Fatal Boating Accident Simulated for Large-scale Training

Two people died in July when a commercial tour ship from Sister Bay collided with a recreational fishing vessel near Fish Creek’s Sunset Park. 

Together, the two ships were transporting more than 100 people. About 50 passengers ended up in the water, many injured and covered in fuel. Authorities arrived on the scene and helped to transport the injured passengers to nearby hospitals.

If you’re wondering how you missed this news, it’s because it didn’t actually happen. Instead, it was part of a functional training exercise conducted by 18 local, state and federal agencies. 

The federal agencies involved were the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Weather Service; the state agencies were the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin All Hazard Incident Management Team (IMT); and the local agencies included police, Sheriff’s Office, fire and EMS teams. Volunteer agencies such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross were also involved.

The simulated emergency took place at Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Justice Center on Dec. 8 and 9, spanning three areas on the property. The Incident Command vehicle parked in the back served as the “scene” of the emergency while the multipurpose room served as the emergency operation center (EOC) for agencies that were not on the scene. A nearby conference room held organizers who fed participants preplanned information about the simulated event. Agencies moved in and out of the scene as needed, communicating with each other via radio.

Agencies collaborate in the Justice Center’s multipurpose room. Photo by Sam Watson.

The first day of the exercise simulated the first 12 hours after the imaginary boat crash, and the second day had more to do with the EOC role, said Dan Kane, Door County emergency management and communications director.

“The emergency operation center’s role in a big incident like this is support of the responders on the ground,” Kane said. “I’m tasked with managing the emergency operations center if it were activated. What that often does, though, is it requires resources, which this county is – and most counties are – limited on.” 

That’s why they must call on the IMT for help. Part of the exercise involves learning how to work effectively with the IMT, which, Kane said, isn’t something most local agencies are required to do very often.

Exercise organizers chose a boat-crash scenario because it was a relatively realistic one that would require the response of many different agencies. Additionally, it’s one that authorities on the local and state level are “worried about in terms of capability,” said Ed Janke of the IMT.

One purpose of the exercise is to practice responding to a large-scale emergency in a zero-risk environment – something that’s especially important because of the specific challenges that Door County faces, including an emergency-response team that relies heavily on volunteers, as well as limited access to resources on a peninsula that can pull them by land from only one direction.

Another goal of the exercise is to identify areas that can be improved upon for future real-life emergencies.

Door County’s Incident Command vehicle served as the site of the simulated incident. Photo by Sam Watson.

One such area, according to Kane, is communication. From equipment malfunctions to unclear directions, communication is an issue that pops up often in exercises such as this, he said. 

This exercise was one of the larger ones that Kane has helped to coordinate.

“Exercises can kind of vary in how much time and effort you want to put in,” he said. “Do you want to follow federal guidelines and make sure you are credentialed in it, versus do you just want to put something together, slap it together and tabletop something small? In my five years here, we’ve done several of them through the spectrum.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires Door County Emergency Management to do a yearly emergency exercise that complies with Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program guidelines.

“That’s just a fancy way of saying it needs to be run a certain way, with certain steps involved in the planning process and how you evaluate, to make sure you’re getting all the right areas,” Kane said.

In January, the agencies involved will formally review the exercise and identify areas to be improved.

This exercise was condensed into eight hours over two days, but Kane hopes for a full-scale version of the exercise next year. That would mean actually moving assets around the peninsula in real time.

“Instead of talking that we did something, we’ll actually do it and actually move that piece of apparatus to make sure that it works,” Kane said.