Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 23, 2015

Gulf oil spill: Lessons still to be learned

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 23, 2015

It has been five years since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven and initiated several weeks of an uncontrolled release of oil from the well-head.  Over 200 million gallons of oil are thought to have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.

I perceive the lessons-learned — or what might still be learned — from responding to the Gulf oil spill are at least as important as those we have tried to learn from 9/11 and Katrina.

What can and should be done, and sometimes not done, when dealing with big footprint, multi-consequence disasters that unfold over an extended period of time?  How is such an event to be engaged when the technical, experiential, and even intellectual resources needed are in short supply?  How does leadership and management operate when authority and competence and capability are scattered across various public and private entities? What can the lessons-learned from five years ago tell us regarding drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, and other disasters that are as much cumulative as acute?

Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard Commandant who was pulled out of retirement to serve as the National Incident Commander for the Gulf oil spill has tried to help us learn these lessons.  Here is some of what he said back in September 2010.

When I was designated as the national incident commander, I sat down with a small group of folks who became my cadre and senior staff. I wanted to focus on what needed to be done about the universe — above the unified level that had been established. I wanted to focus on those things that were distracting unified area command from doing their job: working inter agency issues in Washington and dealing with the governmental structures, Congress and so forth…

I was a 39-year veteran of the coast guard. The last thing we want is the 3,000 mile screwdriver. We would leave tactical control as close to the problem as we could… I would like to characterize the national incident command as a thin client. To use a software term. Necessary to integrate but no more than what is necessary and without adding layers of bureaucracy.

The Incident Command System that was established in New Orleans was the basis for… the coordination of command. That is a sound system. Incident command is one of the ways to approach these spills…

If we look at what transpired, we need to know what the basic doctrine says against the reality of what we found on the ground… We did not have a large, monolithic oil spill. We had hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over time that moved beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan, putting the entire coast at risk. That required resources above the plan. It required coordination across state boundaries and federal regional boundaries for the team…

We have worked on smaller spills with state and local governments with smaller responsible parties. Some of the anomalies associated with this spill that challenged the doctrine need to be looked at in detail for constructive changes to the contingency plan which should remain in place, and how we need to manage large, and, as evidence in the future that defy the traditional parameters of the incident command system…

First, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible parties, who they are, what they do, and how they interact with the contingency plan. We have worked with the responsible parties for over 20 years, very effectively managing oil spills…There were two basic issues that were not well understood by most of the people of the US and political leaders: There would be a constructive role for the entity that was attributed to causing the event. That created concern that could not be explained away. Even though we had worked effectively in that construct in responding to oil spills. The second is the fiduciary link between the representative of the responsible party and unified command and their shareholders. There are legal requirements for documenting costs which you have to carry on a balance sheet that they cannot sever.

The second notion was difficult for the people of this country to understand and our political leaders was ultimately, there is a fiduciary link between the responsible party and shareholders which would bring into question whether or not a decision should have been made based on the environment and the response itself. As stated in the national contingency plan and by statute, the responsible party is to resource the response and the federal government is to oversee their response…That is what occurred, but as you look at the enormity of this response, and the local implications, the isolated geographical areas where access is an issue, where logistical support for this type of response is an issue, a lot of the details that are carried out by those contractors that are brought to the scene are done in a contractual obligation basis with the responsible party under the general supervision of the federal government…

There is a discussion about what constitutes an authority to take action, the day-to-day supervision of workers. How this gets interpreted in terms of feedback and the effects you are trying to achieve. There is a couple of things we need to do. We need to look at the contingency plan and think about what we need by the concept of responsible party and how we want that to look in the future…

Admiral Allen is one of those rare people who somehow speak more clearly than the transcript can sometimes capture.  Thanks to C-Span, you can see and hear his extended remarks here.

As time and space expand, typically so does the number and diversity of those involved in engagement. Allen sometimes refers to the difference between theater command and incident command.  I wonder if just using the word “command” may be misleading.

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Comment by Bruce Martin

April 23, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

Off your last paragraph: The word “command” certainly has been a discussion point in the evolution and promulgation of ICS. “Theater command” doesn’t get mentioned explicitly in the ICS (training/lesson plan) world; that seems to me to be an artifact of a federal lens towards emergency management with a military tint.

The word “command” seems to have different meaning and intensity based on the discipline of the user and listener. Law enforcement and the DOD have similar views on the word while emergency management, health, elected officials see the word somewhat differently. The fire service is somewhere in the middle. One can observe the evolution and divergence of team designators: Incident Command Teams vs. Incident Management Teams vs. Incident Management Assistance Teams. One county in which I worked designated their group of ICS workers as an “Overhead Support Team” in order to avoid the “command” conversation.

My observation is that the word “command” is often poorly received by those with specific authorities, jurisdictions, and/or strong traditions of hierarchy and chain of command. It has been seen as a challenge to, or potential dilution of, legitimate authority.

