Report criticizes patrol’s response

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Thursday, February 21, 2008
— The Wisconsin State Patrol was slow to recognize an emergency when vehicles started backing up on Interstate 90/39 between Madison and Janesville during the winter’s biggest snowstorm Feb. 5-6, according to a report released this morning.

The State Patrol responded to events as they unfolded, but its delay in recognizing the emergency caused the loss of precious hours that could have allowed drivers to take other routes, which might have eased the depth and breadth of the problem, Wisconsin National Guard Brig. Gen. Don Dunbar wrote.

Thousands of motorists were stranded for up to 12 hours on the Interstate during the storm and its aftermath.

Gov. Jim Doyle asked Dunbar to develop the report in response to the storm that dumped more than a foot of snow and the resulting Interstate backup.

“Interagency coordination was excellent at the start of the storm but non-existent as the emergency grew and darkness fell on the stranded motorists,” Dunbar wrote in a letter to Doyle summarizing the 164-page report.

“The State Patrol was ineffective in its incident command role, but other state agencies also failed to respond effectively,” he wrote. “The Wisconsin Department of Transportation–Highways and Wisconsin Emergency Management, both of whom ran operations centers, could have added significant value at key inflection points, but did not.”

“Public communication regarding the storm was excellent and largely heeded by Wisconsin’s citizens, but public communication on the developing highway emergency was cumbersome and slow,” he wrote.

The report wasn’t all negative, however.

Dane and Rock counties were “very professional” in managing countywide emergencies throughout the day and filled significant gaps in state leadership to provide support and comfort to stranded motorists, Dunbar wrote.

The counties, however, could have provided significant information as it was received from county crews performing plowing, salt/sand and towing operations, the report said.

Dunbar also commended the Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin National Guard.

“DNR wardens were superb in supporting the State Patrol and both affected counties with four-wheel-drive reconnaissance and snowmobile operations,” he wrote. “The National Guard contributed soldiers who delivered food, water and blankets to DNR and county organized snowmobile crews; the Guard also flew three critical aerial reconnaissance flights.”

State officials, however, “failed to recognize the larger picture,” he wrote.

“State and county highway departments’ inter-agency communication was virtually non-existent during this emergency, when coordination would have been invaluable to increasing the Patrol’s overall situational awareness,” he wrote.

Lessons must be learned, and steps must be taken to avoid future problems, the report stated.

Dunbar suggested:

-- The state must develop plans to shut down the Interstate if warranted, even if that means officials cannot offer a re-route to transiting traffic. This plan must be exercised by state agencies.

-- Alternative means of communication must be considered to alleviate the burden on 911 call centers and provide information to stranded motorists.

-- All emergency alert procedures must be reviewed and considered for future use if warranted.

-- A full review of operations center procedures must be undertaken by the DOT and Wisconsin Emergency Management. Those organizations should provide value to the troopers, first responders and county crews who are on point during an emergency.

Rep. Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, said in a column in today’s Janesville Gazette that he’s heard from many constituents and motorists about the situation. Many of them told him the road was too narrow to allow plows to adequately clear lanes of traffic.

Sheridan said he’s requested the DOT move up its timeline for expansion and reconstruction of I-90 between the Illinois state line and Madison.

“Interstate 39/90 serves as a vital entry point into Wisconsin,” he wrote. “Expanding this stretch of road is critical not only for the safety of motorists but also to keep up with heavy truck traffic, economic development and tourism.”

Click here to read the Adjutant General's Report to Governor Doyle on the February 2008 Winter Storm [PDF - large download]

Last updated: 4:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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