Will You Dominate Your Next Oil Spill Response?

September 2013, Vol. 240 No. 9

Scott Harris, Senior EHS Advisor, UL Workplace Health and Safety

Rapid dominance of your response requires far more than just getting there quickly or having a lot of really cool stuff with you when you arrive. Current or former military readers (thank you) already know this term. The military doctrine of “rapid dominance” requires four things:

• near-total understanding of participants and the operational environment
• management of the operational environment
• timeliness in application, and,
• operational brilliance in execution.

If you are doing these things, you are winning. If you are not, someone else is winning. It’s no different in our emergency-response world. Drawn from many years on all sides, my key points for dominating the response (all acronyms are defined at the end of this article):

1. Master the NCP. These are the rules of engagement for responding agencies and RPs. If you cannot keep up in an NCP conversation with your FOSC, you are toast, plain and simple. Everyone must know their roles and authorities. When can an FOSC intentionally destroy your vessel? Can he or she direct your assets? When can you say no? Who is paying for all of this and how much? What do they mean by “oversight”?

2. RPs and OSROs must speak fluent NIMS and ICS. Own your boxes in the response structure or someone else will, and those names will be on the 207 instead of yours. If that happens, you will not be making the decisions that come from those boxes. Put the right people in the right boxes.

3. Establish and maintain operational awareness. All strategic decisions are made by the UC beginning with establishing response objectives, organization structure and agreeing on operating policy, procedures and guidelines (the “Planning P”). You are either shaping those decisions or getting run over by them. Maintain a strong presence in the UC and obsess over data and data management. Everything from personnel counts and assignments to waste management to environmental impact, safety and work progress will be displayed and questioned 24/7. Your job in the UC is to demonstrate continually that you have a firm grip on what is going on and that the job is getting done. The demand for data will be relentless; lack of information kills in every way possible.

4. Early intervention on everything. If it looks like it might become a problem, it already is. Oil spills are always worse than first thought or reported. Always. Over-respond at every opportunity. Trying to save money with a minimal response assures failure.

In advocating rapid dominance of the response, do I mean trying to overpower or outmaneuver the response agencies to flank or bully them? You could not do that if you tried. Instead, it is a simple matter of expectations and your ability to deliver.

Large responses require the coordinated and integrated effort of potentially thousands of personnel. Response agencies may stand-up hundreds of well-trained personnel focused on exactly one thing: restoring order from chaos in a linear, efficient manner. They expect you to do the same, and their judgment of your ability to supply and lead that effort will take only minutes. This can occur even before arriving at the site based on circumstances and the initial information you provide them as to your capabilities and intentions.

If you’ve mastered the NCP, you already know that the RP are the lead unless and until the response agency says otherwise. Their FOSC will talk to your representative related to my four points (above) and conclude immediately one way or the other as to your ability to do that. If judged unwilling or unable to take appropriate action – it’s their call – leadership of the response is lost along with most of your opportunities to control strategy or cost. The RP on a 2010 pipeline release in Michigan had no real experience with EPA on large releases. They were never unwilling, just unprepared, and not understanding what was happening in those critical first hours and days cost them leadership of their own response.

Though EPA did not officially “federalize” the Michigan response and take direct control, the RP never recovered from the initial slow start. Despite our best efforts (we as contracted response managers arrived a few days in) the lead role was never regained. It cost dearly: That operation continues. With 180,000 gallons of “submerged oil” still on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River, costs reportedly will exceed $1 billion with no firm end in sight.

Regardless of who eventually does what and how, the release will stop and recovery will take place. Response agencies have a duty to compel appropriate action by the RP, and those agencies have many ways to do that. Billing triple for OSLTF response costs is only one option. Good luck filing an insurance claim for hundreds of millions of dollars for cases in which costs were amplified due to your own failure to perform (as in “What do you mean by ‘not covered?’”).

If you have not been through a large response, you really cannot understand how quickly and sharply what I have described here will happen. All of the research, exercising and plan-writing in the world is useless if not based on the guidance of those who have been there and done it right. I’m not referring to the “I was there, too” people. I am talking about those who had the position in the response structure to actually lead and make a difference, and did it well. There aren’t that many out there, so be sure who you are getting advice from before you bet the farm on it.

Go big, establish dominance, execute brilliantly and then demobilize what isn’t needed. It will save money every time, and it will save you from shame and disgrace in the media and the community. Anything less will be the next case study in failed large response management.

To provide a gentle feel for the need to understand what you need to know on the front end, I deliberately did not explain the acronyms in this article (cheat sheet at the end). The response agencies won’t explain them, either. They shouldn’t have to explain any of this. If you or your OSROs have to ask, you are not prepared.

Guide to Acronyms
Dominate: To have a commanding influence on the matter at hand
NCP: National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan found at 40 CFR Part 300
FOSC: Federal On-Scene Coordinator, designated representative of the response agency with authority to assess, monitor and direct response activities
RP: Responsible Party, identified as responsible for the release and associated activities and costs
OSRO: Oil Spill Response Organization
NIMS: National Incident Management System; the standard for incident management used by federal, state, tribal and local responders to coordinate and conduct response activities in the U.S.
ICS: Incident Command System; provides formal response structure and chain-of-command 207 ICS 207; the Incident Organization Chart
UC: Unified Command, consists of qualified representatives of involved parties; determines response objectives
Planning P: NIMS process conceptualized in the form of a capital “P” outlining the cycle of incident planning: the incident, notifications, initial response and assessment, incident briefing, incident command/UC meeting and repeating
Response Agencies: Federal agencies providing FOSCs as specified in the NCP, including EPA / Coast Guard / DOD; state agencies may provide SOSCs with similar authorities
OSLTF: Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund; maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, provides funding for agency oil spill response activities; expended funds are recovered through RP reimbursement


Scott Harris is a senior EHS advisor for UL Workplace Health and Safety. As a member of the Strategic Resources Group (SRG), he specializes in the oil and gas, healthcare, manufacturing and emergency preparedness, developing learning content and providing consultative services. Harris holds a doctorate in environmental science from Oklahoma State University, and a master’s degree in public health and bachelor’s degree in geology, both from Western Kentucky University. He can be contacted at scott.harris@ul.com or 615-852-0486.

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