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Service Stories: FWS oil spill responders greeted with gratitude, take leave with a special sign out

Sue Wilder brought a large stuffed fish to her work station in Spanish Fort, Ala. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees demobilize after their tours of duty working on the BP oil spill, they sign the fish. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

Sue Wilder brought a large stuffed fish to her work station in Spanish Fort, Ala. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees demobilize after their tours of duty working on the BP oil spill, they sign the fish. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

Spanish Fort, AL - Sue Wilder sees more of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel who are responding to the BP oil spill than a lot of supervisors in higher positions do. As the person running the check-in process for the Mobile, AL, sector of the largest oil spill response in history, she is the first point of contact for everyone who reports to that sector.

“I’ve seen moms-to-be who are five months pregnant who are giving their time; we have folks who gave up their summer vacations to be here,” said Wilder. “People come from all over, from Alaska to Hawaii to Puerto Rico.”

“The first thing I tell them is thank you. Thank you for being here, thank you for giving up part of your personal life to be here for us and to help make it right. I tell them I live here, a half-mile from the beach, and the beach is something I cherish.”

When responders report to Wilder at a hotel conference room in Spanish Fort, AL, just outside Mobile, she guides them through a process that includes filling out forms, getting entered into a database, setting up their pay reporting, and getting a contact number for a person inLogistics who can find a hotel room for them – a difficult commodity at times in parts of the Gulf, given the thousands of workers who are responding to the spill.

The process is the first exposure for some Fish and Wildlife service personnel to the Incident Command System (ICS), the structure that includes the U.S. Coast Guard, BP, private contractors, and many federal and state agencies, including Fish and Wildlife. The ICS organization was developed in the ‘70s to be a flexible system that could respond to a wide variety of complicated events, from planned (the Olympics) to unplanned (a forest fire). Veterans who have served time in multiple Incident Commands agree there has never been a use of the ICS as large and widespread as the one now in place for the BP oil spill response.

“This is the first experience in an Incident Command System for a number of Fish and Wildlife people, especially some of the biologists,” said Wilder. “But everyone is required to take online training courses in ICS before they report for duty, and I don’t think there has been one person who’s come through that has not had those classes.”

The ICS is particularly useful in incidents such as the BP oil spill, where dozens of agencies, companies and institutions are working in a vast range of duties, from trying to plug the spill to rescuing oiled birds to ordering supplies. It sets up a hierarchy and system that enables all of the responding agencies to coordinate and plan together. And since the internal structure of, for example, the Fish and Wildlife Service is utterly different from the internal structure of the Coast Guard, ICS establishes a unique hierarchy that doesn’t coincide with any single agency.

“As part of that, sometimes Fish and Wildlife people have to follow the ICS protocols,” said Roger Boykin, an ICS veteran who came out of retirement to advise the Service in its Atlanta office. “We’ve had to do some things differently from the way we normally do them. Any time you have change like that, there will be some confusion. But that change is worth it because of what we can accomplish using this system over the long haul.”

Normally a regional fire ecologist based in the Southeast Louisiana Refuges Complex, Wilder is a long way from her normal position of advising refuges on their prescribed burns.

“For me, this is where I need to be right now,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m helping, and like I can contribute something to the effort.”

 

Last updated: July 30, 2010