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National Guardsmen and civilian emergency management agencies teamed up at the historic Richards Street Armory in Milwaukee Feb. 28 to discuss a notional tornado and hazardous materials response scenario.

The tabletop exercise – which featured a tornado touchdown in Mequon, Wis., and a subsequent train derailment and hazardous materials spill – forced National Guardsmen from the Milwaukee-based 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and their civil emergency counterparts to work together in a simulated National Guard call-up.

The exercise marked the first time the 157th worked directly with civilian emergency responders in a training scenario. Conceptual plans existed before, but the brigade had never walked through a full-scale scenario with civilian agencies in the same room.

“In previous military exercises like Vigilant Guard and Patriot, it starts out at such a robust level that it says local responders have exhausted everything [already]. Now come in,” Cregg Reuter, the Wisconsin Emergency Management exercise officer said. “So essentially they were training in a pretty much military pure environment and at a much higher, later level of the response without laying the groundwork.”

In contrast, the tabletop exercise began with the earliest stages of an emergency, and the National Guard watched as officials from the Mequon Fire and Police Departments and Ozaukee County Emergency Management and Sheriff’s Department talked through their step-by-step process to a point where they ultimately called on the National Guard to assist.

Going through that planning process and learning how the lines of communication would flow in a real-life scenario is critical to the success of an emergency response, Reuter said.

“Really it is a step toward interoperability and bringing two entities together in the civilian and the military to make sure that it works,” he said. “So we’re testing it.”

The goal for the day, he said, was for all involved to learn the capabilities of other organizations, improve communications, find strengths and weaknesses and ultimately identify areas where additional training was needed.

“This is kind of some groundbreaking stuff, and we’re really anxious and hopeful that it’s going to pay dividends and add value and worth for everybody,” Reuter said.

For the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, the tabletop exercise offered an opportunity to hone its plan to respond to a domestic emergency. According to Maj. Paul Felician, the brigade commander Col. John Schroeder, set a goal of making the 157th the premiere domestic operations command in Wisconsin.

With that in mind, Felician reached out to emergency management officials in Ozaukee County to plan the exercise.

“Our role in a defense support to civil authorities or domestic operation is to provide support,” Felician said. “And one of the key features of providing support is understanding how those you are going to support operate.

“We generally have limited access to that when it’s civilians,” he said. “And this provides us that wonderful opportunity to learn what they’re asking for, what they’re thinking and how they envision us supporting them.”

As the exercise players reacted to different contingencies, discussions ensued, and each organization shared what they would be doing at that point in the emergency response. It amounted to a brainstorming session where each participant learned how each agency approached the situation. Response times, communications, levels of authority and the National Guard’s support capabilities were all key topics in the discussion.

And though the situation involved a tornado, a train derailment and a chemical spill, the discussion and the lessons learned could be applied to almost any emergency situation, Felician said.

“The scenario that we’re dealing with here is essentially a combination of events that have already taken place here in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “We’ve had tornadoes that have caused this kind of destruction. We have had rail cars overturn and off-gas chemicals. In fact, there was a rail car that overturned a couple years ago in Mequon, so these are very realistic scenarios that we’re dealing with.”

The 157th hoped that the exercise was only the first of many similar partnerships with civilian agencies, which will only help the National Guard and civilian first responders be better prepared if disaster strikes the Badger State.