Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

Audit: Emergency Management


The Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) has completed a review of Wisconsin’s Emergency Management, finding that the Department of Homeland security awarded the state $318.5 million from fiscal year (FY) 2004-5 through FY 2008-09.

Federal funding can be used to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorism and other disasters. Most of the federal funding Wisconsin received from fiscal year (FY) 2004-5 through FY 2008-09 was spent on equipment such as radios, security
cameras, and emergency medical supplies. The LAB found that Wisconsin used its appropriated funds properly under federal rules.

However, the LAB has concerns about communications and preparing for emergencies in Wisconsin.

The LAB reports the state does not have “an interoperable communications system that would allow all emergency responders statewide to communicate with one another during a large-scale emergency.” Four regional interoperable programs have been created.  The Office of Justice Assistance (OJA) that disburses most of the Homeland Security funding the state receives is establishing a statewide interoperability plan with the anticipation that a statewide system could be operating during 2011. Initiation radio coverage will be provided to 95 percent of the state, but, as the LAB reports, “only for in-vehicle radios with strong antenna ranges.”  That means many local units of government will need to buy equipment capable of gaining access to the system. The costs are unknown. 

Local governments contacted by the LAB worry that the system depends on the VHF band that does not penetrate buildings as well as other radio bands and can be difficult to use in urban areas with heavy radio traffic. The portable radios used by emergency responders lack strong antenna ranges and may not be able to gain access to the system from all locations. Since costs are unknown, local government officials worry the future cost will be significant.

Another LAB concern relates to planning for emergencies. Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) has yet to complete the Wisconsin Emergency Reponses Plan and share it with all county and tribal emergency management departments. WEM has also failed to establish an electronic system for tracking all emergency management resources statewide that could be beneficial during emergencies involving multiple counties. WEM intends to implement the system sometime this year.

The LAB also reports:

“While the State and local governments have made progress in improving some aspects of emergency preparedness, responses to two recent and significant natural disasters indicate that additional efforts are needed, particularly to achieve interoperable communications among all responders to large emergencies.”

Here are the details about those two natural disasters:

“In February 2008, a severe winter storm stranded hundreds of
motorists for more than 12 hours on Interstate 90 in Dane and Rock counties. The Adjutant General’s March 2008 written assessment of the response noted that county staff and Wisconsin National Guard units were unable to communicate with one another during the storm, state emergency management officials lacked an accurate and timely assessment of the incident’s magnitude, and the public was not adequately informed about the ongoing incident.

In June 2008, flooding resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency in 30 counties in southern Wisconsin. WEM’s internal post-incident report noted that improved communication was

needed between the State’s emergency operations center in Madison and county emergency management departments. In addition, it noted the need to improve the mapping capabilities of WEM’s emergency operations center and to designate trained staff to assist at the emergency operations center."

In response to the difficulties that hindered the responses to these two emergencies, the State has taken steps to improve its preparation for emergencies. DOT updated its procedures so that

highways can be closed more quickly during emergencies and established a toll-free 511 hotline to provide continually updated information about highway conditions. In addition, WEM:

  • Conducted an exercise in September 2009 that required personnel who staff the State’s emergency operations center to respond to the closure of a highway during a winter storm; and
  • Spent approximately $32,000 to improve the State’s emergency operations center by, among other things, increasing access to more television channels and highway cameras, implementing technology that allows contact with individual State Highway Patrol vehicles, and activating a video teleconferencing system

Even so, the LAB says more efforts are necessary to improve emergency preparedness. The LAB is recommending:


  • OJA report to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by August 31, 2010, on the construction of basic infrastructure for the statewide communications system and on costs to local governments for purchasing related equipment and helping to maintain the system.
  • WEM report to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by August 31, 2010, on its plans for completing and approving all incident-specific sections of the State’s emergency management plan and sharing them with all county and tribal emergency management departments, and on efforts to implement an electronic system for tracking emergency management resources statewide.

  • WEM improve and formalize its process for reviewing responses to emergencies and using the results for improving preparedness statewide.

As a member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, I am grateful for the outstanding service provided by the LAB that is to be commended for another thorough review. You can read the full audit here.

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