Written by Phil Rentmeester
As part of its commitment to be open, honest, and communicative about the topics Marathon County leadership and staff get comments and questions on the most, this month’s article in our “I’m Glad You Asked . . .” series features:
“I’m Glad You Asked . . .” 5 Questions People Ask the Marathon County EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT DIRECTOR
Like most emergency management offices in Wisconsin, Marathon County’s Emergency Management Department is small and often goes unnoticed — that is, until a disaster strikes. Through our efforts during the current COVID-19 pandemic, our office has had some increased visibility in the community.
If you’re wondering who are we and how we assist residents, businesses, and visitors in Marathon County through our motto — Prepare. Mitigate. Protect. Respond. Recover. — read on for answers to some commonly asked questions, as well as our local response to the COVID-19 crisis.
#1. What does an Emergency Management Director do?
Rarely does anyone wake up in the morning and say:
“Today is going to be a disaster.”
Disasters are mostly unexpected and often overwhelm us and endanger our lives, our property, and the environment. As Marathon County’s Emergency Management Director, I work with many different departments, agencies, and elected and appointed officials to:
- Coordinate and assist in the development of County, City, Village, and Town emergency management plans;
- Direct countywide emergency management training programs, drills, and exercises;
- Educate the public about various kinds of disasters; and
- Direct and coordinate emergency management activities throughout the county during a state of emergency.
Central Wisconsin can face a variety of threats and hazards, including natural hazards and technological hazards. Natural hazards include tornados, severe winter weather, pandemics, and so on. Technological hazards are incidents that arise from human activities and include chemical spills, radiological releases, transportation incidents, and design failures.
As the director, I certainly don’t act alone. Preparedness is the responsibility of the entire community. Effective emergency planning should be a collaborative process that begins by recognizing hazards, identifying community capabilities to deal with those hazards, and then developing an Emergency Operations Plan together.
Every 5 years, the Emergency Management Department facilitates an update of the Marathon County All-Hazards Mitigation Plan. The update includes a process to review past hazard events in the county to determine the probability of future occurrences and threats to human safety and property damage.
For example, in 2017, the Marathon County Local Emergency Planning Committee developed the following ranking of natural hazards for the county (with 1 being the most likely hazard for us to respond to):
- Winter Storm / Extreme Cold
- Thunderstorm / High Wind / Hail / Lightning
- Hazardous Materials Incidents / Groundwater Contamination
- Flooding / Dam Failure
- Drought / Extreme Heat
- Forest Fire / Wildfire
If you’d like to learn more about our local mitigation efforts related to these hazards, I invite you to read the Marathon County All-Hazards Mitigation Plan.
The Emergency Operations Plan is a document our team develops that describes how agencies, departments, and people will respond to various events. This plan:
- Details who is responsible for carrying out specific actions;
- Sets forth lines of authority and organizational relationships;
- Identifies personnel, equipment, facilities, supplies, and other resources available; and
- Identifies any mutual aid agreement or memorandums of understanding.
The Marathon County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is located in the basement of Wausau City Hall, 407 Grant Street. (Photo courtesy of Marathon County.)
To learn more about our response actions for various emergencies, you may view Marathon County’s Emergency Operations Plan here.
As a side note… One area of emergency planning that I’d like to suggest be considered for the future is the activation of emergency sirens in Marathon County, as there currently isn’t a countywide or statewide siren activation standard.
#2. Can you share some insights as to the Emergency Management Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a public health emergency, the role of Emergency Management is to support the Marathon County Health Department with their response efforts, such as acquiring and distributing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and providing supplies during community testing.
Almost from the beginning of the pandemic, PPE supply chains were substantially stressed, causing healthcare providers and others to reach out to emergency management for PPE. PPE distributed by emergency management was obtained from various sources, including the Strategic National Stockpile, donated items, and items purchased by the State to enhance response capabilities. As the supply chains for PPE have improved, most have since been able to obtain needed equipment on their own. But as shortages occasionally still occur, organizations can reach out to us for assistance.
Examples of PPE (goggles, masks, gloves) needed for healthcare workers to protect them from SARS-CoV-2. (Photo courtesy of EVG Culture from Pexels.)
From the beginning of the pandemic, Emergency Management has been part of the County’s COVID Response Team. This team is a policy group that focuses on the overall strategy for our County-level response by identifying priorities and developing policy. Emergency Management also works with other emergency managers such as Wisconsin Emergency Management and the North Central Wisconsin Health Care Emergency Readiness Coalition. These relationships are crucial in maintaining “situational awareness” (accurately understanding what is happening in the moment), performing effective and informed problem solving, and providing assistance with planning and response efforts.
Emergency Management also reaches out to other community-based organizations and municipalities to assist them with such things as mortuary affairs and how to respond to potential mass fatalities due to the pandemic.
But Emergency Management is only one entity in Marathon County’s wide-ranging and collaborative COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts. Ongoing preparedness, response, and recovery efforts are taking place across many government bodies, private entities, non-profits, faith-based organizations, families, and individuals across the county.
#3. Who is empowered to make local decisions during a crisis?
All response efforts to disasters begin at the local level. When disasters strike, the municipal or county Emergency Operations Plan (and supporting annexes or emergency support functions) should be consulted to determine roles and responsibilities for response efforts.
Wisconsin is a “home rule” state. This means that, the chief elected official in a municipality is given the day-to-day ability to make local decisions. According to Wisconsin Statutes, each municipality identifies a designated head of emergency services and develops its emergency management plan.
#4. How can people sign up to receive emergency alerts in Marathon County?
The Marathon County Alert Program allows citizens to receive notifications in an emergency situation that poses imminent threats to health and safety. When a natural disaster, severe weather, police activity, gas leak, or other emergency requires you to take action to protect yourself and your family, you’ll receive text, email, or phone call alerts that let you know what to do to stay safe.
The service also allows you to stay informed about local programs and projects that interest you by choosing from a variety of community updates.
You may register as many devices as you like to receive Marathon County Alerts, such as:
- Home, mobile, or business telephones;
- Email addresses;
- Cell phones (to receive text alerts);
- Hearing-impaired receiving devices; and more.
The information you provide will be kept strictly confidential and will not be used for any other purpose.
#5. Dealing with and preparing for emergencies seems like a serious, high-stakes, and stressful job. Are there parts of the job that are uplifting?
The most rewarding part of emergency management is working with public safety agencies, municipal or County staff, State departments, healthcare providers, non-profits, Scouts, radio operators, elected officials, and others. The dedication such professionals have in their work and their passion for it — whether it’s in a career or volunteer capacity, in order to help their community, county, and state — is incredible. We are fortunate so many people are willing to give their time and efforts to assist their communities in times of need. The support from countless individuals to get others the resources they need is truly inspiring.
It’s also rewarding to see interest in emergency management programs from the general public. There are many people who ask us about education and training opportunities — such as severe weather spotter classes, emergency response courses, and mitigation opportunities — as well as others who reach out to share their own emergency response stories with me.
I feel grateful to work in a position that allows me to be part of this community-minded goodwill and to assist where I can.
Director | Marathon County Emergency Management
Philip Rentmeester has been the Emergency Management Director for Marathon County since 2015. Besides being a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he also enjoyed a long career in the fire service. In his free time, Philip enjoys spending time with family, participating in athletics, and recently has been trying out many of the bike trails in Wisconsin. Email Philip Rentmeester.
You might also like…
- Supervisor William Harris :: Giving to His Community Through Law & Public Office
- Marathon County Thanks Its Local Foster Families for Helping Children in Need
- The Marathon County Literacy Council :: Helping Others Obtain the Power of Reading
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