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IN DEPTH: Preparing for a mass casualty event
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IN DEPTH: Preparing for a mass casualty event

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Mass casualty events are happening more and more frequently. The year 2019 saw more than 40 school shootings, with many more shootings, stabbings, bombings, and other major incidents taking place at locations from churches to military bases.

Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton have a combined population of just under 6,000 people, but can receive over 100,000 visitors per day during the summer tourist season. The tourism industry generates billions of dollars in revenue for the area, and employs many foreign students. A mass casualty event in Wisconsin Dells could affect not just the area, but families and governments all over the globe.

For Emergency Manager and Lake Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson, preparing for one of these incidents requires thinking “when it will happen, not if.”

“Rather than have our heads in the sand that this won’t happen to us, we take the approach that it will happen to us,” Jorgenson said. “If this is going to happen we need to be ready for it. We hope, certainly, that it never does, and there is no specific intel that says it would, but we know nationwide things of this nature are happening, they’re happening around us, they happened in Madison and our state.”

Training for a mass casualty event became a major focus for the area in November 2018, when funding in the form of an initial $75,000 grant was secured for the Dells-Delton Area Response Exercise Series, or D.A.R.E.S.

Jorgenson describes D.A.R.E.S. as a collaboration between local emergency officials, state and federal law enforcement partners, private business partners, and the Ho-Chunk Tribe to work on plans and coordination to respond to a complex law enforcement focused type of event like an active shooter.

“We prepare and train for the worst possible situation we can think of,” Jorgenson said. “Along the process we will become better equipped and prepared to deal with any other type of emergencies, like a hazardous material spill, or a natural disaster like a tornado or flooding.”

Preparations in Wisconsin Dells is made more challenging as the area is a crossroads for the state. Even though Wisconsin Dells is one community, it consists of two municipalities, with five separate counties and five 911 dispatches.

“Depending on what side of the street or what side of the bridge is depending on who is responding,” Jorgenson said. “But in a large scale event like this, we’ll need everyone to respond, and we need to make sure we’re all working off the same game plan.”

To ensure everyone is on the same plan, D.A.R.E.S. began holding exercises in January 2019, starting with a response seminar on active shooters. In the intervening months since the first exercise, everyone from law enforcement and emergency personnel to resorts and school districts have taken part in meetings, tabletop exercises, seminars, training sessions, and workshops on categories like critical communication, traffic planning, trauma care, and rescue.

Jorgenson says the exercises are helping, with all of the various agencies possibly effected by a mass casualty event becoming more “in sync” as time progresses.

“We’re seeing a lot of improvements with networking, seeing what gaps are there and what needs to be addressed,” Jorgenson said. “For example … making sure everyone is on the same channel on the radios, something as simple as that is very important that we have lined up.”

To assist in training, and to serve as a liaison between state and local public safety organizations and the area business community for the D.A.R.E.S. program, the department has hired 29 year Wisconsin Dells Police Department veteran Jed Seidl as Emergency Management Program. Coordinator.

Seidl has worked with area businesses on both prevention of a mass casualty event and response to an event through training and site visits. During site visits, he goes over where the businesses are at with their current capabilities, and where that aligns with other like businesses in the nation. He then recommends areas for improvement, whether in additional training opportunities or in the installation of hardware like security cameras.

Jorgenson knows, however, that prevention of a mass casualty event is not always possible.

“There’s a fair amount of training and topics to recognize suspicious behavior and activities, but a lone wolf or lone attack is not something we can effectively prevent 100 percent of the time, we know that,” Jorgenson said. “So we really want to put a lot of focus on when these things happen we respond appropriately, quickly, deescalate the situation and save as many lives as possible… and then get everyone back to a new sense of normal.”

At area schools educators know that an attack can happen at any time.

New Lisbon Elementary School principal Mark Toelle says the school is “prepared as you can be.”

“You really have to think on your feet when things are to happen, where is the problem situation, how do I keep the kids safe,” Toelle said. “The students, when we do drills, aren’t scared. They’re prepared, we’ve talked to them at age-appropriate levels on what could be done if something were to happen. They’re in the mindset of keeping students safe”

New Lisbon Schools work closely with law enforcement on planning for event like an active shooter, with emergency responders reviewing plans on a yearly basis. During the year, the school holds numerous drills, as well as performing administrative holds and drug dog searches.

