MADISON, Wis. -- How would Wisconsin fare if its power grid were under attack, resulting in a long-term mass power outage? To answer that question, public safety agencies from across the state, along with the Wisconsin National Guard, tested their emergency response plans during the May 14-17 Dark Sky exercise.
"The time to exchange business cards is not when the disaster occurs, but before the event," said Gary Wieczorek, Wisconsin Emergency Management Exercise & Training Supervisor. "Developing long-standing relationships and partnerships allows those agencies to better serve and protect our citizens when real events happen."
More than 1,000 participants from federal, state and local agencies, private sector and volunteer agencies were involved in the Dark Sky exercise. It has taken more than two years to plan the multi-agency exercise scenario that focuses on a cyber event resulting in massive power outages. Power touches nearly every facet of daily life, and the exercise forced authorities to consider how they would not only respond to the power outage itself, but the impacts on food, water and fuel supplies, and other critical infrastructure.
"Exercises not only test plans to identify gaps and areas that need to be improved, but they also put our emergency responders in a unique opportunity to train under realistic conditions or conditions that are as close to realistic as possible," said Greg Engle, deputy administrator for Wisconsin Emergency Management.
The exercise was held in Brown, Calumet, Dane, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, Outagamie and Winnebago counties, and included activation of local and state emergency operation centers. It also included demonstrations by law enforcement and fire departments on how they would respond to mass casualty incidents, hazardous materials spills and heightened security measures. These scenarios helped challenge first response agencies as they worked together to provide critical services to protect citizens and communities.
"The exercise allows us to look at the local level and meet those needs, but it also allows us to collaborate with our partners from the county, from the state, and from the federal government," said Tim Bantes, Grand Chute fire chief. "If any of those sections are missing, the pyramid falls down. It can't work."
One unique demonstration was a partnership with the American Red Cross, Wisconsin National Guard and the city of Omro to go door-to-door to meet with residents, conduct a preparedness survey, provide emergency preparedness information and offer to install smoke detectors. The event was to simulate a real-life mission of health and welfare checks by the National Guard.
Several Omro residents were happy to participate in the exercise and were pleased to receive the emergency preparedness information.
"I think it's important for us to all be prepared in case of anything," said Heidi Kiley, an Omro resident. "It's a good plan."
When the Wisconsin National Guard is activated during a state of emergency, fulfilling its role as the first military responder in the homeland, the organization operates under the direction of local authorities to assist them in emergency response situations. Master Sgt. Glenn Hamer, the safety noncommissioned officer with the Wisconsin National Guard's Joint Forces Headquarters, said the Dark Sky exercise provided an invaluable opportunity for the National Guard to work directly with communities and civil authorities and to develop strong relationships.
"We normally communicate one way and civil agencies have their own form of communication," Hamer said. "So it's important to partner and work through some of those issues before a real emergency. That makes this training so valuable."
Omro City Administrator Linda Kutchenriter agreed. She said the exercise has been beneficial for their first responders.
"Language barriers exist," she said. "If you're talking military versus Omro Police Department, they're not the same acronyms. It's all very helpful for us."