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Event Horizon
Coast Guard lacked jurisdiction to take charge of Deepwater Horizon fire fighting
Volume 25 Summer

Deepwater Horizon

The Coast Guard has received a report of the MODU DEEPWATER HORIZON on fire. Position 28-44.3 North 088-21.9 West with approximately 144 persons onboard. 45 nautical miles east/southeast of South Pass, Louisiana. All mariners are requested to maintain a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings to the nearest U.S. Coast Guard Unit. Signed U.S. Coast Guard. -
Urgent marine information broadcast issued by the Coast Guard the night of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire.


A lack of understanding about how incident command functions on the high seas is apparent in a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) charging that the U.S. Coast Guard failed to coordinate fire fighting during the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire in April.

Whereas the Coast Guard is responsible for establishing an on scene coordinator to liaison between firefighters and authorities on shore in an off shore emergency, designating an incident commander falls to the company operating the ship involved, said David White of Fire & Safety Specialists, an industrial fire consulting and training company.

“It was not the Coast Guard’s call to set up a fire marshal or fire boss that night,” White said. “That is the responsibility of the rig operator.”

According to the CPI article published July 27, an official maritime investigation is examining whether salt water sprayed across the burning platform from boats equipped with large volume nozzles overran the ballast system that kept the rig upright, causing it to topple into the sea. As the rig sank, it severed the drilling column rising from the sea bed, triggering the lengthy oil spill that followed.

Despite this, the CPI article charges that while the Coast Guard “named an on-scene commander (sic) when the rig fire broke out the night of April 20, it failed to coordinate firefighting by private boats that arrived at the burning rig about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.”

First and foremost, the CPI article fails to note that under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction is limited to navigable waterways no more than 12 nautical miles off shore. A presidential proclamation signed by Ronald Reagan in December 1988 reaffirmed that limitation.

To support its conclusions, the CPI article quotes from testimony given by civilian Coast Guard search and rescue specialist Kevin Robb, the opening witness called during the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation hearing May 11. The hearing was a fact-finding probe to determine the cause of the initial incident and fire aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit.

Robb, qualified as a command duty officer, is assigned to the Coast Guard's District 8 Command Center in New Orleans. The Command Center oversees the subordinate units of the 8th Coast Guard District, which encompasses much of the Gulf of Mexico, and areas inland including the Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds.

Kevin RobbOn the night of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Robb was ordered to report to the command center to "augment" the watch officers already on duty.

The CPI article extensively quotes Robb’s testimony that there was no attempt by the command center to designate a qualified fire official to take charge.

“Did you, sir, make any efforts on that first night when you responded to the Command Center to identify a certified fire marshal to oversee the firefighting efforts?” Robb was asked at the May 11 hearing.

“No, sir, I did not,” he answered.

“Are you aware of anyone else at the Coast Guard Command Center that made such an effort?"

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

"Do you know, if at any point, over the next several days there was ever any designation of an authority, a governmental authority to oversee or coordinate the firefighting effort for this rig?” Robb was asked.

“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Robb.

Five vessels designated as “Good Samaritans” responded to the Deepwater Horizon emergency and remained on station for four days. These vessels were equipped with high powered pumps and fire fighting nozzles capable of delivering large quantities of salt water to the burning rig, as is standard industry practice.

No Coast Guard assets took part in the fire fighting efforts because the Coast Guard does not have fireboats and commercial fire fighting is not one of the Coast Guard missions, a Coast Guard spokesperson said. Coast Guard assets were focused on search and rescue operations launched to locate missing Deepwater Horizon crew members and to medically evacuate the injured.

“The responding Good Samaritan vessels that engaged in fire fighting efforts did so on their own as mariners helping mariners, just like neighbors in a regular neighborhood,” the spokesperson said.

Likewise, the Coast Guard did not coordinate the Good Samaritan vessels that responded to the fire.

"The Coast Guard urgent marine information broadcast would have alerted any vessels in the area of the situation and that there might be people in distress,’ the Coast Guard spokesperson said. “There were a few vessels located near the Deepwater Horizon at the time and they applied fire fighting techniques to the best of their abilities under their own direction.”

In section 8260 of the Coast Guard’s One Gulf Plan it states that “the COTP (captain of the port) shall not assume overall control of firefighting efforts when appropriate qualified fire officers are present and able to take control.” It also says that the “master of the vessel or designated representative is responsible for the safety of the crew and vessel and should initiate fire fighting response actions in accordance with the vessel’s fire plan.”

The CPI article neglects earlier testimony by Robb during the May 11 hearing when he was asked to outline current Coast Guard policy with respect to fire fighting activities for offshore events.

“For this specific incident, an offshore commercial vessel, we are not the lead on the firefighting operation,” Robb said. “I believe the outline specifically states that the lead agent would be a certified fire marshal or fire boss, if you will.”

Because of limitations in personnel, resources and budget considerations, the Coast Guard “has taken a conservative view on firefighting,” Robb said.

