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Service Stories: Tight quarters and a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call on a “flotel” for oil spill responders

The crew on the barge “Battle Ship” anchored in the Louisiana bayou gathers outside in near-darkness at 5:30 a.m. for the daily muster, when Haven Barnhill runs down the upcoming day’s wildlife rescue operations.  His usual send-off to the crews: “Let’s keep it safe.” Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

The crew on the barge “Battle Ship” anchored in the Louisiana bayou gathers outside in near-darkness at 5:30 a.m. for the daily muster, when Haven Barnhill runs down the upcoming day’s wildlife rescue operations. His usual send-off to the crews: “Let’s keep it safe.” Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

Dennis Pass, La. – When Haven Barnhill was told he was going to Louisiana to work on the BP oil spill and that he would be living on a barge for two weeks, he envisioned something old, very flat, maybe a little rusty and creaky, with a bunch of tents set up on deck.

For once, the reality turned out to be a lot better. The barge that’s anchored at Dennis Pass, La., a finger of water that connects the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, is a pretty swell place to live, as long as you’re not claustrophobic. About 24 responders live here, and another 10 on an attached barge, heading out every day in small boats to cover more than 300,000 acres looking for oiled birds in need of rescue.

“It’s not the Hilton, but when you’re watching the sun set over the Delta, it’s pretty nice accommodations,” said Barnhill, a regional biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and co-team leader on the barge.

The barge, a private fishing camp named Battle Ship, has been leased by BP to house spill responders: two stories tall, with a kitchen, dining area, two common rooms, communal bathrooms, and tight bedrooms with bunk beds. (It’s coed, with women upstairs and men down.) There’s satellite TV (usually turned to weather or sports) and wireless Internet connections, but both are spotty. On one wall in the main room, pinned above a large map of the area, is a picture of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, cradling animals and birds in his arms.

The Battle Ship has made a name for itself among the spill responders, in part because of its cook, Ralph Thacker, a veteran of 27 years as a cook on oil rigs. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has visited the barge, as has Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindall and several members of Congress.

“Emeril Lagasse may cook as well as I do, but I can do it faster,” Thacker said.

“I think this barge is probably the envy of the other operations. We hear that from all over the place,” said Peter McGowan, usually a contaminants biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay (Va.) Field Office, now co-team leader, with Barnhill, on the barge. It’s sometimes called the “Flotel.”

The barge is also part of the Incident Command system, the organizational system used to respond to emergencies and large events that is getting its biggest opportunity ever on the BP oil spill response. Workers living on the barge include personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Wildlife Services and private contractors hired by BP.

“The Incident Command System is designed to minimize problems that might arise from people having very different backgrounds, so that everyone can get their job accomplished,” said McGowan. “Everybody knows what their mission is, everybody is on the same page. If you need something you pick up the phone to logistics and you get what you need. That’s ICS.”

Thacker, the cook – his actual title is crew boss – has been on the barge almost since it began housing responders, and has developed his own view on how people fit into the Incident Command system.

“A lot of these Fish and Wildlife people are supervisors back home in their domain,” he said. “But here they have to do whatever job they’ve been assigned, and maybe they’re not a supervisor. But they have no egos, and they do the job and work together as a team.”

ICS also involves people trying out new skills. Barnhill, for example, was trained as a scientist, but after one rotation of work in the field, was asked to be a team leader, which means making sure there are enough supplies for every need on the barge – everything has to be ordered and brought in by boat – and making sure every worker has a bed.

“We joke about it being Hotel Management 101,” said Barnhill.

A barge named Battle Ship, which has served as a fishing camp, is now home to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and other spill responders who use it as a base from which to patrol for oiled wildlife. It is anchored in Dennis Pass, which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

A barge named Battle Ship, which has served as a fishing camp, is now home to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel and other spill responders who use it as a base from which to patrol for oiled wildlife. It is anchored in Dennis Pass, which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. Photo credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS.

But hotels don’t usually treat their guests like the residents of the Battle Ship are treated. Every morning, including weekends, the workers are awakened at 4:30 a.m. Showers are rushed, and breakfast is ready. Everyone musters outside at 5:30 a.m. to get the day’s operational assignments. The crews are paired up and assigned to Vessels of Opportunity, private boats in the area that have been leased by BP to perform a variety of tasks, including transporting Fish and Wildlife Service biologists on reconnaissance and rescue trips.

The field crews conducting the daily reconnaissance and recovery are the backbone of the operations and these teams have several goals. They are monitoring bird populations and other wildlife to determine whether they are healthy, oiled or dead. Depending on the situation, they rescue oiled birds and recover dead birds for necropsy. When oiled birds cannot be captured, teams record GPS coordinates and another crew returns to the site to try and capture the birds. They also look for oil in the water or marshes and report that as well. The field crews are careful not to disturb nesting colonies to minimize impacts of their work. The crews get back in mid-afternoon, then spend several hours writing reports and entering data on what they have seen or collected.

Jody Pack is one of the Fish and Wildlife workers who has been doing daily rescue patrols; he was part of a crew that rescued a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle they found in an oil slick. He’s a mechanical operator at Big Lake National Wildlife Rescue in Arkansas, a refuge that only has a staff of two, so that when he is in the Gulf, 50 percent of the refuge staff is absent.

“I’m passionate about what’s going on out here, particularly what is happening to these fishermen,” said Pack. “I’ve made my living fishing before I joined the Service. I was in a fourth-generation family fishing business.”

“That’s why I want to be here,” Pack continued. “I think we’re making a big difference. But I’m going to go away from this place totally changed.”

 


A photo slideshow of life on the “Battle Ship” barge: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwssoutheast/sets/72157624440681513/

 

Last updated: October 15, 2010