FITCHBURG, Wis. — Emergency response professionals established communication at multiple sites in Dane County as well as one location in Oshkosh during Wisconsin’s annual Statewide Interoperable Mobile Communications Exercise, or “SIMCOM.”
More than 240 people representing 40 different agencies participated in the three-day exercise Feb. 6-8 hosted by the city of Fitchburg and facilitated by Dane County Emergency Management in conjunction with Wisconsin Emergency Management and the Wisconsin National Guard.
The exercise focused on a notional winter ice emergency that affected 600,000 people and disconnected power to about 50,000 people.
“What we know about these incidents is that all emergencies start local,” Fitchburg Fire Chief Joe Pulvermacher said. “The thing that I love about these exercises is the fact that we’re finally recognizing the fact that without the local entity, we really don’t know the direction of our emergency.”
“Through this exercise, the city of Fitchburg is going to be able to determine what we need to do to best set ourselves up for readiness,” he added.
Participants established their communications platforms at a number of different sites in Dane County including the Fitchburg Fire Department, local parks in Fitchburg, the Oregon town hall and the fairgrounds in Verona.
“We have a unique opportunity to bring amateur, local, state and federal resources together to test our interoperable capability so that we can better prepare ourselves for a response during an incident,” said Capt. Allen Nielson, training officer for the Wisconsin National Guard joint staff and the lead exercise planner for SIMCOM.
Over 35 different platforms established communication during the exercise, improving multi-agency response capabilities. Exercise coordinators gave participants different assignments and challenges, causing participants to think critically in order to reestablish communications.
This was the first time in its 11-year history that SIMCOM took place in winter. Last year’s SIMCOM took place in Sauk County in late April.
“There’s unique challenges when we operate in a cold environment,” said Kevin Wernet, Wisconsin Emergency Management’s exercise and training officer. “Radio batteries die faster, folks need to put them inside their jackets to keep them warm, antennas, cabling, connectors freeze up. They behave differently, and people behave differently.”
Wisconsin National Guard Soldier 2nd Lt. Britney Fischer and other Soldiers participating in the exercise had to improvise in order to set up radio communication. Since the ground was frozen, Fischer said they could not stake down their antennas. Instead, the Soldiers rigged their antennas to trees in the area and were operational within an hour. The National Guard’s ability to communicate effectively with first responders, law enforcement and other agencies during an emergency is critical to its ability to fulfill its mission as the state’s first military responder.
“We continually make this better and tougher, because we won’t be able to select a time and location in nice 70 degree weather when an incident occurs,” said Brig. Gen. David O’Donahue, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general support to civil authority.
A variety of civilian and military aircraft also supported this year’s exercise. Coast Guard participants hoisted simulated patients onto helicopters, and the Civil Air Patrol provided retransmission, making it possible to communicate with two thirds of the state of Wisconsin via radio.
This exercise would not have been possible without the great partnership between Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Wisconsin National Guard and local communities throughout the state, Nielson said.
SIMCOM 2018 precedes an upcoming spring 2018 exercise called Dark Sky, which will simulate a long-term power outage in the state.