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State agencies test preparedness for major power outage

A Nov. 13-14 exercise led by Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) tested the state’s capability to respond to the effects of a long-term mass power outage.

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, and in 2018, the annual Statewide Interoperable Mobile Communications exercise – or 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 a 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 on Thursday to get a first-hand glimpse at how WEM, the Wisconsin National Guard and other state agencies prepare for potential emergencies. State legislators and other senior government officials and utilities 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. The list of participants included different local, state, and federal agencies, electrical and natural gas utilities, the Wisconsin National Guard, and organizations like the American Red Cross.

During the exercise, participants worked through complex scenarios that included cyber attacks 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 assist local authorities in securing 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 received the mission to assist local law enforcement with securing the power substation, a scenario that served multiple purposes. The Wisconsin National Guard used the exercise as a means of validating the unit for its mission as a quick reaction force for the organization, while simultaneously continuing to build relationships with law enforcement and other first responders with whom they would work in a real scenario.

“As a [domestic operations director for the Wisconsin National Guard Joint Staff] we work quite extensively with our civilian partners, and other directorates in the joint staff work really well with them too,” Nielsen said. “We have exercises throughout the year, as well as every two years Wisconsin Emergency Management puts on a special focus exercise which the Wisconsin National Guard is a part of, and we have great interaction, a lot of interaction with them. It helps us to validate and test some of our training standards, but then also gets that great connection with civil authorities.”

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 as well as testing the preparedness plans the state builds for different scenarios.

The goal of any exercise, he said, is to test preparedness plans and ensure the staff is properly trained and tested under simulated real-world, stressful conditions.

“Following this exercise, 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.”