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2018 was busy: Teams responded to complex calls

December 29, 2018

JUNEAU -- It was a busy year for the Dodge County Office of Emergency Management. It was also one that Emergency Management Director Amy Nehls and her Deputy Director Joe Meagher won’t soon forget.

“It’s been a very atypical year for us,” Nehls said while seated next to Meagher at a small round table in her office.

“Yes, to say the very least, it has been,” Meagher said, relieved 2018 is nearing its end.

In January, Nehls helped lead an exercise to allow the county’s first-response teams to examine its potential against an active shooting incident.

Dodge County officials worked through a scenario at the Dodge County Courthouse where an armed man made it through security and began shooting people.

Nehls said the exercise was the culmination of a two-year, three-exercise series that has built capabilities and competencies among those emergency personnel who are called to respond to such incidents.

She said after the exercise is completed her department conducts an action report and an improvement matrix to evaluate how well the exercise was done and what improvements could be made.

But unlike years past the report was placed on hold.

“We had a consultant working with us, but we didn’t finish it until April because of what happened in March,” she said.

And for what happened in March there was no exercise or scenario to follow. No rule book or previously used game plan Nehls and Meagher could call upon.

“There were so many different incidents and variables in this one,” Nehls said. “There were incidents within the incident.”

She said when she offers the incident as a training exercise to other counties some tell her it is too complex of a scenario to try.

The exercise became reality March 5 when Ben Morrow blew himself up in his apartment in Beaver Dam. It was later discovered Morrow was likely making bombs when the explosives accidentally detonated, killing him.

Two days later, there was a controlled blast by demolition experts, but Beaver Dam Police Chief John Kreuziger said the “highly volatile bomb making material” was embedded in the building’s insulation.

It was later discovered Morrow used TATP, which is known as the “Mother of Satan.” It’s also the preferred explosive utilized by ISIS, according to a FBI special agent.

Agents ultimately decided to set off another blast and burn the building to the ground. It was the only way to make sure people were safe and that the TATP residue was eliminated.

“We were preparing for an emergency evacuation following the explosion and then we had a snowstorm hit that Monday night,” Nehls recalled. “The Red Cross tried sending some people here, but they ended up staying in hotels that night because of the snow.”

She said the volatility of the chemical changed the emergency evacuation to an entire evacuation of the area once it was decided to burn the entire structure down.

“You can plan and plan, but you have to be willing to adapt and be willing to change your plan, especially with the number of people we were working with,” Nehls said.

And a month hadn’t gone by yet following the birth of Meagher’s second child on Feb. 19.

“He was supposed to be on leave,” Nehls said. “I felt so bad calling him in, but I needed the help.”

Meagher laughed and said he wasn’t sleeping much anyway.

Nehls also called for a state incident management team to help coordinate the efforts in Beaver Dam.

She said about 15 families were displaced from the original explosion and lost their belongings because of the controlled burn. The families were assigned a team from Dodge County Human Services and Public Health. Meagher said the families were also helped by the Salvation Army, Red Cross, St. Vincent de Paul and various businesses and individuals in the community.

Nehls also helped with the media inquiries and press conferences.

“We were very open with everything we could release,” she said. “I know the media had so many questions we couldn’t answer, but we tried to be as open as possible with the situation we were dealing with.”

Meagher said it helped that the FBI determined it wasn’t a terrorist situation and told the media right away so there was no speculation about it.

Both Nehls and Meagher said they worked closely with human services for two weeks to discuss everything from housing, clothing, medication and financial needs for the residents who were displaced.

“That’s where our relationship with our partners takes over,” Nehls said. “It’s second nature for us. Dodge County rarely asks the state for anything because we rely on our own resources here first.”

Once March ended Beaver Dam endured some heavy structure fires to apartment complexes within the city including the Executive Apartments where two people died during the first week in April.

“We brought our mobile emergency command center right to the scene,” Nehls said. “We held our media updates right there and worked right in the city to help the residents who were displaced.”

While May, June and July were quiet, August made up for it.

The city of Watertown took on water -- lots of it on Aug. 17 -- flooding homes and causing thousands of dollars in damages.

Later in August heavy rains, straight line winds and tornados battered parts of the county making some of its municipalities eligible for disaster funding through Wisconsin’s Active Weather Disaster Declaration.

Nehls said the villages of Brownsville and Kekoskee, the town and villages of Lomira, the town of Theresa and a portion of Waupun were hit by straight line winds and two tornados between Aug. 27-28 knocking down numerous trees, power lines and some buildings.

Following the severe weather in certain areas of the county this past summer, Nehls and FEMA’s Public Assistance Teams and the state Department of Natural Resources toured Dodge County to determine if municipalities were eligible for federal funding. However, the areas hit by the storms did not meet the threshold for federal funding, but were eligible for the Wisconsin Disaster Fund.

“We answered a lot of questions for residents who were concerned about their homes and properties. We helped write reports and get them filed with the state,” she said holding a thick binder full of paper, colored tabs, maps and copies of receipts. “We wanted to help as many residents as we could with the process.”

Nehls said three days before the severe weather hit she had just dropped her son off in Michigan for his first year of college.

“Both Joe and I did a lot of juggling with our families,” she said. “We seemed to be in constant work mode, but the two of us got through it. I will be happy when this year ends.”

Looking back, Nehls said the Beaver Dam bomb maker changed the way FBI bomb technicians and local law enforcement approach scenes. She said the FBI is looking to help train police agencies on what to look for when it comes to homemade bombs.

“We are the example now,” she said. “Other states will look to us for what to do.”

Meagher said, “Who knew this guy was making bombs in his apartment? It would’ve been an entirely different story if he lived in a house on Main Street and there was no one else around, but he was in an apartment building with other people living there.”

Meagher said he’s keeping his fingers crossed for next year.

“It all came down to the relationships we have in the county,” he said. “That really helped us to get the resources we needed to help the residents we serve.”

Nehls said the same.

“We have a lot of plans and scenarios we train on, but you quickly learn not one plan is going to cover all of it,” Nehls said. “It comes down to working with our counterparts and keeping those relationships fresh throughout the year because you never know when you’re going to need one another.”

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