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Lileks: No wires crossed here: Disaster readiness fair was da bomb!

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 29, 2011 - 11:06 PM

How's your disaster preparedness? Most people have the following:

1. A first aid kit they bought at the store, and whose contents are more or less unknown. For all you know inside are three Band-Aids and a card that says "Call 911."

2. A candle, which you can use to look in the fridge and verify that all the ice cream is melting and needs immediate consumption.

3. A wind-up emergency radio which, when used, turns out to play "Pop! Goes the Weasel." Or it's a real one, and it broadcasts important information, such as "The power is out."

4. Emergency food: a dented can of Spam and some Beer Nuts. Worst comes to worst, you can hold a Bic lighter under a bag of microwave popcorn.

The authorities are better prepared. Last Wednesday, the Nicollet Mall hosted PrepareFair, an assembly of emergency response vehicles and personnel designed to "teach people to be ready in case of a disaster." But the only teaching tool I saw was a tiny little flashlight/whistle/compass, which doesn't make me feel ready. From what I understand about tornadoes, not a lot of people find themselves in the basement saying "Where's north? How about a tune?"

This doesn't mean the fair was a bust. If anything, it was an eye-opening introduction to the Stuff We Have In Case Bad Things Happen to Good People, and the men and women who are prepared to saddle up and save your bacon.

It had a "mass casualty" van, which might not be the attendance enticement they believed it would be. There were two big boats powered by fans, the sort of thing you see in the Everglades. One belongs to the sheriff's office, so if an alligator tries to rob a bank and get away, forget it.

There were mounted police. Salvation Army food trucks that can deliver the succor of coffee to firefighters and disaster victims. Army mobile chemical/biological weapon detection labs with Geiger counters that click loudly, explaining why your hair is coming out.

The Minneapolis police showed off a T3, which is a combination tricycle/chariot: good for patrolling, and the driver does not suffer the stain of dorkiness that soaks the Segway user. And a Turkey To Go trailer, capable of dispensing turkey within a half-hour of a nuclear attack -- oh, wait, no, that's a food kiosk on the mall.

But there was more: Did you know we have a bomb disposal truck? We do. Video stores might request it for carting off "Green Lantern" DVDs, but it has more serious purposes. The officer standing nearby was ready to answer all questions, including my stupid ones.

OK, you're staring at the bomb. Seconds are left. You have to choose: the green wire or the red wire? Doesn't make a difference, he said. So, the movies ... the movies are wrong?

How about the bombs themselves -- they have big LED lights to inform everyone how much time's left, right? No. "That's not what they teach us in bomb school," he grinned.

But do they teach you to follow your instincts -- say, you're about to cut one wire, but just before the timer goes to zero you cut the other one and there's a moment of incredible tension, but it was the right wire? He said no again, and I began to wonder if he was a real bomb-disposal guy after all.

Over at the mobile crime inspection lab, they had some cool tools: a doohickey that maps a crime scene with the help of some thingamajiggers -- stop me if I'm getting too technical -- and reconstructs the scene in a computer. The officer explained that the software allows them to add a specific murder weapon from a library of items. Wow, that makes planting a gun easier than ever! (Did not say this. Not stupid.)

But what if someone was murdered with an unconventional device, like a blender? He said the police can order anything they need from the software designers, who will custom make any murder weapon. Now, there's a program waiting to be hacked. It's only a matter of time before the prosecution hands around the reconstruction pictures and discovers the victim was done in by some Angry Birds.

Good to know they're ready, but the real PrepareFair is every other day on the Mall, where you don't see anyone who might ride to your rescue. Disaster hits, you're going to be on your own right away. Be ready.

No, a can of Spam and a Bic lighter isn't enough. But it's a start.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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