“We practice hard lockdown where doors are secure, lights are off, kids are out of sight, where we’re limiting access if an active shooter is in the building,” Toelle said.

The school has taken implemented numerous steps to prevent a mass casualty event, like stationing adults near doors to access the grounds.

“Every door during school days are locked. When doors open in the morning, myself or high school principal are stationed by the back doors, which are only open a short period of time, where kids from the buses come in, and then we have people stationed by the front doors,” Toelle said. “I think that’s a big deterrent as far as anyone who is scoping things out, knowing that there is at least an adult present at the door or watching.”

New Lisbon Schools also allow law enforcement access to the school at any time.

“Our law enforcement knows our schools is the most populated area in the town during the school day,” Toelle said. “During events, police visit if they are not busy. We’ll have random walk throughs, we invite them to come into our building anytime they like, we offer them a room to, if they want, just come in and finish paperwork or things like that. It’s nice to have a police vehicle just sitting outside the building.”

According to Toelle, the best prevention method is to establish relationships with students.

“We really push ‘if you see something, say something,’ and we’ve had things take place where students come to staff and share concerns that we’ve been able to act on,” Toelle said.

However, if an event were to occur, Toelle believes teachers and students would be able to respond quickly by falling back on the training instilled through drills and practice.

Once a mass casualty event begins, the school would work with law enforcement but also notify parents via a mass communication system. Toelle said the system can send a voice and text message nearly instantaneously, and is regularly used as a snow notification system.

Besides training and drills, the school has begun working with Innervisions Counseling for mental health services, installed shatterproof film on doors and windows, and upgraded their security cameras using funding from a school safety grant.

Reedsburg Emergency Management and Ambulance Director Joshua Kowalke believes the area is prepared for a mass casualty event, but hopes that belief is never tested.

“There’s always room for improvement… I’m always scared to say we’re totally prepared for something like this, but certainly we have a good grasp on what needs to happen from an emergency standpoint, we have a good grasp on the unification aspect of it,” Kowalke said. “We’ve looked at events from around the country and have a good idea of what is needed to respond, and hopefully we’ve practiced and trained enough that we are prepared if it happens.”

Kowalke works closely with the fire department, police department, and EMS, along with Sauk County Emergency Management, to ensure emergency responders, schools, and the public are prepared if a mass casualty event occurs.

“We’ve worked on various scenarios at schools, factories, and different buildings where we’ve practiced rescue task force, which is the response to an active shooter or active violence incident,” Kowalke said. The fire department and EMS go in with law enforcement in what’s called a warm zone, where it’s already been cleared by law enforcement but we’re able to go in faster and get victims out rather than leaving them there until the scene is completely safe for us.”

Kowalke says a large part of training involves Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, or A.L.I.C.E. training. The training, which focuses on improving the chances of survival during an active shooter event using proactive techniques, has become ubiquitous in preparing for mass casualty events.

Classes are offered through the municipality, and through Sauk County Emergency Management, for staff, or even members of the public, to gain certification as A.L.I.C.E. instructors. The next training event is scheduled for April 7-8 at Reedsburg High School, with registration available at alicetraining.com.

To Kowalke, preparation for a mass casualty incident is never complete.

“Unfortunately, just like everything, if you don’t use it you lose it, so it’s an ongoing training process for us, to work with other jurisdictions… working through that process we’re all on the same page so we know what the other organizations are going to do,” Kowalke said. “The biggest thing people need to know is that people need to do something. You can’t just sit there; you have to have a plan and be mentally prepared to work out the plan if you are in a situation where something is happening.”

Like many other agencies in the area, the emergency responders in Sauk County and Reedsburg are participating in D.A.R.E.S. To test the response of all of the local agencies, businesses, schools, and municipalities, the D.A.R.E.S program will hold a full-scale exercise in the middle of September 2020.

“We will pull off a pretty bad situation where someone will simulate shootings, we’ll have victims, there might be an explosion, multiple shooters, that will really put to task all of our public and private sector partners simulating the real deal,” Jorgenson said. “Helicopters landing, taking people to hospitals, the triage stuff where people are simulating real injuries. We’ll make it as real as possible without being real.”

To learn more about D.A.R.E.S. or to participate in upcoming training events, contact Jed Seidl at jseidl@lakedeltonfd.org or 608-254-8404 ext. 103.

Reach Christopher Jardine on Twitter @ChrisJJardine or contact him at 608-432-6591.

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