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Deepwater Horizon Incident Management Training

ORAU and DOE emergency management personnel deployed to Gulf of Mexico assisted with response planning

Deepwater Horizon disaster

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and touched off a massive offshore oil spill that continued for more than 12 weeks. U.S. Department of Energy and ORAU emergency management personnel were among those who traveled to the Gulf to assist incident management teams with response planning.

With the situation evolving by the minute and response efforts including virtually every federal agency, five states and many private sector organizations, Deepwater Horizon exemplified the dynamic and complex nature of emergency response. Billy Haley, one of the ORAU operations planners deployed to the area, was stationed in Louisiana where he assisted with tracking and allocating response resources to manage the oil spill and protect the coastline.

“There were 48,000 responders at the peak, hundreds of miles of oil containment boom and vessels, and we needed to figure out the best way to deploy and track these people and equipment,” said Haley.

The pool of available resources was also constantly changing. For example, when BP sponsored the Vessels of Opportunity program, that added thousands of local fisherman and crabbers in various types of boats who needed to be assigned to the oil containment effort.

As the response unfolded, Haley noted that the Incident Command System, an incident management approach that establishes a standard organizational structure for incident response, was critical to a productive effort. Adhering to a common framework for command and control minimized confusion and allowed multiple agencies to work together. At the same time, responders had to balance structure with flexibility to react to often unpredictable circumstances.

“External influences—whether it’s feedback from the affected population, political decisions or media coverage—can influence the response in ways you may not have predicted, but you have to adapt quickly,” said Haley.

ORAU continues to study the Deepwater Horizon response to apply the valuable knowledge gained to future incidents. Although the tragedy in the Gulf came in the form an explosion and oil spill, lessons learned here are applicable to a broad range of disasters, including radiological terrorist attacks. In his after-action analysis, Haley has been surprised by the number of similarities in response planning, even when disaster scenarios differ dramatically.

“Like this incident, a radiological incident would involve a large geographic area, require a multi-agency response and present complex technical challenges in measuring and controlling contamination,” explained Haley. “We can learn a lot from our experiences in the Gulf and use them to strengthen our nation’s ability to prepare for and respond even more effectively to a large-scale incident.”