When a family is going through the trauma of locating a missing loved one, Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) kicks into high gear and collaborates with local, state and federal agencies to assist in the effort to bring that person home.
While there were 26 calls to the WEM duty officer reporting a missing person so far in 2020, there’s one case that serves as a solid example of people and agencies working together to bring a loved one home.
“When someone goes missing in our state, we treat it as if they are one of our own, particularly when it’s a child,” said Dr. Darrell Williams, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator. “The dedication and the coordination between agencies show that there are heroes everywhere who worked to bring this child home to her family. I am thankful and truly humbled by everyone who gave their time and energy to this very important mission.”
Three-year-old Abby Ladwig went missing from her backyard Aug. 3 in Winter, Wisconsin, likely wandering off in bare feet shortly after 6:40 p.m. with the family dog, Peanut. Her mother, Lisa Koch, told authorities that Abby is shy and probably would not talk or call out for help if scared.
The call for state assistance came through the WEM duty officer, who immediately assisted with coordination of resources to support the mission. A duty officer is always available to respond to requests for assistance and help coordinate the response in the field. They send out emergency alerts that are delivered through text and email.
“I put out the emergency alert and conducted an Air Coordination Group call,” said Dave Radisewitz who was the first duty officer to take the initial call. “The group decided on what air assets to be deployed as well as back-ups.”
When local efforts need a certain type of assistance — such as air assets or help finding K9 units in a search and rescue — the duty officer is charged with coordinating with other agencies to allocate those resources.
“I facilitated coordination of air assets and incident management teams to get the resources that Sawyer County was asking for,” said Robyn Fennig, who took the next shift as duty officer after Radisewitz. “They needed more air support, communications equipment and volunteer management to help with the efforts. I coordinated the response at the state level.”
That included WEM’s air coordination liaison, Kevin Wernet. “We treat every search as if it was our own family member,” Wernet said. “Because it was a child, it did make the search more challenging.”
As the co-chairperson for the Air Coordination Group, Wernet facilitated calls and provided remote coordination. He travelled to West Bend, Wisconsin to meet with the Civil Air Patrol.
“We coordinated a Civil Air Patrol-supported airborne repeater deployment to enhance local radio communications,” Wernet continued. “We were on a medevac helicopter almost to Winter when she was found, and the entire air crew cheered.”
Communications played a key role in coordinating the search effort, something that’s facilitated by WEM’s State Communications Officer Paul Hughes.
“Comms was very challenging as cellular service was spotty and some local users were having challenges communicating via radio,” Hughes said. “We held a conference call with communications specialists, which included our state contact for FirstNet, engaging them to begin moving deployable equipment to the scene to help fill communications gaps.”
FirstNet is a highly secure, interoperable public safety communications platform which allows first responders to get more information quickly and helps them make faster decisions. Hughes relied heavily on his comms team and those working directly in Sawyer County.
Besides being the emergency manager for Sawyer County, Pat Sanchez is the Sawyer County search and rescue coordinator and K9 handler. “During the first six hours, my focus was strictly on search operations and finding Abby,” she said. “During the 24 hours I had over 100 texts and calls.”
Sanchez has worked for six years with her partner K9, Kai who is her third search and rescue K9. Other state agencies involved in the search included the Wisconsin National Guard, which deployed the Black Hawk helicopter to aid in the search. The Sawyer County Sheriff’s Office, Wisconsin State Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources were among several agencies that joined in the effort to find the child.
The Department of Natural Resources activated a 10-member DNR Forestry Northwest Incident Management Team (IMT) which coordinated the use of multiple assets with other state agencies, and the location assignments for several hundred volunteers who combed the nearby woods and marsh.
“We also had several aircraft doing searches along with on-ground DNR conservation wardens who helped getting volunteers to their assigned search areas,” said David Woodbury, the DNR emergency management director.
Abby and Peanut were found safe the next day. Authorities believe Abby followed her dog and when search teams pushed into the area, her dog moved away, and she followed. When she came out of that search area, she was following her dog. She told her parents that she heard searchers call her name and saw the helicopter but was afraid to answer. Peanut never left her side.
“I was in my office getting more K9 teams deployed and requesting more resources when I was called by our K9 team radio relay that she was found,” said Sanchez. “I literally went to my knees my crying and yelling ‘She is alive!’ I still get chills!”
The search for Abby serves as a reminder that training, teamwork and dedication are part of the mission of every first responder, agency and rescue groups that serve the citizens of Wisconsin.
“We don’t do it for recognition or compensation, we do it because we want people to feel safe and that they have someone to fall back on,” Fennig said. “It clearly demonstrates why we need to keep preparing and training. We are always ready to answer that call for help, and it doesn’t matter if we’re amid a pandemic or a flood.”