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Oil Spill Response Communication from a Response Planning Perspective

Picture a major oil spill event happening next week.

A pipeline crossing a river in flood stage has a failure and releases 10,000 barrels of oil into that river, like what happened during the San Jacinto spill in 1994. The oil spreads downstream rapidly. Remember the river is in flood stage. Beyond lay miles of saltwater marsh, rookery islands, shallow oyster beds.

Maybe you’re the environmental manager for the responsible party (RP), or the States’ Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC), or you work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State Wildlife Response organization, USCG, EPA, or NOAA. You have planned and prepared, now it’s go time!

It begins

A control room dispatcher notes a pressure drop from a remote sensor along the pipeline, even though it is yet undetected at the pressure sensors at the terminal. Following the company’s approved facility response plan, the dispatcher begins closing valves remotely, shutting down the oil supply through the pipe. He then begins his procedures initiating response and his required state and federal notifications.

The following day, an alert comes into your smart phone. It gives the obligatory minimal information, who the RP is, what is the product, where is the release, and a cause, i.e., pipeline failure. Usually you don’t get more that that.

Maybe you want more spatial information, so you pull up Google earth, google maps, or you use your bookmarked link to the Texas General Land (GLO) on-line response Oil Spill Toolkit and zoom into the location. Wow, that is a sensitive area, you see, noting on the on-line Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps the marshes, rookeries, and shorelines!

As you head for the Incident Command Post (ICP) you, or your spill management team, are already making the calls—hands free, of course—to the state certified bird rehabbers, State and Federal fisheries and avian experts, and the State Historic Preservations Officer (SHPO). You are assembling your Environmental Unit (EU).

The EU, being under the Planning Section, wrangles a table and begins work doing what it should, identifying by its analyticals what the material is, where it is going, and what harm will it do to the resources it impacts.

The CP is working with one of the many new state-of-the-art Common Operating Pictures (COP). This system does just about everything. It displays a detailed oil trajectory, uploaded via a Representational State Transfer (REST) service, provided by the GLO SSC or NOAA modeler, who have forecasted the oil trajectory migrating out and impacting a large marsh area, a brown pelican rookery, and a Native American Midden (Shell Mound), that the SHPO saw when they pulled up their confidential and propitiatory, behind their firewall, known sensitive archeological locations maps.

The EU also pulls up real-time NOAA Tidal data showing the tidal conditions for the next operational period that they use, along with aerial imagery, such as Google earth, to develop Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique SCAT segments, utilizing observed geographic changes in the topography as boundaries between segments. You now know when and where you want your SCAT team to have boots-on-the-ground to gather the necessary information from the impact zones.

The SCAT teams will deploy into the field with one of the numerous new SCAT electronic collection apps that are designed to 1) expedite the field data collection of oiling impacts to the shorelines, 2) expedite the transfer and QAQC processing of the data, and 3) assist the SCAT Data Manager who will pull all SCAT teams data together via this tool; this tool will augment their ability to compile all the numerous team’s data sets into a single useful report that will be used to guide the next Incident Action Plan (IAP). This data will ultimately be given to operations with instructions from the Unified Command of where and how it wants them to respond.

Other EU members are working on endangered species (ES) issues that may be encountered and impacted in the area. This is always one of the first things the EU is tasked to address. Both the USFWS and State wildlife organizations have great on-line-tools that both graphically, and by spread sheet, let your team know what ES might be present where and what time of year they may be encountered. Let’s presume the on-line search indicates that one area within the projected impact zone is home to the Northern Aplomaldo Falcon, and that it is a resident species. Since an ES species may be impacted by the response the EU utilizes an on-line USFWS Endangered Species Section 7 Guidance document and editable form to begin the mandated process.

Other activities are taking place simultaneously in the EU, such as searches for and identification of staging areas for recovered contaminated materials and wildlife, development of decontamination plans for vessels and response equipment. Calls are made to secure these sites. Authorizations and contracts are exchanged and the Operations Unit notified that they are ready for use.

