Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Prompts Debate on NIMS, Unified Response

Aside from the flood of obvious concerns involving the environmental and financial impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a frustration among some in the emergency management arena that the way Unified Command unfolded in the Gulf will affect the way public-private partnerships and Unified Command are handled in the future.

Most of the controversy stems from either ignorance of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Unified Command, or the disregard for them because of a desire to frame the message. Others suggest the incident illustrates that NIMS and the Incident Command System (ICS) is flawed in an event of this magnitude.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), which followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, mandated collaboration between the government and company involved, the “responsible party.” Also mandated were the ICS and the Joint Information Center (JIC) — meaning the government agencies and private entities involved, including the responsible party — would work in concert to provide a unified response.

The efficacy of NIMS/ICS and Unified Command in response to Deepwater oil spill is being debated, with some saying it worked at times and others saying it was compromised from the beginning because of ignorance, indifference and politics. The oil response has raised questions about NIMS’ sustainability and the future of public-private partnerships in terms of a response to a similar event.

Questioning Unified Command

After the blast on April 20 and the subsequent oil flow, it was apparent that the fix may not come quickly and impatience among the media and public began to set in. The government could, under OPA 90, step in and take over, but perhaps recognized that the responsible party, BP, was better equipped to plug the hole.

But that didn’t stop the White House, according to Gerald Baron, from trying to frame the issue into a rebuking of BP. Baron, the creator of the PIER System, a Web-based communications system being used by the JIC, wrote in a Point of View published in July/August Emergency Management that by politicizing the event, the White House tainted the public message and perhaps compromised the collaboration and trust necessary for Unified Command in future disasters involving the public and private sectors.

Baron said for 20 years, since OPA 90 was born, federal, state and local government agencies practiced a partnership that worked fine with oil companies — until 2010 when the oil spill was politicized by the White House and misrepresented by the media

“This is potentially deadly to the future of NIMS and JIC,” Baron wrote, “because other responsible parties, emergency managers and elected officials are observing this. Response effectiveness suffers when trust is lost.”

“The ideal of a ‘single voice’ of the JIC representing all participants in Unified Command was set aside in favor of a clear division between BP as the responsible party and the government agencies involved.”

Baron said the division was more perception created by the media than reality, and that BP worked through Unified Command as required by law.

But questions are being raised about NIMS’ viability with an event as large as the oil spill and whether Unified Command works with a participant whose objective isn’t shared by all. “When a private-sector entity creates the disaster, I think it makes Unified Command, JIC and everything else just a little bit more dicey,” said George Haddow of the disaster management consulting firm Bullock & Haddow. “I’m not sure anybody who created NIMS envisioned this scenario. Someone is going to have to take a look at it.”

‘A Real Disconnect’

Devon Humphrey teaches NIMS at the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University and previously worked for the Texas General Land Office aggregating GIS data for oil spill response. He was asked to do the same at Deepwater, along with several “smokejumpers,” GIS experts from around the country.

Humphrey said all of the GIS experts brought in were familiar with NIMS and Unified Command, but many of the people at the Incident Command Post (ICP) in Houma, La., were not.

“I saw a real disconnect among some of the players on NIMS and that became a constant battle in GIS because the people we brought in to work in the GIS lab were familiar and experienced with NIMS, and a lot of the people working for BP or as BP contractors were not,” he said. “We were constantly educating people on basic concepts like unity of command.”

Humphrey and the GIS people set up an ArcGIS server that served up spill data in multiple ways. The server was located at a contractor’s site, but the technology was also needed at the ICP. “BP treated it more like a corporate security issue than a NIMS information-sharing issue,” he said. “They threw up all sorts of roadblocks relating to firewalls and security and said, ‘Let’s manage the data from Houston.’ Things like booms, and wildlife samples and water samples — that was all proprietary in that it was behind their firewall and they weren’t necessarily sharing.”

Frank Veale, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and formerly counsel to Texas Instruments, suggested that although it was appropriate for BP to be the responsible party, concerns about a Justice Department investigation could motivate a private company to filter information. “There may have been some cost concerns initially that caused this incident,” he said. “I’m sure there are concerns with the criminal and liability aspects associated with that. Any company spokesman or executive has an obligation to protect his company.”

