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EPA Handles Expanded Role in Shuttle Recovery
6 initially responded to the Columbia shuttle disaster

Personnel on duty at the Lawrenceburg, KY, water treatment plant May 9, 2000, paid little attention when a small explosion sounded in the "Mission creep" is the process by which a mission's methods and goals change gradually over time. When EPA Region 6 initially responded to the Columbia shuttle disaster it was in its traditional role of handling hazardous materials emergencies, said EPA's Jim Staves.

"It didn't take us very long to realize that our challenge was going to be dealing with the enormity of the situation," Staves said. "The issues we really faced were personnel management, data management, information management and financial management. These were the issues that really overwhelmed us initially."

Typically, EPA dispatches a single coordinator to a hazmat incident to work with the responsible parties. According to Staves, Region 6 preparedness team leader, that coordinator can expect to be home within a couple of days. By contrast, the shuttle response was spread over a huge geographic area. Offices had to be opened and staffed in a number of different areas.

The Region 6 EPA team coordinated haz mat response, debris recovery and documentation of each shuttle item recovered. Early in the recovery effort, EPA provided airborne photometric collection technology and utilized a sophisticated Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer vehicle that traveled East Texas roads monitoring air for potentially hazardous chemicals.

NASA and FEMA quickly realized that the EPA's greatest contribution to the search effort would be in data collection and management, Staves said. In particular, EPA technology developed to more closely inspect oil well sites throughout the United States was adopted to the search.

"We had over the past few years developed some pretty sophisticated means of going out into the field and collecting a lot of information quickly, storing it in Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) so that it could be uploaded to laptop computers using wireless internet or satellite feeds," Staves said.

That information was compiled in a master data base, he said. For each piece of shuttle debris recovered, the data base recorded a longitude and latitude, other location information, the name of the person who collected it and specific information about the debris. EPA also helped track logistical information about resources and personnel deployed in the field.

All of the EPA personnel involved had specific training on operating within the Incident Command System (ICS), Staves said.

"You have to use ICS on small day-to-day events to get used to the terminology and organizational structure," Staves said. "Otherwise, when a big event happens, you quickly become overwhelmed by all the information that comes in and the enormity of the response effort." Not everyone at the emergency scene can be the incident commander, Staves said. It is important to train people in the other roles that incident command requires.

"In ICS you've got four major functions -- planning, logistics, operations and financing," Staves said. "In everyone's organization you need personnel who are well trained in doing each of those tasks."

Homeland security issues reduced the resources that the EPA could typically rely on, Staves said. The U.S. Coast Guard strike team is often called in to help EPA establish incident command and resource management. But, with a Level Orange alert in effect, the Coast Guard was occupied with port and other security issues. Many EPA personnel were also held in reserve to deal with any emergency arising from the Level Orange alert.

"What that meant was that for the first time we had to bring out to the command post a lot of other people who were field capable, inspectors and people like that, to provide some essential functions that other agencies had done for us in the past," Staves said. Under the new era of homeland security, federal agencies are going to be tasked to do things that are well beyond the kind of missions expected from them in the past, Staves said. "Our role traditionally has been to respond to oil fields, haz mat spills and things like that,"

Staves said. "We never expected to be monitoring a sanitary landfill in New York after the collapse of a major building. We never expected to be doing anthrax decontamination in federal buildings. We sure didn't expect to be picking up shuttle debris in East Texas.

 
 

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