Others are exploring the possibility of in-situ burning of the oil in place as a potential viable response alternative and beginning the development of plans and maps necessary for such a recommendation. Many mapping products and viewers exist that aid in depicting where and when these activities may be considered as a response option. You need to know where and how far residential areas are from the potential burn area are, overlaid with current and projected wind forecasts. On-line local weather stations, NOAA and a host of private site have great tools and information. These many tools have surely greatly enhanced our ability to rapidly respond and fulfill our roll in the combating the spill.

Reset – Category 5

This time, try the spill with the mitigating circumstance of a Category 5 Hurricane that blew through the area, causing an intense rain event contributing to the release. The storm takes out the power grid and destroyed the majority of the cell towers and telephone switching systems in a fifty mile plus radius. Think it can’t happen? Just look to the summer of 2017, it did!

pre post Harvey1

The dispatcher for the pipeline company now did not receive the early warning from the remote sensors along the pipeline length due to the loss of cell towers. By the time the pressure drop was noted in the control room an additional 1,000 bbls of oil escaped. Those remote valves that you closed, didn’t. Now you need to get someone out there to manually shut them in. Take your rain boots! Recognized: some refineries and pipelines do shut down during storm events but not all do and according to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) there is no regulatory requirement to do so.

The dispatcher has a land line so his call to State and Federal spill hotlines were made. Now the Spill Hotline dispatchers begin to make their callouts. Most people no longer have a landline, relying only on their cell phones? Even if you still have a “land line” it may run through a personal router or subject to disruption from telephone switching system failures. Approximately 50.8% of U.S. Households are now wireless.

Once you have received the notification, all that spatial information you were going to look up on your laptop or smartphone may not be accessible if you are away from a working connected wifi. Make sure you make your calls to the other resources agencies from that land line and not while heading to the CP. Better hope those other resource personnel don’t have a cell phone listed as their primary contact number, though most do as being the dedicated responder they want to be notified wherever an incident occurs.

At the ICP

Day 2: You are at the ICP and begin to get the EU together. Time to get connected and find out what the product is and how it will behave and where it is headed. Good luck! The ICP is trying to get internet portal set up for connectivity for the entire post. Many responders today relay on their own wifi mobile hotpot hockey pucks or cell phones for connectivity for their laptops to work from. These will most likely be rendered useless. Having been the State SSC on countless spills, drills and exercises I can honestly attest to that even in the best of circumstances internet connectivity is always an issue.

Information that is needed to run an oil spill model and verify its skill using real-time remotely sensed data is no longer a given. Data transfer will be bogged down at the bottle neck at the ICP router. If the data is even able to be transferred from the remote sensing tools themselves. Many in-situ hydrological stations transfer data via cell towers, which as we have seen are probably inoperable.

The field teams will suffer the lack of data availability and transfer capabilities. Communications between field teams and the ICP will be difficult. Many resource agencies rely almost exclusively on cell phones for connectivity with their responders. Interoperability plans do exist for how responders will communicate in situations of limited connectivity but as this technology is expensive and most organizations do not have dedicated funding for such technology. It may not be realistic to think that these are ready and rapidly available. Often the system is designed for having enough connectivity for response in known remote areas. Now everywhere is a remote area. Will there be enough devices to distribute? In the GLO response to Hurricane Ike, September 2008, a Cat 4 Hurricane that impacted the Houston Galveston area, communications between our Search and Rescue and waterways assessment teams were limited to line-of-sight marine VHF radios only. Responder safety was certainly a consideration in these situations.

GLO CommsDuring extreme storms, emergency response communications could be limited to line-of-sight marine VHF radios.

The remote data collection tools discussed above may be of little use now. Though many of the tools do allow for much of the locational information to be “cashed” onto the unit for use in areas of no connectivity this would now have to be done from a dedicated Wi-Fi with direct connections. Not from any remote cell tower. Back to old school paper and pencil.

Response Communications Preparedness

The oil spill response community has never rested on its laurels. It works continually to make sure that it is prepared for the next spill. We have and will continue to utilize the most advanced systems, that we make sure are able to communicate with one another and expedite the processing and dissemination of data and plans that help us respond to oil spills.

