Service Stories: Mastering the steep learning curve in the BP oil spill response
Hugh Morrison, assistant regional director for budget and administration for Region 6, at work in New Orleans: “Working on the spill has helped me to reaffirm to myself I can operate effectively in a somewhat chaotic environment.” Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS
New Orleans, LA - Hugh Morrison considered himself an unlikely candidate to work on the BP oil spill response team. His office was hundreds of miles away, in Lakewood, Colo., and he was the assistant regional director for budget and administration.
“I wanted to help, but I didn’t see how my skill set could work with what is needed in the spill response,” he said.
But he soon found out what hundreds of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service people have discovered in the response: There is a great deal of need, and a system in place for people to plug into at a lot of levels.
“My deputy regional director, Noreen Walsh, said they were looking for people who could represent a service-wide view, and because of my role in administration, you get a wide, over-arching view of the Service,” he said.
Morrison was assigned to represent the Service at the United Area Command Center in New Orleans, where he has been tasked with a wide variety of assignments, from working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a plan to relocate tens of thousands of sea turtle eggs to doing live interviews on the local New Orleans TV stations.
Like nearly all positions for responders, there aren’t a lot of creature comforts. He works at a long plastic-topped table loaded with laptops, phones and power strips, and faces a wall with three whiteboards covered with maps that track the spill’s trajectory. The Unified Area Command has been in an office building in downtown New Orleans since moving from Robert, LA, earlier in the summer.
It’s Morrison’s first time working in an Incident Command System (ICS), the management plan that the U.S. government uses for a range of situations that require responses, and which all responding personnel have to fit into. People are sometimes assigned tasks that are not what they did in their regular jobs, and temporarily give up their agency title for a position that fits within the ICS. In Colorado, Morrison works in Budget and Administration; in the ICS in New Orleans, he works in the Environmental Planning Group.
The ICS organization is deliberately different from every other organization. As the system was developed, designers learned that trying to use position titles and org charts from other agencies created confusion (a dispatcher or a director from one agency might mean something very different in another agency), which made it difficult to have clear lines of hierarchy and communication that everyone understood. That, in turn, sometimes hampered the response itself.
Like all newcomers, Morrison had to master the steep learning curve encountered in the first couple of days. But he quickly got up to speed, and began to appreciate some of its benefits.
“It’s amazing the pace at which things move, how quickly decisions can be made,” he said. “I was in a meeting the other day and a NOAA representative said we needed to get something reviewed and approved by the Coast Guard, and that might take two days. And I remember thinking yeah but in normal work, that’s a process that would take six months.”
“It’s a case study of how to coordinate across a number of levels, from the Unified Area Command to the Incident Command posts, across all the organizations that are involved. It’s designed to be able to communicate across all of those levels when you have many people who come from varied backgrounds and are new to the system.”
Morrison’s tasks at the Unified Area Command have been varied. He went to the airport the morning that the big pelican airlift took off, transporting 48 pelicans to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and waded into the media scrum that was covering the airlift. “It was my first time doing media interviews, and it was fun,” he said. “I did a couple of the local morning shows, plus a guy who was from the German equivalent of PBS.”
He also worked on a project to provide funds to qualified Louisiana farmers in inland areas to help them grow additional crops, so that when migratory birds fly back to the area in the fall, they will settle inland rather than continuing on to the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, like almost everything that happens in the oil spill response, there are multiple agencies involved, as well as BP and its contractors.
“Working on the spill has helped me to reaffirm to myself I can operate effectively in a somewhat chaotic environment,” he said. “I don’t want to overplay the chaos, because there’s a great deal of structure, but there’s a whole lot of chaos as well.
“Also, I have never felt that our response was inadequate. I have enough faith in the federal government to know we were doing everything we could think of to address the situation. But working here certainly reaffirms that is definitely the case.”