Emergency response professionals came together for Wisconsin’s annual Statewide Interoperable Mobile Communications Exercise, known as SIMCOM, in Sauk County April 25-27.
Approximately 175 people representing civilian agencies, first responders and military units from the National Guard participated in this year’s SIMCOM, which was facilitated by Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Wisconsin National Guard and Sauk County. Organizers also expanded the exercise to provide a more realistic training experience. Participants were spread across four branches at three locations in Lake Delton and Baraboo, Wisconsin, to better test connectivity and communication capabilities.
“This is the first time that we’ve had multiple sites,” said Kevin Wernet, the exercise and training officer for Wisconsin Emergency Management. “It’s causing some challenges for the exercise planning staff, but more importantly, it’s causing challenges for those communicators. If they can’t talk, they can’t run next door. Communicators have to communicate so they can fix the communication, and it just doesn’t get any better than that, because that’s how it works in the real world.”
When the exercise started ten years ago, it consisted of Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team, and other National Guard entities setting up their communications trailers outside of Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wis.
“It really started out with five assets, and it was designed to bring our senior leadership from upstairs in Joint Force Headquarters down to see what was available to them in the time of an emergency,” said Master Sgt. Jeremy Bethke, the 115th Fighter Wing’s installation emergency manager.
This year’s exercise included 30 communications platforms synchronizing and coordinating efforts. Various federal, state, county, tribal, local and volunteer agencies participated, as well as some out-of-state agencies.
“I just can’t say enough about how that’s grown, that partnership with locals, with county emergency managers, with ARES/RACES and the volunteers, Wisconsin Emergency Management and Guard assets,” Wernet said.
ARES/RACES stands for Amateur Radio Emergency Service/Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. It is a volunteer organization that helps handle emergency messages and supports government emergency management communications in the event of an emergency.
The main focus of SIMCOM was to ensure that emergency response professionals from multiple agencies are able to communicate and maintain interoperability. It also helped agencies learn about other communication platforms and forge relationships, Wernet said.
“This is all about talking, learning and meeting each other before we have to come help each other [in an emergency situation],” Wernet said.
The exercise has generated interest from other states looking to implement an exercise similar to Wisconsin’s SIMCOM, said Capt. Allen Nielsen, a Wisconsin National Guardsman who works in Wisconsin’s Joint Operations Center and helped plan the 2017 SIMCOM exercise.
“SIMCOM is coined as one of the Midwest’s go-to exercises,” Nielsen said. “We’re the only state that actually conducts an exercise like this, which is why we’re starting to field more and more calls on exactly what we’re doing. ‘How can we do an exercise like this back in our home state?’”
Lessons learned from SIMCOM will help better prepare first responders and National Guard personnel to respond in the event of an emergency.