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Will You Dominate Your Next Oil Response?

Will You Dominate Your Next Oil Response?

Rapid dominance of your response is way more than just getting there quick 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:

  1. Near-total understanding of participants and the operational environment;
  1. Management of the operational environment;
  1. Timeliness in application; and
  1. 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, my key points for dominating the response:

  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 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 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, and 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.    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 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 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) they never regained the appropriate role as lead.  It cost them dearly: That operation continued for years, largely due to 180,000 gallons of “submerged oil” on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River, and costs reportedly exceeded $1 billion.

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 OSLTF 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 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 demobe 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.

To give readers a gentle feel for the need to understand on the front end, I deliberately did not explain the acronyms in this article (cheat sheet at the end).  Response agencies won’t explain them, either.  They shouldn’t need to, because if you or your OSROs have to ask you are not prepared.


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 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

About the author

Dr. Scott Harris is a Course Director and Advisory Board member for the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center at UNC – Chapel Hill, a guest lecturer for the Oklahoma State University Graduate Fire and Emergency Management Administration program and a Continuing Education Instructor for the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah.  His experience covers over 30 years of EHS and disaster management in general industry, federal and state government, consulting and university instruction.

Currently the Director of EHS Services for ALAMO1, Scott received his PhD in Environmental Science, with a specialization in Disaster and Emergency Management, from Oklahoma State University and holds degrees in Public Health and Geology from Western Kentucky University.

Dr. Harris is a nationally recognized expert in preparedness and response management and a former Region 6 U.S. EPA Federal On-Scene Coordinator who held key Command and General Staff roles in nationally significant Type 1 responses including Space Shuttle Columbia, Hurricane Katrina NOLA (water search and rescue, Murphy Oil), Deepwater Horizon, Enbridge Pipeline and the 2015 USDA Avian Influenza outbreak.


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