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Two recent domestic operations exercises have left the Wisconsin National Guard better prepared to fulfill its role as Wisconsin’s first military responder.

The annual Statewide Interoperable Mobile Communications exercise known as SIMCOM, was held May 18-19 in Neillsville in Clark County. More than 150 participants from 20 various agencies participated in the annual communications exercise at the Clark County Fairgrounds.

Over the course of the exercise, participants conducted radio checks and established reliable data, phone and Internet capabilities to ensure interoperability.

The National Guard has a unique dual-mission as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, but also as the first military responder in an emergency here at home, so Guard units must ensure that their military networks and communications systems are interoperable with civilian communications systems to fulfill that mission.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘Why do this?'” said John Ross, Clark County Emergency Management Director. “We do this so that we can work through the planning, work through the preparation, have the conversation, find out where some of our challenges and variables are going to be in a controlled environment where we can stop and fix the problem rather than experiencing it when the world is falling apart around us, and we’re trying to do our other tasks in that response.”

sm160519-Z-EJ222-052.jpgRoss added that one of the greatest benefits of regular exercises is learning the capabilities and resources of other agencies and developing relationships with people from other agencies across all levels so that when they pull up to a major emergency response, they are not meeting for the first time.

“Wisconsin is one of the only states in the U.S. that actually does a cross-agency exercise like this,” said Capt. Allen Nielsen, a Wisconsin Air National Guardsman who works in Wisconsin’s Joint Operations Center and helped plan the 2016 SIMCOM exercise. “Other states try to emulate this [exercise], but they don’t have anything near the size or scope that we do.”

Lessons learned at SIMCOM were on display just weeks later as thousands of first responders and National Guard personnel responded to devastation caused by severe weather, hazardous materials releases, domestic terrorism and other scenarios during a major exercise at Volk Field, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin’s Emergency Operations Center, and other sites around the state June 5-9 as part of the Miles Paratus exercise.

Interoperability and establishing reliable communications were once again a focus of the exercise.

If such a scenario had occurred in real-life, seamless communications interoperability between each agency — from National Guard aircraft and response forces, to local sheriff and police departments, EMS, fire departments, Wisconsin Emergency Management, the FBI and others — would have been critical to the overall response.

The hope is that exercises like SIMCOM and Miles Paratus create opportunities for the many different agencies that might be involved in a real-world response to identify their problems and shortcomings in a controlled, simulated environment, rather than when disaster strikes for real.

Todd Nehls, the deputy director of emergency police services with Wisconsin Emergency Management, coordinated WEM’s mobile communications center. Nehls explained that in a hypothetical response to a terrorist incident, the local sheriff’s department, police, fire, EMS, along with various state and federal law enforcement agencies, and the National Guard all might be called to the scene.

“The challenge is they’re all on different bands, and they can’t talk to one another,” he said. “I can get the bands on their radios, go in the back [of the mobile communications center], and I can patch radio networks together so they can talk to one another.”

Testing those capabilities and networks in regular exercises like SIMCOM and Miles Paratus are vital to ensure the state’s first responders are ready when needed in a real emergency.

Exercise Notebook: The Wisconsin National Guard awarded Capt. Christopher Robbins with the Meritorious Service Medal for his efforts as the co-project planning officer for the Miles Paratus exercise. Fellow co-project planner and civilian agency lead, Mr. Kevin Wernet, from Wisconsin Emergency Management, was awarded the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs Meritorious Medal for his contributions to planning the five-day exercise.