Incident command plays key role in Gulf oil spill recovery
Volume 25 Summer
Political wrangling concerning the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominates the news. Mustering up a frighteningly Orwellian image, the feds pledge to keep their “boot on the neck” of the company struggling to plug the leak. In turn, the company continues to defend its efforts amid growing suggestions that the federal government take charge.
So what is happening at street, uh, sea level? Thanks to the National Incident Management System (NIMS), sanity prevails. NIMS provides a systematic, proactive approach to coordinate departments and agencies at all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector when brought together in an emergency. While the top echelons wrangle about policy, a colossal checklist of coordinated activities is being handled on day-to-day with due dispatch and diligence.
Most simply, Unified Command means that every agency or entity has a stake in the game when it comes to emergencies. Governmental agencies divide into federal, state and local response. Add to this an army of private contractors recruited to play a role. In theory, these agencies and entities are trying to do the same thing — cap the well and clean up the mess. Saying that is easy. It is a lot more complicated in terms of actual response. Literally thousands of separate activities must be accomplished. Each of these becomes an objective.
For example, having spill booms ready to deploy if a new slick is spotted is one objective. Having booms staged along the Gulf coast ready to respond is part of that objective. Applying dispersant to the oil becomes another objective. Oil containment and shoreline protection become still another objective. These are all responsibilities that must be executed in a timely manner to be effective. As the situation progresses and, hopefully, the well is capped, those objectives will change.
In any emergency as overpowering as the Gulf spill, there are bound to be interagency conflicts and personality clashes. Unified Command insures that at the end of the day everything done is for the benefit of the ultimate outcome.
To reach the ultimate outcome, there is a sliding scale of responsibility. Under the Oil Polution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), the Coast Guard is the official response agency for any oil spill in a navigable waterway. As on-scene coordinator, the U.S. Coast Guard carries more authority than, say, a contractor hired by the principal developer for the project to place oil spill boom. The Department of Agriculture may have a role because of the impact on fisheries, but they are not a lead player. NIMS provides a structure by which these agencies can make their voices heard during the course of decision making about the emergency.
Incident command has evolved in the years since World War II. Much of it traces back to the U.S. Forest Service organizing its forces in battling wildland fires. Large scale hazardous materials incidents in the 1960s and 1970s also played a role in the development of the incident command system as a core component of NIMS. Later, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration made it mandatory that an incident command system be used in handling incidents such as oil spills.
Along the Gulf coast and up the east coast to North Carolina, state governments have prepared for what is expected to come ashore. However, these coastal states do not have the resources to respond to a large scale, off shore event. Such and event is a federal responsibility.
President Obama stated that “all the resources of the federal government” are at the disposal of the spill responders. That is important. If a special piece of equipment sitting at a federal facility in Nebraska is needed, theoretically that equipment is to be dispatched to the Gulf coast immediately.
Unified response is not reflected in video clips from Washington press conferences. These comments are mostly to position the government for the fines and punishment phase of the spill recovery in the years ahead. People watching this circus may ask, “Are we seeing an appropriate unified response?” At the working levels of this emergency, most of what the responders need to accomplish is fairly straight forward. Stretching boom and cleaning tar balls on a beach is not rocket science. Responders have done it before and, unfortunately, will do it again.
Politicians and executives may argue over responsibility. Along the Gulf coast and off shore, NIMS has clearly outlined the responsibility of each emergency responder. None of those responders are hiding from the responsibility thrust upon them.
Louis N. Molino is the author of “Emergency Incident Management Systems: Fundamentals and Application,” published by John Wiley & Sons.