Monday, April 11, 2011

Evaluating the National Command Structure

Under a White House gag order not to publicize it, the Coast Guard posted the report of its Incident Specific Preparedness Review Group (ISPR) for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to its website on March 18, 2011. Given the intense scrutiny of the parts BP and its contractors played in causing the accident, this is the first serious insider effort to evaluate the government’s role in the containment efforts, once it took over command of the situation as a Spill of National Significance (SONS).

Who Was in Command

The report clearly discusses the command structure. The short answer is Janet Napolitano was in command. The government has two models of crisis responses, one is the traditional natural disaster response model that is familiar to all as the declaration of a disaster area under the Stafford Act, a so-called NSF, the other model is the National Incident Command (NIC) structure, which was originally derived from federal forest fighting efforts. The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) specifies the use of the NIC structure for spills of national significance.

For oil spills in the coastal zone, the President of the United States delegates removal authority without abdication in Executive Order 12777, Section 3, FWPCA 311(c) to the DHS Secretary. HSPD-5, paragraph 4, establishes the DHS Secretary as the PFO and focal point regarding natural and man-made crises and emergency planning. Pursuant to HSPD-5, the DHS Secretary is always the PFO for domestic incidents. The amount of governance the DHS Secretary chooses to exercise is scalable to the scope of the event. From the first day of the Deepwater Horizon incident, the DHS Secretary exercised governance, without delegation, in coordination with the National Response Team (NRT) and U.S. Coast Guard Commandant (later, the National Incident Commander).

External Communications

During the incident, there were complaints that no one was providing effective communications to the states, local governments, media or the general public. The Coast Guard report nails the problem, a top down micromanagement style run out of the White House designed to provide “plausible deniability”.

Prior to the Deepwater Horizon incident, the Coast Guard successfully employed the National Response Team (NRT) Joint Information Center (JIC) model as its crisis communications structure for hundreds of incidents, including Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, and the Tintomara collision/oil spill on the Mississippi River.
• The Unified Area Command (UAC) JIC, and its subordinate JICs, were prohibited from
releasing information or imagery without prior approval by the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) Office of Public Affairs (OPA).
• The decision by the White House and DHS to create a centralized National Response
Framework (NRF) crisis communications construct negatively impacted the Coast Guard’s
establishment of a more decentralized JIC within the response organization.
• Several layers of review and approval by the White House and DHS prevented timely and effective crisis communications and hindered the Coast Guard’s ability to meet National Contingency Plan requirements for keeping stakeholders informed about the status of the Response.
• The National Incident Commander served as an effective spokesman for the response
organization and “whole of government” effort during the incident. The National Incident Commander and the National Incident Command (NIC) organization assisted the UAC by responding to many of the information needs of elected officials and senior level Government officials.

Crisis Management

The Coast Guard’s description of a good crisis manager (Command Presence, Authoritativeness, Integrity, Stamina, Strategic Thinking and Command of Detail, Stress Management, Decisiveness, Responsibility-Accountability & Authority, Enhanced Leadership Skills and Ability to Inspire) certainly is an accurate job description (and shares much in common with the U S Navy’s description of a salvage officer). Given the poor public reception to the government’s efforts, one is left with the question as to whether the nation would have been better served by putting an Eagle Scout in charge (Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent). Who knows, he may have even put his reverence to use and offered a prayer for Divine Guidance! The Coast Guard offers these “Lessons Learned”.

• During crises similar to the size and scope of the Deepwater Horizon incident, the public
expects there to be one authoritative figure who is “in charge” of the response to the incident.
• There is a need to have fully qualified leaders in place who are well trained and experienced
in crisis management and who are ready to effectively and forcefully answer the “who’s in
charge” question when a significant national incident occurs.
• The National Incident Commander concept proved to be successful in dealing with the
national-level concerns of the response, including presenting the public with the “face” of the
• Superb crisis leadership is essential for effective response to a major national domestic
• The characteristics necessary for crisis leadership are well documented and identifiable.
• Leaders who are expected to perform as crisis managers need to be trained and experienced
in crisis management, and should not be placed into such positions without applicable
Many Federal, State, and local officials and industry executives do not have crisis leadership experience and training or are not temperamentally suited to the role of crisis manager during a significant oil spill incident. (emphasis added)

Spill Containment

Aside from the management questions addressed above, a key question with regard to the Coast Guard, is how well did they do in containing the spill with an eye toward improving future performance. The overall picture is that most of the spill was not in fact contained and that the primary success in source control and containment was due to BP’s various efforts from the cofferdam through the riser insertion tool, the “Top Hat” and ultimately the “capping stack” which allowed them to perform a “static kill” and stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard’s capabilities in source control were negligible. This brings us to spill containment, something that the Coast Guard has as a direct part of its mission. The lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez were to use skimmers with containment boom and in situ burning (ISB). The Coast Guard deployed millions of feet of boom. But of that total only 23,000 feet was fire boom.