Eventually Humphrey was asked to leave. “We were fighting this NIMS battle and I was called by this contractor who placed me there and he told me the BP folks would rather not have me back in the GIS lab,” he said. “They were tired of dealing with all these security issues and NIMS issues, I guess.”

Humphrey said NIMS isn’t taken seriously enough around the country in both the government and private sector, including the oil industry. “There are a few very well done drills, but many of the ones that are required under OPA 90 just get glossed over as a compliance thing,” he said. “I think that needs to be stronger. What people have to catch onto in industry is that these concepts were developed for a reason and they work.”

When planning a drill for a city, participants review the incident action plan beforehand and Humphrey asks if they need NIMS/ICS training. “People will say, ‘Oh no, we’ve done all that stuff. We know ICS.’ And then you get there and start the drill and it’s very obvious they don’t,” he said.

A BP representative from Houma said the company had no comment, but Jeff Schwanke, a contractor who teaches orientation and briefs people entering Incident Command, spoke from the ICP. “I don’t know that one group has more understanding than any other,” he said. “They all seem to have an understanding of ICS.”

Baron said BP, the Coast Guard and prime contractors who deal with oil spills on a regular basis are cognizant of NIMS protocol. “But it appears that other responders and response leaders from a variety of government organizations involved did not share the same level of knowledge and commitment to NIMS,” he said in an e-mail. “And this has no doubt impacted how some of the structure has been used and evolved during the response.”

Humphrey said some of the local parishes chose to remain in their emergency operations centers (EOC). “Local government was a little disconnected,” he said. “You didn’t see many local government folks represented in the ICP. If a parish or city is holed up in the EOC and you’ve got an ICP someplace, that’s got to make things hard.”

Politics Always in Play

David Neal, director of the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University, isn’t surprised about the alleged issues emerging with Unified Command in the Gulf, including Incident Command being used as a “federal tool” for the federal government rather than its intended purpose.

“You’re going to have politics like that whether you’re using NIMS or not, whether you have a JIC or not,” Neal said. “There is always going to be a political dimension like that.”

It’s also not surprising, he said, to hear that some at the ICP weren’t well versed with NIMS and Unified Command. “A lot of organizations either don’t know how to use NIMS or they don’t want to use it,” Neal said. “Fire services and organizations dealing with medical issues are really strong proponents of NIMS and Incident Command and use it every day, but a lot of other organizations take the required training and never use it.”

Neal said the key to an effective response to a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may lie more in training, drilling and collaboration rather than using NIMS/ICS. “To me, the more important factor isn’t using NIMS or Incident Command, but having the players interact beforehand so they know each other and what each is supposed to do.”

Neal wondered whether the Deepwater Horizon incident is just too large for NIMS to handle. “One of the underlying ideas behind NIMS and Incident Command is scalability,” he said. “But the way it’s set up to where you just keep adding to it and your span of control continues to be four levels of organization and so forth, I do think there’s a breaking point.”

Baron said problems at Deepwater arose not because of a lack of NIMS’ scalability, but because NIMS wasn’t fully implemented.

Brennan Matherne, public information officer with Lafourche Parish, La., said from his perspective, NIMS and Unified Command worked as they should have. “I feel it worked from the beginning, probably because it was all on the local level.”

He said the local agencies — the Sheriff’s Office, the Harbor Police, fire, emergency medical services and the Coast Guard — are well versed with NIMS and Unified Command because of the practice they get responding to hurricanes. “That’s basically our hurricane lineup.”

Matherne said BP was the one variable that made Unified Command different. “That being said, the BP people for the most part were just trying to do their job; you don’t have people trying to infiltrate the system,” he said.

Matherne said Lafourche Parish was visited by representatives of other parishes who were frustrated with their communications with BP. “I don’t think we would accept that here,” he said. “We would refuse to let them keep information from us like that. That’s essential to this operation.”

The one difficulty they had in Lafourche, Matherne said, was an understanding of who was really in charge of the overall event. “From the beginning of this, the president is coming out and saying one thing and BP is saying another — even locally, different things are being said. From the beginning it was difficult — not that we necessarily needed to know who’s in charge — but even to this day [mid-July] that still is to some degree vague.”

The conclusion for many is that the event was just far more than anyone had prepared for. “What this is really reflecting,” Neal said, “is that we have really not considered realistically, an event like this taking place and how we were going to handle it.”
by Jim McKay

Fire Line

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