The organizer provides information about the simulated event to the participants. Photo by Sam Watson.
In July, a commercial tourist boat from Sister Bay collided with a recreational fishing boat near Sunset Park on Fish Creek, killing two people.
Together, the two ships transported more than 100 people. About 50 passengers fell into the water, many injured and covered in fuel. Authorities rushed to the scene to help transport the injured passengers to a nearby hospital.
If you’re wondering how you missed this news, it’s because it didn’t actually happen. Instead, it was part of a functional training exercise conducted by 18 local, state and federal agencies.
The federal agencies involved are the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Weather Service; the national agencies are the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin All Hazards Management Team (IMT); and local agencies include the police, sheriff’s office, fire and emergency medical services. Voluntary agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross are also involved.
The simulated emergency took place at the Door County Justice Center in Sturgeon Bay on December 8-9 and spanned three areas of the property. An incident command vehicle parked at the back serves as the “on-site” for emergency incidents, while the multipurpose room serves as the emergency operations center (EOC) for off-site agencies. There are organizers in a nearby meeting room, who provide participants with pre-planned information about the mock event. Agencies come in and out of the field as needed, communicating with each other by radio.
While the first day of the exercise simulated the first 12 hours after a hypothetical shipwreck, the second day was more about the role of the emergency operations center, said Dan Kane, Door County’s director of emergency management and communications.
“During a major incident like this, the role of the emergency operations center is to support the responders on the scene,” Kane said. “If it’s activated, I’m tasked with running the emergency operations center. That would normally require resources, though, and the county — and most counties — have limited resources.”
That’s why they had to turn to IMT for help. Part of the exercise involves learning how to work effectively with IMT, which Kane said isn’t something most local agencies need to do on a regular basis.
Exercise organizers chose the collision scenario because it is a relatively realistic scenario that would require responses from many different agencies. In addition, IMT’s Ed Janke said authorities at the local and state levels were “concerned about this in terms of capacity”.
One of the purposes of the exercise was to practice responding to large-scale emergencies in a zero-risk environment—especially important because Door County faces unique challenges, including an emergency response team that relies heavily on volunteers, and because of access to Peninsula resources Limited, resources can only be pulled overland from one direction.
Another goal of this exercise is to identify areas that can be improved for future real-life emergencies.
According to Kane, one of those areas is communication. He said communication was a recurring problem in such drills, from equipment malfunctions to lack of direction.
The exercise was one of the larger that Kane helped coordinate.
“How much time and energy you want to put in, practice can vary,” he says. “Do you want to follow federal guidelines and make sure you qualify for it, or do you just want to put something together, slap it together, and put something small on the table? In the five years I’ve been here, We’ve done several of them.”
FEMA requires Door County Emergency Management to conduct annual emergency drills consistent with the Homeland Security Drill and Assessment Program guidelines.
“It’s just a fancy way of saying that it needs to work a certain way, there are certain steps involved in the planning process and how you evaluate to make sure you’re getting all the right fields,” Kane said.
In January, the relevant agencies will formally review this work and identify areas for improvement.
The exercise was compressed into eight hours over two days, but Kane hopes to conduct a full-scale exercise next year. This would mean moving assets around the peninsula in real time.
“We’re not going to say what we did, but we’re actually going to do it and actually move that piece of equipment to make sure it works,” Kane said.