Sun Prairie explosion response

A DeForest Windsor Fire Department truck sits parked nearby the July 10, 2018 Sun Prairie explosion scene. The DeForest Windsor Fire and EMS Department responded to the incident last week with personnel, three trucks and an ambulance — just one of many area departments responding to the explosion.

It’s been almost a year since the devastating events of July 10, and Sun Prairie’s recovery is making slow but steady progress and the investigation has been completed. In mid-August, I approached The Sun Prairie Star with an idea that evolved into this article. I thought the community might be interested in seeing the full extent of the huge response involved those many months ago.

As I started doing research I found that the amount of information involved was larger than I had anticipated so the story will have three parts. Today’s installment will provide the readers an overview of public safety operations — I hope you find it informative.


In Dane County, Madison Fire is the only career department will full time paid staff. Deforest, Fitchburg, Sun Prairie and Verona have combination Departments with a mix of career and volunteer personnel. The rest may have one or two full time employees but rely on an all-volunteer crew that responds when paged.

The Sun Prairie Fire Department career staff includes the Chief, 2 Captains and 13 Firefighters. The rest of the Department’s members are volunteers and include 4 Assistant Chiefs, 1 Captain, 3 Lieutenants and 45 Firefighters operating out of two stations providing service to the City of Sun Prairie and the Townships of Burke, Bristol and Sun Prairie. The Chief, Captains and Lieutenants are considered fireground officers with the fireground being the scene of the incident.

Station 1 (North Bristol Street) is staffed 24/7 with a minimum crew of four and a normal crew of six. Four of that crew are career staff from 6AM to 6PM. All other staffing is provided by volunteer members of the department who are paid a stipend for their time on call at the station.

Station 2 (West Main Street at Grand Avenue) lacks sleeping accommodations for Fire personnel and is staffed with career members 9AM to 5PM Monday thru Friday and by volunteers 8AM to 4PM Saturday and Sunday and also averages six persons on duty. Construction of an addition to Station 2 is under way and in early 2020 it too will be staffed 24/7.

The in-house crews handle 90% of received calls. When additional personnel/equipment is needed the volunteers are paged and they respond from home, serving with no pay.

The Sun Prairie Emergency Medical Service is a full time paid service employing a Director, 12 full time and 10 part time Paramedics. EMS staffs two ambulances 24/7 with two Paramedics each operating out of both Station 1 on Columbus St and Station 2 at W Main at Grand Avenue and provides service to the City of Sun Prairie and the Town of Bristol.

The Sun Prairie Police Department has a staff composed of the Chief, Assistant Chief, 2 Lieutenants, 8 Sergeants, 5 Detectives, 33 Police Officers and 2 uniformed Community Services Officers.

They are supported by 11 civilian personnel performing records, dispatch and administrative functions.

The department fields four to eight patrol officers 24/7 as well as supervisors, Detectives and other support personnel. Operations are conducted out of two stations, Downtown at 300 E Main St and West at West Main at Grand Avenue.


Public Safety organizations use a two-step process for communications. The first step is the Call Taker who answers the phone and enters information into the Computerized Dispatch System.

The second step is the Dispatcher who uses that information to assign units to the call and manage radio communication with the field units. The Dane County Public Safety Communication Center (Com Center) is the call taker for all 911 land line calls in Dane County except for Middleton and the UW. It is also the call taker for all 911 calls from cell phones except for Middleton.

The Com Center dispatches all Fire and EMS units in Dane County and all Law Enforcement units not served by a local dispatch center. The cities of Fitchburg, Middleton, Monona, Stoughton and Sun Prairie staff their own dispatch centers as do the UW Police Department and the State Capitol Police Department.

Middleton and the UW are the call takers for 911 calls placed from within their justifications and the local centers all serve as call takers for their non-emergency lines.

The City of Sun Prairie Dispatch Center (Sun Prairie Dispatch) is a Division of the Police Department, employs a supervisor and 8 dispatchers and is staffed by one or two dispatchers depending on the time of day and day of week.

There are protocols in place to transfer dispatch functions to the Com Center if any of the seven local centers are unable to function. Likewise, the Com Center can move its operations to the local centers in the county if it is unable to function.


Police/Fire/EMS departments are staffed to handle routine calls. Unfortunately, many events can overwhelm any department’s capability. When that happens help is requested from neighboring departments in the form of Mutual Aid, it happens dozens of times a day in Dane County and usually involves one or two vehicles.

To request assistance from other agencies Fire/EMS Services use the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS. The term box is a throwback to the days when telephones were rare and large cities had metal boxes located throughout that people could run to and pull a switch alerting the Fire Department that it was needed at that particular Box. Today, all but nine of Wisconsin’s 72 counties participate in the program with each of them comprising a MABAS Division.

MABAS is an automatic, pre-planned system that assigns resources to a call with a response tailored to the location and type of incident. Low level events such as smoke alarms or odor investigations are usually assigned one unit. A car or dumpster fire may have two, a small structure fire six or eight.

If the event requires more resources than are on scene the Incident Commander will request a Full Box Alarm which will bring a total response of up to 20 units. If needed, additional Alarms can be requested, MABAS will accommodate up to five Alarms.

Units assigned will depend on the type and location of the call. A house fire in the City of Sun Prairie will have fewer units assigned than a house fire in the Town of Bristol because the town has no hydrants and a fleet of tank trucks is assigned to provide water. An event at a nursing home, or apartment building will receive a large number of Ambulances, a large industrial facility will require Ladder Trucks.

