Bungling the Gulf Spill Response

As an emergency services planner and responder during the Mount St. Helens eruption, I find the federal oil spill response alarming when not amusing. The best assessment I can make is of federal resources flailing about randomly with no apparent purpose, expending great amounts of energy to accomplish not very much. 

I hasten to defend the professionalism of Gulf Emergency Responders. The failure is political and not a personnel or responder problem. In fact, experienced responders have little to do with the government spill team.

One of the first Gulf oil spill actions was to dispatch several teams of lawyers to the Gulf. What these attorneys would do to stop the leak or reduce damage has not been reported in the media. The next step was to dispatch SWAT teams to other platforms. Color me doubtful, I have never seen a disaster plan that expended resources on undamaged facilities or sent in teams of attorneys.

Disaster plans are remarkably consistent. Damage assessment, how big is the problem, identify the needs and resources. Establish a unified command after the initial response. Responders develop plans knowing that when an event happens, half the plan will be irrelevant, and the other half will need modifications. And they know that even with a plan, things will come up that no one considered.

Why bother making a plan? Simple: Having a plan provides a framework and foundation that help prevent responders from being overwhelmed. It changes, "Oh My God what do we do?" into "How do we make this part of the plan work?"

Examples are wonderful things. In New Orleans, the existing hurricane plan was discarded. The order to evacuate did not come until just hours prior to landfall. The reflow of the interstate highway system (all outbound) never effectively happened. The plan to use city and school buses for mass evacuation transport was forgotten. Every one of those steps was in the discarded plan. The now-famous photograph of school buses parked unused row on row with water up to the roof says it all.

The 1994 federal oil spill response plan lists key tools. Burn off or collect the oil before it has a chance to disperse over a wide area. It took twelve days for this approach to be considered. It's obvious that it's easier to collect oil within 25 miles of the spill than it is to clean 1,700 miles of coastline. Yet sixty days later, collection is still not a priority.

Many commentaries have blamed the lack of fire booms as the problem. It's not. The simple fact is that it's impossible to stockpile everything that might be needed. FEMA exists as a planning, procurement, and accounting agency with the ability to obtain materials quickly. FEMA hasn't been activated except in a one-off role. The problem is the lack of anyone in charge. That caused the delay and halfhearted attempt to use oil collection resources, which would significantly reduce damage.

States follow the tried-and-true steps when federal assistance is needed. The governor formally asks for federal assistance. The request allows federal activation inside the state that is otherwise prohibited by law. The president responds by issuing a disaster declaration. Governors have requested federal spill assistance, yet a Presidential Disaster Declaration covering the blowout has yet to be signed. That declaration should have been issued early on, if not immediately.

The declaration activates the federal response. With no disaster declaration, the result is no authority to act, no spill plan activation, no unified command. A simple definition of unified command is command-level representatives of private, state, federal, and volunteer groups in one room with someone selected by the lead agency in command.

Instead, the administration announced the appointment of Admiral Allen to coordinate "an organization of 16 federal departments and agencies responsible for coordinating emergency preparedness and response to oil and hazardous substance pollution incidents."

This is a committee, not a unified command. State, private, and volunteer groups are absent. At best, the result is the federal government talking to itself.

With no unified command, federal resources and agencies act as they think best, without regard to any overall goal or plan. Rather than decision-making based on goals being pushed down the chain of command, we have indecision and strife percolating up to the highest political levels. Let's look at some of the publicly known events.

  • Royal Dutch Shell offered to assist spill site collection with expertise and equipment. The offer was declined, yet no one quite knows who made the decision or why. The Saudis and eleven others offered assistance with similar results. Was anyone actually responding to the spill aware of the offers?
  • Louisiana Governor Jindal activated local responders to mitigate damage. Approving these state solutions was treated as business as usual by the Corps of Engineers and EPA. No one is in command to give Jindal a timely response.
  • Congress grilled BP about the leak rate, accusing BP of misleading the government -- the implication being that "had we known how bad it was," government would have responded differently. This is wrong on two scores. The assessment is the first step of the plan, not the criterion for activating a plan. Second, consider this analogy: When you smell smoke, would the fire department ask if you see flames to decide if they will send someone by later in the day, or send a fire truck now? The proper response is to send the fire engine now.

The 1990 Oil Pollution Act placed the authority to respond to oil spills in the hands of the president. Like it or not, with command and control authority comes responsibility. Somewhere on the president's desk is a form that has been used by presidents since Harry S. Truman. That form gives professional emergency services personnel authority to act. It's called a Presidential Declaration of Disaster, and it needs only a signature.

Meanwhile, ABC news quoted Alabama Govenor Bob Riley who put his finger on the problem.

The governor said the problem is there's still no single person giving a "yes" or "no." [...]

"It's like this huge committee down there," Riley said, "and every decision that we try to implement, any one person on that committee has absolute veto power."

A committee with no approval authority. One news article I saw referred to Admiral Allen as a "Press Spokesman." That sounds about right.

The United States has the most effective Emergency Services System worldwide. Over the years, the Emergency Services structure evolved to encourage two goals: to insulate responders from the aberrations of politics, and to isolate politicians from the turmoil of an emergency.  Politicians and responders each had a role, which made both effective.

The current operations in the Gulf distract the professional responders with the second-guessing of every decision by politicians, compounded by the dithering of bureaucratic business as usual -- a mess as foul, in its own way, as the oil itself.