"It is important:" First responders reflect on disaster simulation, training for EF5 tornado in Waukesha

WAUKESHA -- Local residents on a drizzly Saturday (August 29th) noticed their streets filled with police cars, ambulances and Wisconsin National Guard Humvees as nearly 1,000 emergency and military first responders converged on Waukesha, Wisconsin, in a training scenario where the city was devastated by an EF5 tornado.

Nearly 700 Wisconsin National Guard troops partnered with the city of Waukesha Police Department, civilian emergency responders and all levels of emergency management to conduct a full-scale disaster exercise held Aug. 28-30 at the Waukesha County Expo Center and at sites throughout the city.

"The tornado scenario simulated a mass casualty event that would prompt emergency response from all levels of emergency management including the National Guard," Kevin Lahner, Waukesha city administrator, said.

Such large-scale exercises are vital to hone the ability of local and state agencies to respond and work together during both natural and manmade disasters in Wisconsin.

"This exercise here validates all of our planning and preparation," said Brian Satula, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator. "Barring having a real incident, this exercise is the best thing we have to make sure all of the preparedness, planning and coordination for responding to emergencies works."

The Waukesha Police Department volunteered to host the exercise, which is required to validate the National Guard Reaction Force's (NGRF) ability to conduct its civil support mission.

"Planning started back in August of 2014," said Waukesha police Capt. Dan Baumann, assistant exercise director. "We sat down and we wanted to do verification of our own abilities and assist the Guard in providing for their own validation and that grew into the event we have today."

The NGRF is a rapidly deployable, all-hazards temporary task force which supports local authorities by providing site security, conducting presence patrols, establishing roadblocks and checkpoints, controlling civil disturbances, protecting selected assets, and providing force protection and security for the 54th Civil Support Team or the Wisconsin National Guard's CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Explosive) Enhanced Response Force Package.

Wisconsin Army National Guard units rotate through this important mission regularly and the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) is slated to take over the duty from the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade Oct 1.

"If we get mobilized in the next year or two, this is the type of mission we are going to have," Col. Mike Rand, 32nd IBCT commander stated in a mission briefing to his assembled Soldiers, "It is absolutely critical to take home the skills you learn while here."

"Once we are validated, we are on the clock for the foreseeable future," added Command Sgt. Maj. Curt Patrouille of the 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry Regiment. "Any manmade or natural disaster, the state of Wisconsin is going to be calling on us."

The NGRF is designed to respond to an incident ahead of federal assets and is capable of quickly delivering an initial force of more than 100 personnel and a follow-on force of several hundred within 24 hours.

Wisconsin adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, emphasized the importance of the NGRF mission when speaking to the 32nd IBCT's Soldiers.

"Our mission is to be the first military responder in the homeland," Dunbar said. "If police, fire and other civilian first responders get overwhelmed or need some support, they are going to reach out to the National Guard. If the governor approves this request, I am going to rely on the NGRF as our 'go-to' capability for these types of missions."

The 32nd IBCT completed several essential tasks during the exercise in order to validate for the NGRF mission according to Maj. Michael Hanson, commander of 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry Regiment. Each unit within 24 hours had to gather all of its personnel at its home armory, prepare all of its equipment and travel across the state to the response site ready to contribute to local authorities. Units then performed a specific list of tasks that supported those authorities. The mission was not complete until all units redeployed safely to their home armories.

While in Waukesha, Soldiers provided site security for civilian agencies, performed vehicle recovery operations, responded to a civil disturbance, as well as communicated effectively with local authorities.

"Soldiers benefit from realistic training and ensuring that communications between themselves and higher headquarters, as well as working with civilian agencies - Waukesha police, county sheriff's department, medical examiner's office - and helping to grow those relationships," said 1st Lt. William Prindle of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry.

"Our unit has assisted the state during flooding in 2008 and during several snowstorms," 1st Sgt. Walter Smithson of Troop B, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry, said, "but over half our unit has never performed such a mission and this exercise allowed them and the whole unit to gain confidence in their skills and abilities and also learn to work with civilian agencies."

Wisconsin Army National Guard units located in Appleton, Camp Douglas, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Fort Atkinson, Madison, Marinette, Menomonie, River Falls and Watertown participated in the exercise.

"We want this training to be very relevant and realistic," said Col. Leah Moore, chief of the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff, which is the lead planning element for the Guard's emergency response. "It is important to us and we must get this right when called upon, and so we are prepared to respond with no notice and to do that we need to test and challenge ourselves with relevant, realistic training."