Service Stories: Getting the word on the response out to the American people
Miami, FL - On his fifth day in the field responding to the oil spill, Steve Seibert found himself on a boat swarming with reporters and TV camera crews - even The Times of London was on board – out in Everglades National Park, talking about the Department of the Interior’s efforts to preserve the delicate habitats of South Florida.
The assignment wasn’t exactly outside his comfort zone, he said, “but it was stretching it a little bit.”
Seibert had volunteered to be an Environmental Communications Specialist representing DOI in the Joint Information Center (JIC) at the Florida Peninsula Command Post in Miami. Even though the Florida peninsula is in no imminent danger of seeing oil from the BP oil spill, the Unified Command in New Orleans set up the Miami command post to plan for the worst.
“We’re not out there rescuing birds or anything like that right now, but I think what we’re doing is important and worthwhile,” Seibert said. “We’re actively monitoring conditions in the Gulf and using the lessons learned from the other sectors on how to develop plans, so that should we need to respond, we’ll be as ready as possible.”
When he’s at work in his home base, in the Southeast Region office in Atlanta, Seibert is a supervisory wildlife refuge specialist, working on stimulus fund projects at Southeastern refuges and coordinating the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) and Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP). His job duties rarely involve doing media interviews or checking press releases for accuracy, two of the duties he does in the JIC.
“I’ve done media interviews in the past, but it’s easier when I’m addressing topics I’ve worked on for some time,” he said. “When I first got here, the learning curve was pretty steep. But it’s important to get the Unified Command’s message out through the media to the American people so they understand what we’re doing in this response.”
The Joint Information Center where Seibert works is a key part of the Incident Command system, the structure that is coordinating the efforts of all of the responders – the U.S. Coast Guard, BP, Fish and Wildlife, federal and state agencies. In the JIC, Seibert has worked with not only the Coast Guard and BP in Miami, but also the National Park Service, NOAA, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and others.
The boat tour, for example, had Seibert’s counterparts from several agencies; the five boats used were provided by the Park Service, which also helped the JIC to arrange the logistics; and the Coast Guard oversaw the trip. The goal of the JIC is to disseminate timely, accurate information to the public in a coordinated manner.
“It’s rewarding to see all these partners and agencies working together,” Seibert said. “There are some good relationships being formed, and I hope those will carry on into the future.”
That’s what is supposed to happen when an Incident Command system works the way it is supposed to. The ICS was developed in the 1970s after a series of California wildfires. Poor communication and lack of coordination among jurisdictions fighting the fires led responders to come up with a system that would use best management practices to set strategy, manage resources, and communicate effectively within the structure. The system is now used in a broad range of incidents that require coordinated efforts, from terrorist acts to bad storms.
The ICS sets up a structure with several objectives: shared understanding of priorities and restrictions; a single set of goals; less duplication of effort; better resource utilization; collaborative strategies; and improved internal and external communication flow.
“One of the other benefits of the ICS is that it can expand and contract according to the size of the incident,” said Roger Boykin, a veteran of many Incident Commands during his years with the Service.
“The BP oil spill, however, is unique,” he continued. “It’s the biggest incident ever, in terms of response, except for a war.”
Although he retired in 2008, Boykin is one of dozens of retirees who have come back to lend their expertise as the Service responds to the spill.
“The command structure is very well organized,” said Seibert. “It just takes a little getting used to.”