“Command” is just less used in the emergency management world, where those of that discipline often work as facilitators of the disparate components in the hs enterprise and federalist construct. Maybe we should try “Incident Facilitator.” (I can visualize some heads exploding.)

The USCG has authority and jurisdiction in the case of DPH, so I understand their use of the title National Incident Commander. They are the most effective user of ICS at the federal level IMO. The sheer size and impacts of the spill complicated things and required a multi-agency response; it affected many, many jurisdictions. In the Multi-Agency Coordination component of NIMs one does not see “Commander.”

ICS is a tool. ICS does not inherently contain any legal authority, jurisdiction, doctrine or dogma.

The citizens expect we are all working together to solve the incident and return things to normal. The systems we have developed are tools. Pragmatically, we can make the system work to meet our needs. Searching for a pure “command” solution in the US is not likely to be fruitful. Indeed, if the President is not the boss of the governors, who in turn are not the bosses of the Mayors, then who really is in Command? And does it matter?

What I also found interesting was the local government expectation that a Stafford Act style response (& funding) would take place, without initially grasping the difference in authorities and style that the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan contains.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 23, 2015 @ 5:33 pm


Just a thank you note for your two concluding questions:

“Indeed, if the President is not the boss of the governors, who in turn are not the bosses of the Mayors, then who really is in Command? And does it matter?”

The first moves front and center a constitutional principle many of us have pledged to uphold. Your second question should remind us of a strategic/operational reality that we neglect at great peril. So many contests over control, so little time.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2015 @ 10:19 am

Would be of great assistance if someone has analyzed the failures of the so-called NATIONAL CONTINGENCY PLAN in the context of the BP GOM event! Are there any links discussing ther NCP which to my knowledge updated 1994 at PART 300 of the EPA part of the CFR [40 CFR]?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2015 @ 10:19 am

Would be of great assistance if someone has analyzed the failures of the so-called NATIONAL CONTINGENCY PLAN in the context of the BP GOM event! Are there any links discussing the NCP which to my knowledge updated 1994 at PART 300 of the EPA part of the CFR [40 CFR]?

Comment by Vicki Campbell

April 28, 2015 @ 2:20 am

i actually found Allen’s comments exceptionally circumspect, but still useful in terms of outlining several important parameters of the oil contingency plan worth further review. In terms of the use of the word “command” – first, I’m unclear who you’re concerned about misleading. If its the public, they don’t know about ICS or NIMS one way or another. If the concern is that its internally misrepresentative, that’s another matter entirely. However, I’m more concerned its not nearly misrepresentative enough – for reasons similar to what Mr. Martin has introduced.

Words matter. They have meaning, and they both shape and reflect their context, and the mentality and behavior of those who use them. The term “command” is associated in the dictionary with other words like “control” and “force” and “authority over” and “domination” etc. The word “manage” or “manager” (which I think would be both better and more accurate than either commander or facilitator) is associated in the dictionary with words like “coordinate” and “organize” and “administer. Although I think that Mr. Martin makes a good point about offending other legitimate authorities, I disagree that the issue is also one of different groups having different meanings for the word command. Everyone knows what it means.

The issue is a lot of people rightly feel the term denotes both an approach and mindset, as well as sets an overall tone that’s not appropriate in most situations, certainly including the management of most emergencies – and I couldn’t agree more. Until the Bush administration fragmented and contorted emergency management into something all but unrecognizable, professional emergency management was about collaboration and bottom-up management, and learning how to support the various functions of diverse working groups, starting at the local level (because that reflects how U.S. disaster policy is fundamentally formulated). Grounded in research and evidence-based policy, mitigation had also assumed its rightful place as the cornerstone of EM.

But by the time the Bush administration and the DHS culture were finished reorganizing everything in order to put counterterrorism at the center of the known universe, emergency management had been relegated to little more than response functions again, in spite of the new and ridiculously duplicative terms blithely tacked onto the traditional 4 EM functions (such as prevention and protection ), with even that being reconceptualized in ever more security-oriented and militaristic terms – and the rest is history. Much upsetment ensued in a variety of quarters (although many in the HS community seemed surprisingly oblivious about it all), especially given how badly the main FEMA documents and guidelines and especially the National Response Framework were being rewritten at the time. Much has also been written about the clash of cultures between the collaborative, bottom-up approach by the EM community and the top-down, command and control approach by HS, which, since it seems to think its way is always the best no matter what the context (hence the “domination” factor mentioned above), has to my mind done some real damage to the development of both the profession and the practice of emergency management in the U.S.. ICS is just one of many unfortunate examples of that. (I generally exclude the Coast Guard in all this, who as far as I’m aware, have done a singularly great job functioning in civilian emergency settings.)

It should also surprise no one that research thus far tends to suggest that ICS is neither a system that can be scaled up very effectively, nor one that functions very well in diverse settings.

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