette, Minn., and is engaged to be married. The wedding is May 7, at sunset on a beach in Negril, Jamaica.

He found time, though, to reminisce about his job as emergency preparedness coordinator, which has entailed more than simulated disasters. There were real ones, too.

Gisch was the one who dealt with the federal organizations, doing damage assessments to see whether flooding or wind damage qualified for federal money, completing "an intensive paper trail," then making sure all the i's were dotted and the t's crossed.

"My primary mission: If there's a disaster within Dakota County, I would respond to the area and offer assistance," Gisch explained. "I do not direct anything. I do not want to direct anything. I want to be a liaison to coordinate resources."

He said he considers himself lucky that the county had only nine declared federal disasters in his 29-year tenure, all from straight-line or downburst winds and flooding. There was only one death, a boy who was swept into a culvert and drowned in 2000.

His secondary mission, Gisch said, was to make sure communities had their emergency plans "up to snuff."

But the simulated drills and exercises -- everything from school shootings to chemical spills and airplane crashes -- were the most serious. Each exercise took about a year and a half to plan.

"My job is to make sure everybody else is prepared if something bad happens," Gisch said.

Exposing glitches

Gisch is a natural storyteller with a quick laugh, an easy smile and a calm demeanor. But he wasn't one to mince words when problems arose.

"We work with Flint Hills [at the Pine Bend Refinery] very regularly on a possible situation out there," Gisch explained. "You do these drills and you find little glitches. For example, we had an air ambulance come in to land to pick up some simulated victims. The pilot wasn't really paying attention to the ground crew as to where he was supposed to land. He saw an open area and he landed. Problem was, it was in a simulated 'hot zone,' so basically he just 'killed' his entire crew."

A few months later, the same pilot responded to a real chemical spill in Rosemount to transport an injured man. Because of what he'd learned, the pilot paid closer attention to where he was supposed to land, Gisch said.

Another exercise simulated a bomb exploding on a Metro Transit bus. When rescuers found a second device, "They reacted like we thought they would," Gisch said. "'Everybody off!' All the first responders left, leaving six to eight patients lying on the bus."

What should they have done? "Picked them up and carried them off whatever way they could have," Gisch said.

On another occasion, at an active shooting drill, an officer was left to lie wounded in a field for 45 minutes. Unacceptable, Gisch said.

"There was concern: Where's the shooter?" he explained. "I don't care. Figure out a way to get to that injured officer to get him out of there."

Second for the job

Gisch was born and raised in St. Paul. His dad was a master plumber, but urged his son to take a different path.

He graduated from Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights with its third graduating class and went straight into active duty in the Navy. He'd joined as a high school junior and completed boot camp over his summer vacation.

He served in Vietnam for four years, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

"I just wanted to serve my country," he said. "I think I wanted to be Audie Murphy, coming home with all those medals. My medal of honor was coming home alive."

When he returned, he tried college but wasn't ready for it, Gisch said. In 1972, he took a job as an ambulance attendant at Divine Redeemer Hospital in South St. Paul. He was among the first group to become emergency medical technicians (EMTs), then to become paramedics.

He recalled being one of the first in his group to deliver a baby in the back of an ambulance. He'd had only book learning on the subject, and only three pages of that. The woman was having her sixth child and insisted she needed to push even though the book said no. His sterile glove broke. The woman threatened to punch him. But the baby was delivered safely. Gisch's knees were shaking so badly he didn't think he could stand up.

Then there were the tragedies. "Transported more fatalities than I care to remember," Gisch said.

He stayed on 11 years, leaving as director of the ambulance service.

In 1983, he applied and tested for the job of emergency preparedness coordinator. He came in second. But the job became his when the No. 1 guy demanded a county vehicle and the county refused, Gisch said, chuckling.

"I came to work in September 1983 and was told by the state of Minnesota that I had to do a nuclear power exercise for Prairie Island in June 1984 and, oh, by the way, they really screwed things up last time so you better do a good job," he remembered.

He praised the police chiefs, fire chiefs and first responders for their ability and willingness to work together and said his bosses, Dakota County Chief Deputy Tim Leslie and Sheriff Dave Bellows, have been tremendously supportive.

And there were, of course, lighter moments on the job, at least in retrospect -- like a time during a simulated plane crash.

"It's important to find the black box," Gisch recalled. "One of the firefighters found it ... and was like a little boy. 'Mine! Mine! Mine!'

"A police officer wanted to take it and put it as evidence. 'Mine!' 'Give me the box.' 'Mine!' That firefighter got put in the back seat of a squad car because he wasn't playing nice."

Gisch said he'll miss the people he's worked with. And he'll miss the storm season. But he won't miss the phone calls from people asking why the storm sirens are sounding.

He's not the one who gives the order to turn them on. "But people think I am," he said.

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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