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Service Stories: A special interagency agreement keeps the choppers flying every morning over Louisiana, looking for oil and wildlife

Randy Wilson and Paul Yakupzack, prepare to board a helicopter at New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport for a daily reconnaissance flight to look for oil and wildlife. Wilson is project leader for migratory birds at Jackson, Miss., and Yakupzack is refuge manager at Mandalay/Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

Randy Wilson and Paul Yakupzack, prepare to board a helicopter at New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport for a daily reconnaissance flight to look for oil and wildlife. Wilson is project leader for migratory birds at Jackson, Miss., and Yakupzack is refuge manager at Mandalay/Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

New Orleans – At 6:30 a.m., with the bright morning sun already heating the tarmac outside, a couple dozen people gathered in a briefing room at Lakefront Airport, New Orleans’ former main airport. Marc “Boomer” Rudkin, the Helibase manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the site, informed the pilots and crews who were about to get airborne that the heat index was going to hit 105 degrees while they were out on their flights.

“And it’s going to be that way until November,” cracked one of the crew, to general laughter. There was more joking, and good-natured kidding of one or two people in particular. “This isn’t usually how it goes,” said Rudkin, although clearly it was. “We’re really a serious group here.” For weeks, the Service has been running daily helicopter flights out of Lakefront Airport as part of the biggest emergency response ever, flying low over the beaches and marshes of Louisiana to look for oiled or injured wildlife, as well as to track the path of oil from the BP oil spill. But the Fish and Wildlife Service quickly found it did not have enough trained personnel to fly, maintain, staff and manage five daily flights, seven days a week, so they reached out to their Department of Interior partners, the National Park Service. The two agencies quickly put together a cooperative agreement that pools their qualified air personnel, with assists from personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (formerly Minerals Management Service), and the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s a pretty specialized crew. There’s not a lot of people who have the exact qualifications we need that are critical to support our air missions,” said Lee Nelson, Air Support Group Supervisor at Lakefront. “So being able to bring in personnel from multiple agencies is a big benefit.”

Meg Gallagher, the Eastern Regional Aviation Manager for the National Park Service who assisted in bringing this need to the attention of line managers, said the cooperation among the agencies is not only keeping the helicopters in the air during the current response. “We anticipate long-range benefits too after this is over, when we can support one another on non-fire incidents without serious delays,” she said.

The cooperation among agencies is one concrete example of the Incident Command System (ICS), the time-tested organizational system for responding to major events, from fires to hurricanes to oil spills. ICS provides a common structure that enables a coordinated response among various agencies and jurisdictions.

The BP oil spill response is the most extensive use ever of Incident Command, a system that was developed more than 30 years ago and has been refined ever since.

“ICS is basically a flexible management system that brings together people from different places and different departments who have never worked together, and allows them to form an effective team,” said Roger Boykin, an Incident Advisor working in the Service’s Southeast Regional office in Atlanta. “Each position has a very specific job. People who are trained in it know what their jobs are. And they also know what their jobs are not, which is important as well.”

One of the tenets of ICS is that all the responding agencies must drop their in-house codes and jargon and adopt a common way of communication, which was one of Rudkin’s messages during the briefing. Helicopter crews communicating by radio to the base and each other had been giving themselves names like “Fish One.” Rudkin emphasized that everyone had to use the number printed on the chopper itself (N203 CP, for example) instead to avoid confusion.

Randy Wilson was on his third rotation at the Helibase – his first was 30 days – so he has heard a lot of daily briefings. His regular Fish and Wildlife job is project leader for migratory birds in Jackson, Miss., but he mainly works on spill recovery now.

“It took a bit to get used to the structure early on, and there were some growing pains,” he said as he prepared to board his helicopter at 7 a.m. “But it works a lot smoother now. It’s hard to keep up with who’s rotating in and out, but the ICS helps you keep track of that.”

As he prepared to board his helicopter, he received a mandatory safety briefing from Heath Bell, a National Park Service employee who usually works in Fire and Aviation at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, another example of the collaboration of the two agencies.

Wilson took off with his partner, Paul Yakupzack, refuge manager at Mandalay/Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, and headed south toward Timbalier Bay, looking for wildlife to rescue.

See more photos of the New Orleans Helibase operation at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwssoutheast/tags/helibase

 

Last updated: July 20, 2010