MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) staff members are no strangers to responding to a crisis — they are hired for it, trained for it and excel at it.
2020 is the year that the rules changed, with the onset of a pandemic that rivaled the force of any tornado or flood. And that was only the first incident that required a response.
“The staff of WEM has led this state through tornadoes, flooding and fires with poise and determination,” said Dr. Darrell Williams, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator. “I continue to be amazed and so proud of the people inside the SEOC, as during these difficult times we see the best of the human spirit.”
The State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) is where the state coordinates and conducts its response to any incident. During an activation, it’s usually occupied by WEM staff and a half-dozen state agency partners. At the onset of COVID-19, the SEOC looked more like a who’s who of state government, with most state agencies called to report there on March 20 to help support the state Department of Health Services in its response to the pandemic.
“This activation is complex due to the fact that it’s a statewide and national incident — our interaction with the policy group has been much more extensive,” said Greg Engle, Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Bureau of Planning and Preparedness director, who serves as the SEOC manager and has participated in 17 SEOC activations since 2012. “Coordinating, for example, the specimen collection team and personal protection equipment (PPE) distribution has created the need to establish completely new processes to handle requests from our county and tribal emergency managers.”
In response, Engle helped create the first organization chart for the SEOC for coronavirus, and was instrumental in designing the PPE survey and distribution process.
“We are working with new stakeholders who need PPE — including long-term care facilities, dentists, funeral directors, and courts,” Engle said.
PPE requests are funneled through the operations section chief inside the SEOC. That person is the primary point of contact for counties, tribes, WEM region directors and state agencies for any questions or resource requests.
“The only difference during a pandemic is the type of questions and resources we are providing,” said Natalie Easterday, Wisconsin Emergency Management’s response section supervisor, who functions as the operations section chief on a rotating basis. “As a former county emergency management director, I’m very passionate about providing support to county and tribal emergency management departments.”
Easterday noted that WEM has kept critical functions like grant management continuing while staffing the state emergency operations center over the past three months.
“This was done because of the dedication of staff to juggle commitments by working long hours early on as well as a decision to remove staff responsible for grant management as soon as practically possible from the SEOC staffing plan,” she said.
While every WEM employee is responding and working through COVID like a professional, it does take a high level of endurance both mentally and physically to work an activation for this length of time.
And then, cell phone video of the May 25 death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police was seen across the country. A wave of civil unrest followed, bringing protests and looting to several cities in Wisconsin — triggering a second activation at the SEOC.
“In my nine years here, I don’t recall two events with the size and scope as these, at the same time and affecting the entire state — much less the entire country,” said Gary Wieczorek, WEM’s training and exercise coordinator who serves as the SEOC deputy manager. “The national scope of these events has made obtaining resources more difficult than we’ve ever experienced, but we’ve done it. It’s impressive seeing the dedication of the staff willing to come in and work extended days and hours as they understand the critical mission of this response.”
Wieczorek leads preparedness exercises for several state agencies and first responders throughout the year, and said the SEOC is realizing the benefit today from past exercises.
“The ability of other state staff to come to the SEOC and work in unity has proven the importance of our training and exercise programs that prepare us for these types of events,” he said.
There are fewer people physically inside the SEOC today as most agencies focus on working remotely. Many critical WEM personnel continue to work there and take on the challenges of two activations, knowing they are seeing history unfold in the state.
“Let me assure you that when the book is finally written and the scroll of courage and heroism is read, your names will most deservingly be among them,” Williams told staffers in the SEOC.