The Regional Response Team (RRT) VI ISB Plan lists quantities of fire booms available from the Texas General Land Office as well as fire booms located in Alaska. The BP OSRP catalogs quantities of fire booms in Louisiana and in Florida, in addition to fire booms available from the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) “for purchase” from unspecified locations. Additionally, the Region IV ISB Plan lists slightly different quantities of fire booms from similar locations as those in the Region VI ISB Plan. Fortunately, the diversity of ISB equipment inventory did not appear to affect the effectiveness of the ISB operations for this incident. More than 23,000 feet of fire boom were ultimately used during this response, involving five different boom types, far in excess of that which was in stock in the Gulf, but made available by cascading the equipment to the incident.

The use of ISB for this incident, coupled with dispersant applications, significantly reduced the amount of oil that might otherwise have impacted near-shore habitats and environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs). Of the estimated 206 million gallons reportedly released, approximately 5 percent (10 million gallons) was reported to have been removed by ISB operations. In comparison, mechanical recovery (i.e. skimmers) removed approximately 3 percent (6 million gallons) and approximately 8 percent (16 million gallons) was dispersed. Some residual oil remained following burn operations and efforts to recover it were unsuccessful. The amount of residual oil is unknown.

There were a total of 411 burns initiated during the Deepwater Horizon incident, of which 376 were determined to have burned a significant quantity of oil. The longest duration burn lasted for more than 11 hours, and there was some limited night burning. Sixteen ISB operations were conducted on June 18 alone, accounting for the removal of approximately 2.5 million gallons of oil. The typical “window of opportunity” for the use of ISB was significantly expanded in this response due to the continual renewal of fresh oil from the well.

Two ISB Task Forces were established for the operation, consisting of a command and control vessel, a fire boom supply vessel, safety and ignition teams, and aerial spotters. Hand-held igniters were used for ignition; no “burn agents” (surface collecting agents or demulsifiers) were used for these burns. Site safety plans were developed for each unit and air quality was monitored with portable gas detectors to ensure worker safety. Additionally, EPA monitored air quality in accordance with their prescribed procedures. A protocol was developed to standardize estimates of oil burned. Spotter aircraft were used to direct ISB operations to the heaviest concentrations of oil. Wildlife monitoring, including the use of qualified turtle observers, was conducted.

Vessels of Opportunity (VOOs) were provided for in the Region VI ISB Plan and were utilized extensively during the Deepwater Horizon incident. Additional training was required for crews of VOOs conducting ISB, and it was judged that use of such trained crews enhanced operations. The ISB Application for the Deepwater Horizon incident indicates that ISB was to be conducted 40 miles offshore. Visual reports indicated that black smoke from burning operations dissipated less than three miles from the source of the burn. No impacts or visual opacity were reported in shoreline areas. Monitoring of air emissions exceeded what was necessary to establish safe air quality levels for exposed shoreline populations, which increased the complexity of the response by increasing the risks posed by additional response operations. It was noted that some of the policy for ISB in various plans dates to as early as 1994 and, at least, needs to be revalidated or updated to include current doctrine regarding ISB. Additionally, equipment inventories need to be re-examined in light of the intensive and highly successful use and subsequent depletion of ISB equipment; most ISB equipment is designed for multiple use, but will not last indefinitely.

The relative ineffectiveness of skimmers is largely due to limiting them to areas where the oil has thinned to the point of becoming a very thin sheen. It takes only three barrels of oil to cover a square mile of water to a typical depth of one-one thousandth of an inch. So skimming sheen will collect next to nothing, as demonstrated by the actual results. The key is to burn the oil before it spreads. This is an area where the use of burn agents to light large areas would be of great advantage. It is helpful to compare fighting oil spills to fighting forest fires. There are several counterintuitive actions that are commonly used to fight fires, such as backfires in preference to air dropped fire retardant. Given that Coast Guard regulations for pleasure power boats differentiate between gasoline engines requiring bilge blowers and diesel engines which do not, one assumes they understand the relevance of the flash point of the oi.l Gasoline has a sub-zero flash point. Diesel oil and the crude oil flowing from the Macondo well have a flash point above 105 degrees. So to get the oil to burn it is useful to use a “burn agent”. This is similar to charcoal lighter fluid.

Burn agents are sometimes used to facilitate and enhance the effectiveness of ISB. They are defined by the NCP as those additives that, through physical or chemical means, improve the combustibility of the materials to which they are applied. Their acceptability is determined by the National Products Schedule, which is maintained by EPA. Neither the RRT VI ISB Plan nor the BP Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP) identifies burning agents for use in ISB applications. Under the NCP, pre-authorization for burning is only required if burning agents are employed; however, other statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, apply as well. As a result, many RRTs have undertaken to establish pre-authorization protocols to assist FOSCs in determining if ISB is a viable oil spill response tool for their area of responsibility (AOR) and under what conditions.
Further, burning agents cannot be used unless they are listed on the National Product Schedule. However, none are currently listed on the National Product Schedule or are known to be commercially available.(emphasis added)

Once again, one longs for an Eagle Scout who lives the Scout motto, “Be Prepared”, to have been in charge! I’d bet he could find a burn agent! I’ll even offer a suggestion complete with a training video! All he needs is someone over 21 to buy it for him.