Training prepares agencies to work together in emergency disasters
Most people wouldn’t volunteer to be placed in dangerous situations, but for Jenna Fremstad it brings about a sense of comfort.
A hall director at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), she volunteered to be a hostage in the two-day UWSP emergency training exercise involving 27 agencies at the campus Friday and Saturday, June 3 and 4.
“I hope we would never hit this level, but the more times you go through it the better prepared you are,” she said.
Fremstad was one of nearly 20 volunteers participating in one of two (or both) emergency situations. The first simulated an active shooter who had taken hostages on the fourth floor of Burroughs Hall dormitory and the second was a simulated chemical release at DeBot Center. Both were designed to bring local, area, state and federal law enforcement and emergency agencies together to see how they work with each other in the event there ever is a large-scale emergency disaster.
“All-in-all, it went very well,” said Corinna Neeb, emergency management specialist at UWSP.
“We hope that our regular exercises are the only time we need to all work together but in the event of a real emergency, we are confident in our response abilities because of the planning, training and exercising we’ve done in advance,” she said.
Along with UWSP, last week’s simulation included representatives from Portage County Sheriff’s Department, Emergency Management, Coroner, Emergency Medical Services and Health and Human Services; Stevens Point and Plover Police and Fire departments; state Patrol North Central Region, Emergency Management and Interagency Complex Incident Management Team; and the U.S. Army Reserve 388th Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) Co.
Local law enforcement officials said such training, which occurs every few years, is beneficial each time because each scenario is different and specific aspects of departments might be utilized. In this training, Stevens Point Police Department SWAT team was among key participants, for example.
Because of the high risk, high liability calls our SWAT team responds to, it is important we take training opportunities such as this when available,” Stevens Point Police Chief Martin Skibba said. “In large scale events there will be multiple law enforcement agencies and government entities working together, and training events such as this allow our agencies to work on communications, organization, planning and deployment.
“My initial impressions of how everything went was that the training that led up to the full scale exercise, along with the exercise itself, provide our SWAT team and supervisors a chance to see what worked well, what worked somewhat, and what we can improve on and train for,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort on many individuals to bring an exercise of this scope forward and I must commend Corinna Neeb of UWSP for doing a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Additional representatives were on hand from UW-Stout and UW-Madison; Marathon County Emergency Management and Sheriff’s Office; Price, Wood and Marinette counties’ emergency management, Northeast Wisconsin Incident Management Team; Ministry St. Michael’s Hospital; American Red Cross; Salvation Army; United Way of Portage County; and Sentry Insurance.
The exercise presented multiple casualties complete with triage tags identifying victims as injured or dead, and UWSP officials, including Campus Counseling personnel, touched base with volunteers to address any impact on the volunteers’ emotional wellbeing, whether the role was simulating the active shooter being killed, simulating a person caught in a dorm room a ways away from the situation confused and unsure what to do, or simulating someone released/rescued from the chemical release wondering whether they were infected.
Agencies also went through a debriefing after the exercises and reviewed what went well and what needed more work. UWSP officials are gathering assessment data from all agencies over the next few weeks to compile, review and then a report will be made. Neeb said the process could take about a month.
Planning for this exercise has been in the works since last fall when the university was approached by the 388th CBRN from Junction City to hold a training exercise on campus. The federal group afforded the university an opportunity for the campus and local Portage County entities, including the HazMat team, to practice the handoff of operations to a federal agency. That was the second portion of the training exercise.
The planning team met with participating agencies to determine what core capabilities should be rehearsed, and the two scenarios emerged from there.
“The nature of law enforcement work is to be prepared for such incidents as best we can,” Skibba said. “Each situation is unique but repetitive training with events such as this help to address issues and allows us to be as prepared as we can … As different issues arise within our society, it behooves us to evaluate these issues and plan responses for them.”
Overall, the goal of better working together was met, Neeb said, though there were some initial challenges.
“Communication always poses challenges,” she said. “We encountered technical issues that we needed to overcome and noted limitations on technology as well, such as radio reception … It was a complex scenario with many responder types and smaller management groups that all needed to communicate information to facilitate decision-making.
“Exercising is a learning tool,” Neeb said. “It’s a way we practice our emergency plans and find out ways we can improve our plan. (It also helps) to minimize surprises in the event of a real emergency. We want no surprises on who we’ll meet at the emergency scene. Planning together helps determine and then document ahead of time what resources and response each agency can provide. In pre-planning then we can address any gaps that arise as we talk through how each of us will respond to the emergency.”
Isadore Street was closed to traffic for a couple of hours during the training.