Like other first responders the GLO Oil Spill program relies heavily on technology to assist in its legislated mandated endeavors. The GLO OS Toolkit, the premier one-stop-shop for spill response has been placed here. With this version being continually updated with the most current maps and response documents, plans, forms, and job aids it is one of the most relevant and convenient tools you can bring to the EU.

Inside GLO Comms trailer

As the State SSC I find myself suggesting to audiences that everyone should have this site bookmarked for easy access when needed, often overlooking an opportunity to discuss why it is so important to keep either a digital copy on one’s hard drive or a DVD or USB drive copy in your go-kit. For a free copy DVD or USB Drive please click the link found here.

Immediately after a major storm response focus is and should be on the saving of human lives. Deficiencies in communications and response coordination have been noted by ER personnel during these operations for some time. These deficiencies often translate directly to issues we have seen during recent spill responses. Many of the “collector app” programs that create the base for ER personnel are built on the same GIS collection platforms responders use. These will face the same impediments as us. Many emergency managers utilize these collection platforms for first responder activities such as California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Hurricane response along the Texas Gulf Coast has adopted a similar collection tool, known as Response Manager, for the acquisition and management of “targets”, i.e. damaged infrastructure, orphan containers, oil and chemical spills, etc., post storm. This system which can collect and transmit response “target” information was put into play during the recent Hurricane Harvey response and worked very well. However, cellular connectivity was not as severely impacted as it was after Hurricanes Sandy’s impact to the U.S. Northeast coast or after the recent Hurricane Irma landfall in Florida, where nearly half of the commercially available cellular wireless spectrum of connectivity (cell towers) in the tri-county (Palm-Beach, Broward, and Miami Dade) region of Florida were inoperable after the Hurricane’s passage.

After Hurricane Katrina, over three million phone lines were knocked out by the storm impacting telephone switching centers, and 1,477 cell towers. After the storm, Paul McHale, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security is quoted as saying, “… the system wasn’t simply degraded; it was, at least for a period of time, destroyed”. Had a mobile collection app been deployed during one of these storms it most likely would have been rendered useless.

As noted earlier most resource agencies rely almost exclusively on cell phone as their agencies primary form of communications. If you and your organization were called upon to respond to a major spill event a few things to consider in advance are; do you have access to cash? ATMs and credit card readers probably will not be working. And, do you have a roadmap in your car, or have you built a reliance on your phones navigational program? In 2011 NBC reported that 83% of all Americans rely on cell phone technologies as an essential part of their communications COW Networks (Cellular On Wheels) do exist and can help provide critical phone service to rescue and support services but few of these exist and it will take time to bring in sufficient numbers from around the country.

Incoming assistance will be hindered by interoperability issues. These have been a noted issue for some time and advances have been made. The 9/11 Commissions recommended that Congress adopt legislation for the assignment of more radio spectrum for public safety purposes, which it did. DHS has distributed over $2 billion dollars to state and local governments to enhance interoperable communications. Another $1 billion form other sources were also provided by other federal initiative. However, in 2006 a DHS report was release that found only about 10% of responding communities could achieve interoperability consistently. One of the weaknesses noted is that most response is not local so interoperability is not certain. Approximately 60% could communicate locally, but only 21% with state and federal agencies. In a major event and response local jurisdictions will most likely be overwhelmed and relying on those outside jurisdictions and responders for assistance. The deficiencies that were noted by DHS extend to spill response communications and often are exaggerated due to even less funding opportunities available to response organizations.

GLO Comms Trailer 2

As apparent in the hypothetical case above, I believe a conscience inventory should be done on each of our response procedures, activities and duties, focusing particularly on where and what communications vulnerabilities exist and—as we develop new tools and resources—what flaws are we building into these systems. Building a robust and interoperable system now should be a not an ancillary component of our response communications and data acquisition tools but a mandated one. 

By Steve Buschang, Director of Research and Development, State Scientific Support Coordinator, Texas General Land Office

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