“As we all know, firefighting involves life-long training, very detailed training and very specific-type assets,” Robb said. “In the marine environment, in particular, because of the hazards of what may be on fire and constrictions, it requires a level of expertise that the Coast Guard does not have based on policy.”

Any direct fire fighting done by Coast Guard personnel is limited to small fires that serve as obstacles to direct life saving operations, Robb said.

Later, Robb was asked what agency or individual normally takes responsibility for designating a fire marshal to coordinate fire fighting during such an emergency.

"I believe depending on the circumstances it might be the responsible party of the owner of that platform who might enlist the efforts of professional firefighters," Robb said. He added that because fire fighting is not part of the Coast Guard's response policy, his knowledge in regard to where the responsibility fell was somewhat limited.

 For many years, it was a common misconception that the Coast Guard took charge in firefighting situations, White said. At one time, the Coast Guard had a number of 37-foot boats equipped with 500 gpm pumps, a nozzle and eductor for delivering foam. Those boats have long since been retired, White said.

"One reason why the Coast Guard stays out of fire fighting is that if they took on that responsibility, local agencies charged with fire fighting would immediately say, 'Okay, lets sell our fire boats.'"

Among the many Coast Guard assets directed to the scene of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a 179-foot cutter, the Zephyr, that served as a support platform for the 24-hour on scene coordinator assigned to the emergency. Robb said.

"Once they get on scene, they assess the weather; they assess the viability of the search plans that we were promulgating and giving out to various assets," Robb said. "They're basically the (search and rescue) mission coordinators' eyes and ears on-scene, and they have the authority to keep the aircraft out of the air space, to divert assets when there's a sighting and throughout the course of that first evening there were numerous sightings. There were sightings of lifeboats and debris fields and then we would go investigate all those individual sites."

Under federal law, if an event such as an oil or hazardous materials spill or a fire happens on a navigable waterway, the Coast Guard is responsible for establishing a federal on scene coordinator, or FOSC, White said.

"That person's job is to oversee the cleanup or extinguishment of the fire and make sure that it is being done in an efficient, equitable manner without impacting the environment," White said.

For example, if firefighters in New Orleans need foam from Seattle, the on scene coordinator is authorized to obtain military aircraft to transport it.

"The coordinator can tap any federal resource," White said.

If the FOSC determines that the emergency is not being handled in a correct manner, the next step is to 'federalize' the incident, White said. This is usually done in situations where the responsible party does not have adequate resources available or is not willing to respond in a timely fashion.

"The problem is whatever the bill is, the federal government now has to pay it," White said. "The flip side why industry would not want it federalized is that the fine then becomes three times the cost of the cleanup."

However, making the entire FOSC discussion moot is the fact that the Deepwater Horizon explosion was not in a navigable waterway under any jurisdiction of the Coast Guard.

Capt. Hung M. Nguyen, Coast Guard co-chair of the investigation board, addressed the possibility that the uncoordinated fire fighting effort by the five “Good Samaritan” vessels answering the Coast Guard's urgent marine information broadcast may have played a role in sinking the rig.

"So the purpose of this investigation is to obtain information to prevent or reduce recurrence of such an incident," Nguyen said. "So what we're looking at here is maybe if there's no coordination out there, no direction out there, we may be throwing water onto a disabled vessel that may lead to this (vessel) sinking; is that correct? Is that the potential?"

"I'm not sure I understand the question, Captain," Robb replied.

"Well, if the firefighting efforts are not coordinated and we're putting water onto a disabled vessel, there's the possibility that no coordinated action may result in the sinking of the vessel; is that correct, any vessel?," Nguyen asked.

"That is exactly correct, Captain," Robb replied. Robb then restated that Coast Guard policy leaves marine fire fighting to professionals.

Technically, the boats that immediately responded to the Deepwater Horizon fire with fire fighting equipment would not be considered fire boats, White said.

"Actually, these were work boats with fire monitors on them," White said. "Those guys just showed up. There were two reasons to be there. One, there was a big fire. Two, if they sprayed water on it they got paid. All you have to do is spray water and, suddenly, you're part of that fire fighting team."

It is apparent that the responders spraying water from the work boat were not analyzing the situation in any way, White said.

"They just fired water focusing on trying to put the fire out,” he said. “Did they possibly sink this thing? It's very likely from what we are reading."

The distance from shore resulted in considerable delay before professional marine firefighters contracted to fight the fire could reach the scene, he said.

"The fire was 50 miles from shore," White said. "We've never had to fight any type of fire 50 miles off shore."

The saltwater theory regarding the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon remains open to conjecture. The CGI article quotes at least one expert who cited the effect of prolonged intense heat on structural steel as the principle cause for the rig’s collapse.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, development of a new marine fire fighting standard for off shore oil rigs is all but a certainty, White said. Companies may be required to have professional marine fire fighting equipment with trained operators in place as well.

"It's likely that in the future you're going to have to go to fire school to work on one of these rigs," White said.


- Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation - Official Site of the Joint Investigation Team (site includes transcript of Robb testimony.) Click HERE.

- CNN coverage of Kevin Robb's testimony. Click HERE.



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