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Will You Dominate Your Next Oil Response?

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Rapid Response Techniques to Ensure Success

Your people have been trained, your equipment has been serviced and everything is running smoothly. Preventative maintenance and safety training can go a long way to prevent accidents and emergencies, but nothing is foolproof. Well-trained employees make mistakes. Equipment breaks down unexpectedly. Accidents can happen without much warning. In the oil and gas field, a small breech can set off a chain of failures. When something goes terribly wrong, how do you respond?

Rapid dominance of your response is more than just getting there quickly or having a lot of cool stuff with you when you arrive. Current or former military readers 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 doing these four things, someone else is winning. It’s no different in our emergency response world. Drawn from many years on all sides of the industry, my key points for dominating the response:

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Master the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP). These are the rules of engagement for responding agencies and responsible parties (RPs). If you cannot keep up in an NCP conversation with your Federal On-Scene Coordinator (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?

RPs and OSROs must speak fluent NIMS and ICS. If you don’t know those acronyms before a response happens, you’re already in trouble. Response agencies won’t explain them, either. They shouldn’t have to, because if you or your Oil Spill Response Organizations (OSROs) have to ask, you are not prepared. For the record, Responsible Parties and OSROs must fully understand National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). Own your boxes in the response structure or someone else will, and those names will be on the ICS 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.

Establish and maintain operational awareness. All strategic decisions are made by the Unified Command (UC) beginning with establishing response objectives and 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 continually demonstrate 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, and lack of information kills in every way possible.

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. 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? Absolutely not. 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 efforts of potentially thousands of personnel. Response agencies may convene 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 is the lead on a response 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 the Environmental Protection Agency (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 the 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) they never regained their appropriate role as lead. It cost them dearly: That operation continues and with 180,000 gallons of “submerged oil” still on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River, with costs reportedly exceeding $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 they have many ways to do that. Billing triple for Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund response costs is only one. Good luck filing an insurance claim for hundreds of millions of dollars where 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 fully understand how quickly and sharply the events described 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. And 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 you don’t need. It will save you 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.

Scott Harris, PhD, MSPH, is the director of EHS advisory services for UL Workplace Health & Safety, which develops learning content and provides consultative services, thought leadership and safety culture development for UL clients. He is a course director and advisory board member for the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the ASSE Oil and Gas Practice Specialty. A former U.S. EPA Federal On-Scene Coordinator, Dr. Harris led and participated in nationally significant response efforts including Space Shuttle Columbia, Hurricane Katrina New Orleans water search and rescue, Murphy Oil, Enbridge Pipeline and Deepwater Horizon. Follow his blog or contact him at scott.harris@ul.com.

INFOBOX

Guide to Terms and 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 United States.
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: Fund maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, provides funding for Agency oil spill response activities; expended funds are recovered through RP reimbursement.

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