MADISON, Wis. - Just hours after the first major snowfall of the season, the Wisconsin National Guard and Wisconsin Emergency Management joined forces with other state agencies for a winter weather preparedness exercise Dec. 9 at the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment armory in Madison, Wis.
Drawing heavily on past winter weather emergency responses, representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Wisconsin State Highway Patrol, and the Department of Natural Resources talked through a hypothetical scenario in which the governor declared a state of emergency and called on the National Guard to assist.
The template closely resembled the scenario that unfolded in December 2012 when a blizzard dropped more than 20 inches of snow on parts of south central Wisconsin. In that instance, the National Guard was activated but ultimately not utilized. Nonetheless, the storm served as a starting point to discuss interagency communication, best practices, authority and operations procedures.
"I think anytime we can get together and just talk about past issues, we can apply that information to future events, and we can get out faster and be more effective in our response to help the citizens of Wisconsin," said Brig. Gen. John McCoy, the director of the joint staff for the Wisconsin National Guard.
McCoy said the exercise's greatest benefit was to develop relationships with the people and agencies with whom the Guard would work in the event of a snow emergency.
"Those relationships are well-built at this point, which makes us more effective and efficient in our response," he said.
In the event of a winter weather emergency, the National Guard could aid and assist local authorities and incident commanders in any number of ways — rescuing stranded motorists, opening armories as warming shelters or even helping authorities close down freeway systems.
The end goal was to leave the exercise with a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each agency, their capabilities and their processes in hopes of ensuring the safety of Wisconsin's citizens and its transportation infrastructure. Applying the lessons learned from other states like Iowa and Pennsylvania, which experienced major winter storm emergencies in the winter of 2006-07, or a major storm that crippled Interstate 39/90 in southern Wisconsin in 2008, or the Groundhog Day blizzard of 2011 provided the necessary context for a productive discussion.
Cross-agency communication posed a challenge in last year's winter storm, and remedying that issue was a key theme throughout the day's discussions.
"When we did our winter storm response last year, we did a very good job, but we could have done better," said Lt. Col. Max Brosig, the Wisconsin National Guard's deputy director for domestic operations. "So we've learned from that, and we've prepared even better this year because of the meetings and the exercises that we've done with our interagency partners."
"I think it's all about relationship-building and understanding what each other can do," he said.
Brosig said National Guard units have applied after-action reviews from past call-ups into their plans for future operations. Units have already been preparing for potential emergencies this winter by creating soldier and airmen packing lists, verifying contact rosters, identifying service members willing and able to make it to armories in a short amount of time and staging and preparing vehicles and equipment so they are ready at a moment's notice.
"If you look back to why the National Guard was really founded, it's to serve the citizens of the community that they're within," Brosig said.