War on Terrorism

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Exercise boosts communication capabilities of emergency responders

June 1, 2010 - Nearly 20 federal and regional agencies took part in an exercise May 20 at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison to learn, among other things, if they could communicate with each other in the event of a real emergency.

Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) and the Wisconsin National Guard welcomed nearly 100 spectators and participants to the third annual SIMCOM event. Teams set up their mobile command platforms in the morning and attended an introductory briefing from Kent MacLaughlin, state warning and communication officer for WEM. Following a presentation from each agency, attendees toured each vehicle and met with communications representatives.

In the afternoon, the agencies took part in a simulated drill to assess their abilities to communicate in an emergency. Each agency was given unique information to relay through a makeshift communication structure, with a goal of having each message reach its intended destination. The drill was considered a valuable opportunity to test communications capabilities in a practice environment.

"Between feedback received at the event and word going around from participants, the drill at this year's SIMCOM event was an extremely useful tool for all of the agencies involved," MacLaughlin said.

In addition to the federal and Wisconsin state, county and municipal agencies that have attended the event since its start in 2008, WEM welcomed two Illinois agencies - the Winnebago County Sheriff's Department and the city of Wauconda Fire District - to this year's activities.

"In having two Illinois teams join the SIMCOM event, we were able to increase the scope of our communications testing and gauge our emergency preparedness across state lines," said Larry Reed, deputy administrator for WEM. "As our agencies become more familiar with each other's capabilities, we will be better equipped to handle any multi-state emergencies that may arise."

Though having so many agencies present at an actual emergency may be unrealistic, the event did allow the teams to learn where any disconnects in a communications chain might exist due to equipment or frequency incompatibility. The agencies are developing a plan for using mutual aid radio channels during multi-agency emergency responses throughout the state. By adopting a standard for using mutual aid channels in all emergency situations, responding agencies would be able to communicate freely with each other throughout the incidents.

For MacLaughlin, the relationships that are developed at SIMCOM are essential during an actual emergency, and he expects the event to continue growing as additional agencies learn about the unique interaction inherent in the day's activities.

"While the drill provides valuable insight to its participants, the professional and personal interaction among attendees is the true key to the day's success," MacLaughlin said. "We are already receiving questions about next year's event, and we are looking forward to adapting lessons and feedback from SIMCOM '10 for future gatherings."

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