The Dane County Chiefs of Police Association has established a MABAS type system as well. The Capitol Area Police Mutual Aid Response system (CAPMAR) has 23 departments taking part. The system will provide up to eight levels of response with each level consisting of 5 officers. A level one request will receive 5 officers, a level 8 will receive 40.


Fireground operations can be demanding both from physical exertion and exposure to the elements. Firefighters overheat and dehydrate during the hot summer months and suffer hypothermia and frostbite in the fringed winter months.

A firefighter’s protective turnout gear weighs close to 20 pounds. The air pack and mask add another 40 pounds of weight for the firefighter to carry. To protect their health and safety standardized rehabilitation or rehab protocols are in place.

Most departments follow a “two tank / 45-minute” policy. Firefighters working in an environment that requires the use of an air pack and mask will generally be able to function for 15 or 20 minutes before the air tank is empty and needing replacement.

After using a second tank of air the firefighter must report to the rehab area. Firefighters not wearing an air pack/mask rotate to rehab after 45 minutes of work.

The rehab area provides fluids, shelter either heated or shaded, food and in many cases medical evaluation by an EMT or Paramedic. A minimum rest period of 10 minutes is mandatory and may be extended by the rehab officer based on the firefighter’s condition, physical elements, nature of activity and availability of replacement personnel.

That’s why large fires will see a response by a large number of fire trucks. They are not all needed to put out the fire. What’s needed are the firefighters they bring to the fireground.


The Incident Command System (ICS) began in the late 60’s to manage large multi-agency responses to wildfires in California and Arizona and standardizes terminology and procedures.

After the events of 9/11 the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was established and every public safety agency in the US adopted ICS. Its 3 main points are training, planning and practice. All personnel receive basic instruction so they understand the system with supervisors and managers receiving advanced training.

Procedures and responses are pre-planned and regularly reviewed and updated. Exercises are conducted to test these plans and make the participants familiar with procedures. The exercises can be small involving a single agency or large with many departments participating.

Every incident has an Incident Commander (IC) who will control the response. A single individual can manage three to seven people with five being the optimal ratio. For small incidents such as a dumpster fire the IC might be a firefighter who manages the response without assistance.

As an incident grows, so does the Command Structure with different functions assigned to specific personnel. Each additional MABAS alarm will also include Fireground Officers to help manage the response.

Small or short term events rarely use a written Incident Plan however as the length or size of an event increases the need for a formal structure increases.

For the July 10th event the development of long term plans and protocols began approximately six hours into the operation with the Dane County Emergency Management Department providing assistance.

Small events rarely use a physical facility to control the response. For large events the IC will operate out of an Incident Command Post (ICP) which may be blocks or miles away from the actual scene. As events grow in complexity so do the tools an IC needs to manage the response. In 2010 the Deep Water Horizon ICP filled two floors of an office building in downtown New Orleans.


Pre-Planning has been around forever, remember the fire drills in first grade? Unfortunately, in today’s environment, Pre-Planning has expanded to cover virtually every large facility or employer.

Today’s workplaces must be prepared to deal with active shooters, cyber-attacks, power/phone outages, flu/disease outbreaks, fire, flooding, severe weather etc. These plans identify every conceivable support need and include the entities that would provide that support in the planning process.

For example, if an elementary school is evacuated where will the children go? In the spring/fall months a minor issue, in the winter months a major concern. Likewise for apartments and office buildings. So plans build in a fleet of busses to provide shelter.

In Dane County the County Emergency Management Office assists with planning County wide. The State of Wisconsin’s Department of Emergency Government operates Statewide. Both will also provide assistance during actual events.


Virtually every fireground involves an evacuation of some sort. While most are limited in size and duration some are very large with the size being determined by the hazard. The area for a car fire is measured in yards, a western wild fire area is measured in tens of miles. The July 10th evacuation covered a one square mile area.

The gas leak was underground and the high pressure natural gas was following the path of least resistance. Unfortunately the leak was in an area with 140 year old infrastructure.

Foundations were stone and the area under the streets crisscrossed with active and abandoned sewer, water, gas and communications lines which the gas could follow. The concern was gas entering the storm and sanitary sewer systems and basements through cracks in foundations.

Once in a building the gas simply waits for an ignition source such as a light switch or pilot light to explode. And WE Energies would need up to four hours to shut off the flow.

The evacuation was conducted by police and fire personnel as well as a large number of city employees who went house to house, knocking on doors and checking garages and back yards.

Persons in the initial evacuation were told leave on foot immediately. Starting a car could be that ignition source the gas was waiting for. The hardest hit were the residents of the apartments that were lost to the fire. They literally survived with the cloths on their back, a few lucky ones vehicles would be undamaged.

The evacuation would include 1 nursing home and 3 assisted living facilities with over 300 residents as well as 2 senior/retirement communities with 150 apartments. Staff would be assisted by family, friends and neighbors who would join in to help.

Vickerman is a former Sun Prairie Police officer and Sun Prairie firefighter who also wrote a detailed dispatch chronology of what happened on July 10, 2018 that will appear in the special section “One Year Stronger” in the July 9, 2019 issue of the Sun Prairie Star. The next issue of The Star will contain the final installment, The Aftermath.

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