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NEWS | Nov. 18, 2019

Wisconsin Guard helps test state disaster response

By Capt. Joe Trovato Wisconsin National Guard

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin National Guard helped test the state's ability to respond to a long-term mass power outage in an exercise led by Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) Nov. 13-14.

Known as GridEx V, a national exercise in which Wisconsin is one of only two full-scale participants, the two-day training scenario held at the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs in Madison and other sites in southeastern Wisconsin is the latest in a series of exercises in the state dating back to 2017 focused on the power grid. GridEx IV took place in November 2017. In 2018, the annual Statewide Interoperable Mobile Communications exercise (SIMCOM) focused on a large ice storm that resulted in hundreds of thousands without power. In May 2018, thousands across the state participated in the Dark Sky exercise that also simulated a long-term mass outage.

GridEx V comes on the heels of two power grid events in Wisconsin over the summer, including one caused by straight-line winds that resulted in a massive tree blowdown in northern Wisconsin and another in Madison, where a fire at a downtown substation knocked out power to thousands, including many state agencies.

Gov. Tony Evers visited the exercise to see how WEM, the Wisconsin National Guard and other state agencies prepare for emergencies. State legislators and other senior government officials and utility executives also took part in the visit.

This series of exercises has resulted in new partnerships between the state's utilities and government and increased preparedness in the event of a real-world threat to the state's utility infrastructure. It has also demonstrated the state's capability to combat cyber and physical security threats and to provide for basic human needs if the power remains out for several days or weeks.

"As you can see, there is representation from all over the state and from just about every organization, because that's what it takes," Dr. Darrell Williams, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator, said while addressing those participating in the exercise at the state's emergency operations center. "It takes a team approach. No one person does this alone."

Wisconsin activated its state emergency operations center for the exercise. Participants worked through complex scenarios that included cyberattacks on the power grid, civil unrest, gas and propane shortages, and physical security threats to critical power infrastructure. Wisconsin National Guard personnel were also on scene at a power substation in Racine County to help local authorities secure the facility from a fictitious threat.

Capt. Allen Nielsen from the Wisconsin National Guard's Joint Staff helped coordinate the exercise from a staging area at the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee.

"It's very important that we test and exercise these types of missions in the event – hopefully it never happens – but in the event a large-scale power outage happens, we're already exercised and we're ready to respond and we can right away," he said.

The 32nd Military Police Company's mission was to help local law enforcement secure the power substation, a scenario that helped validate the unit's reaction capabilities while continuing to build relationships with law enforcement and other first responders with whom they would work in a real scenario.

"It helps us to validate and test some of our training standards, but then also gets that great connection with civil authorities," Nielsen said.

Greg Engle, Wisconsin Emergency Management's director of planning and preparedness, said exercises like GridEx are critical to building the state's preparedness and resiliency for emergencies and test state preparedness for different scenarios.

"We will do a review of what worked and what didn't go so well," Engle said. "From there, we'll create a report that will identify all of the areas where improvements can be made and will work to put those changes in place before the next exercise. We'll never actually say, 'We are done. We are prepared.' We never say that. We're always working to improve, no matter how good we think things went."