LANSING, Mich. - About 150 people representing more than 40 military, local government and civilian agencies met Oct. 23-24 near the Michigan State Capitol to strengthen relationships and coordination before exercise Northern Exposure 20/Rising Waters 2020.

The emergency response and domestic operations exercise is planned April 14-17 in Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent, Isabella and other Michigan counties in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Vigilant Guard -- a U.S. Northern Command and National Guard Bureau exercise -- and the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

"We're building partnerships now because you don't want to meet your partners at an incident -- that's not the time to exchange business cards," said Brig. Gen. Jeff Terrill, assistant adjutant general for exercises, Michigan National Guard. "This is what these exercises are for: to get to know who you'll be working with and to understand their capabilities so that in the worst-case scenario, there's already a relationship there."

Though Northern Exposure 20/Rising Waters 2020 isn't for six months, emergency managers are busy shaping the scenario to ensure it touches on as many key elements of natural disaster response as possible.

"The focus of the scenario for this exercise will be something that we deal with quite often in Michigan -- and that's flooding," said Insp. James Grady, assistant division commander, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division, Michigan State Police. "We have very high water levels here in Michigan with our Great Lakes, so what better way to be ready in case it happens -- and knock on wood it doesn't -- than by developing a good exercise."

Grady acknowledged that in an exercise the size and scope of Northern Exposure 20/Rising Waters 2020, planners do not expect all drills to run smoothly.

"Each of the agencies here have plans they want to test," he said. "I'm a firm believer that you play the way you practice, and that's what this exercise provides: an opportunity to test and challenge those plans that you have in place, then take what you learn -- or what didn't go so well -- and make the plans better."

In addition to officials from statewide agencies, the conference was attended by planners from U.S. Northern Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, representing the Vigilant Guard program.

"Our primary mission is to help states plan and conduct civil support exercises with the goal of strengthening partner relationships and building disaster response capacity within the enterprise -- the National Guard, the state, the local agencies, as well as the federal government," said Jim Mitchell, Vigilant Guard lead exercise planner, U.S. Northern Command. "We do that by providing funding, planning support, and some unique enablers to enhance the training, like airlift support as well as simulation support to help replicate the units that can't participate physically."

Terrill said ideally, the exercise will sharpen the ability of Michigan National Guard Soldiers and Airmen to perform other missions, in addition to providing domestic operations support to protect community, state and nation.

"In the National Guard, we fight the nation's wars, we defend the homeland, and we build partnerships; I'm here to tell you an exercise like this helps us accomplish all three of those," he said.

"Many of the command and control procedures that we do in an exercise like this are also the same for tracking the battlespace in a federal overseas mission, so it's a valuable exercise for us, even when we think about our warfighting function."

With a final planning meeting scheduled in February, preparations for Northern Exposure 20/Rising Waters 2020 are pressing forward with a singular focus.

"It's important to make sure we collaborate," Grady said. "We are being resilient, by continuously practicing and testing our plans to make sure we're ready to keep the citizens of our great state on their feet and to help them recover if the worst-case natural disaster were to take place."