Exercises – the muscle memory of crisis response

But how do you prepare for a major emergency and ensure your response will be coordinated, competent, and trusted no matter the crisis?
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By Kyle Fawkes
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, the emergency response was unprecedented. Nearly 50,000 personnel and 7,000 vessels were deployed to the shores of the Gulf Coast. Incident management morphed into a machine – with involvement from a slew of consultancies, engineers, academics, and politicians. And Incident command reported directly to President Obama.

But how do you, as a maritime operator, prepare for a major emergency and ensure your response will be coordinated, competent, and trusted no matter the crisis?

In the United States, the answer is straightforward and legislated: follow the Incident Command System (ICS) approach, prepare, and practice, practice, practice.

Last month, Witt O’Brien’s did just that. Congregating in the Marina del Rey section of Los Angeles, Witt O’Brien’s held their annual Incident Management Team (IMT) Tabletop Exercise (TTX) to practice as a nation-wide team of incident management specialists. The 2-day exercise also served as an opportunity to achieve certification for: (1) annual compliance as a shoreside Incident Management Team for all federal (USCG) vessel response plans; (2) triennial compliance for California state contingency plans; and (3) operation as a Spill Management Team under the new California Spill Management Team regulations.

Witt O’Brien’s IMT underwent these certification tests as QI provider on behalf of roughly 50 percent of the commercial ship’s trading in US waters. But Witt O’Brien’s not only fulfills requirements under the OPA-90 legislation. It also pulls on its extensive resources to populate many of the management roles needed within the US ICS structure. During the recent exercise, this included vital leadership and supporting expertise in incident command, external liaison, public safety, operations, planning, logistics and financial administration.

Navigate Response on the other hand – as Witt O’Brien’s in house crisis communications unit –supported the Public Information Officer (PIO) and wider Joint Information Centre (JIC). Navigate Response was also on hand to deploy our in-house social media simulator, Triton. The platform aided in launching information injects and gave a realistic flavor of the critical public pressure we see so often in the wake of major maritime incidents.

But the exercise was more than internal practice. It was also an opportunity to work alongside private and public sector partners. With attendance from the US Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), as well as numerous salvors, oil spill response organisations and ship operators, the exercise forged familiarity between responders and strengthened existing relationships.

Drawing on a fictional scenario involving a collision and oil spill off the Southern California Coast, the exercise began with local Witt O’Brien’s responders and OSPR personnel caretaking incident management on the first day. On day two, following incident escalation, the response was ratcheted-up. Incident Command was successfully transferred and participation grew to include the wider Witt O’Brien’s network, the US Coast Guard and supporting organisations.

As the full ICS machinery roared to life, response objectives were completed one after another. By the second morning, the strong arm of the operations section had compiled an arsenal of oil spill containment assets and salvage resources. Environmentally sensitive sites were swiftly identified and prioritised with elaborate spill protection plans. By early afternoon, the JIC had briefed the Unified Command and facilitated a full-scale press conference with the three on-scene coordinators and subject matter experts. Finally, before the end of the day, the Unified Command approved the Incident Action Plan for the next cycle of the operational period, officially marking the end of the exercise.

Beyond objectives though, the participating teams collectively and collaboratively threaded the needle between competent decision-making and timely reaction – a true testament to the personnel, organisations, and procedures that comprise the US ICS landscape.

With the 2023 IMT TTX completed, Witt O’Brien’s and Navigate Response now look forward to continuing training, exercises, and yes, incident preparation for whatever may arise in the months ahead.

Through it all, Witt O’Brien’s and Navigate Response are with you when it counts – in North America and around the world.


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