We are preparing to deploy our ROVs and sensors into the oil spill site, and to examine the sea floor for any deposited oil, or affected sea life. We are awaiting approval from the Unified Command. Whenever there is a large scale disaster, whether it is a large fire, earthquake, oil spill or something else, there is a system in place to manage it. It was designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is called the Incident Command System. (ICS)
The ICS essentially establishes a chain of command in regard to an incident, and there are delegated positions within an incident, and it is often not limited to only one agency, those who arrive first assume command, then pass it off and necessary. In the case of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, the Unified Command is comprised of the: Coast Guard, National Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Transportation and local government. (http://www.refugioresponse.com)
Being that this event is both a physical, and a health hazard, there are many factors that go into managing an incident like this. The area is completely closed off, and authorization for any activity within the site requires express written permission and proper training.
I spent many years as a Paramedic and I am used to operating in situations like this, but not all have, so I’d like to talk a little about what an effort to help in a situation like this entails, so others in the future can know the risks and understand the steps that are involved. This will be a bit lengthy, for the internet world, the TL;DR is: Be safe, educate yourself, and realize that though the red tape can be exhausting, it is there to reduce the likelihood of injury.
When a major disaster (or even small for that matter) strikes, many people have the deep seeded urge to assist with the situation. This is a great desire, however there are risks associated with operating in a disaster site. Proper training and preparation are key elements of safety. This is a very key topic in First Responder training of any kind, we call it scene safety. You first make sure that where you are going and what you are doing is providing for your safety, and the safety of others. You don’t do something that you haven’t been trained for because instead of being someone that is there to help, you may become someone that needs help. It is imperative that you be with people who are experienced and have had training regarding the specific hazards of a disaster, and the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that you must wear, and know how to properly remove and decontaminate it. In addition to being around hazardous materials in this situation, we will be operating on vessels and/or small boats which requires some background knowledge.
Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) is the standard of training which is required to work in a hazardous waste cleanup operation. This is typically a 40 hour class which requires an annual 8 hours of refresher education. (http://www.osha.com/courses/hazwoper.html) This training covers how to properly decontaminate equipment and people, and how to manage hazardous waste types. In some cases when an event is mostly cleared up, those who enter may be allowed to work under the leadership of someone who is HAZWOPER trained, but it ultimately falls under the decision of the incident command.
Using any kind of scientific equipment in this sort of environment also requires intimate knowledge of your equipment, to minimize the time that you are in the environment, and to ensure it is operated smoothly. A set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) is key for operating any set of equipment. The PIRatE Laboratory has developed a set of SOPs for ROV deployment, and augmented the procedures to include decontamination. We also require all of our team members that participate in small boat operations to take the California Safe Boating and Waterways certification course ( ) I will be posting a link up on our blog later to share it with other groups that wish to do similar work. It mostly contains standards such as supervision, steps of operation of the ROV including cleaning, and requirements for operators. SOPs establish professionalism, safety standards and show that you have clearly thought out operation and use of your equipment.
This sort of situation breeds concern among many different subjects: environment, human and wildlife health, property damage, etc. As mentioned before, proper control of the situation is necessary to prevent the risk for those who are unaware of the dangers. The roads, airspace and waterways surrounding and disaster site are typically shut down. Specific permission to enter is granted by the ICS chain of command, and there needs to be a specific, and good reason for it.
Reason for Permission
In order to enter these sites there must be a reason. Our reason for wanting to enter the site is for impact research and assessment of cleanup. We are specifically curious to the deposition and impact of oil on the bethos (sea floor) and organisms in the subtidal area, just off shore of where the spill is. Many flora (kelp, sea grass, etc) and animals could be affected. Oil typically floats on top of water, but there are many factors which can push the oil beneath the surface, such as: oil mixing with dirt (making it tarry and goopy), wave action, heavy wind, vessel traffic, and more. We are also interested in using ROVs as part of the standard response, to assess the condition of the sea floor.
Demonstrating that you are the one to do the job
Just because you want to help, doesn’t mean that you are qualified to do what you want to do. Luckily Dr. Sean Anderson and I both have had formal training in hazardous materials. Dr. Anderson is an expert in Marine Ecology, and has also spent much of his career working on oil spill ecotoxicology. He worked on the Deep Water Horizon, and he studied the original Santa Barbara Oil Spill that was in the 60’s. I have a lot of experience in emergency response, both by being a first responder, and also emergency manager. I studied Biology with an emphasis in Marine Ecology and Environmental Science research, and have spent the past 10+ years building and piloting Remotely Piloted Systems. In addition we have a well established team of undergraduate students who have been trained to operate ROVs in remote locations, and with very limited resources. A proven track record of research and due diligence such as SOPs goes a long way when proving that you know what you are talking about.
With any government agencies, there is paperwork to be filled out, and possibly permits to be obtained. We began by asking local agencies that we have worked with such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration, what the situation looked like at the site. We then moved to request information from the Unified Command, which established a public phone number and website for requests and information. We sent a letter of intent to them a day later, we received a phone call with the details and necessary forms to fill out. We completed all of the forms, and then start the waiting game. Some of the requested information on the forms included: crew members, equipment used, if the members are HAZWOPER trained, decontamination procedures, full detail of desired activity, and resources needed from the incident agencies.
All in all it is a great, but daunting task to undertake. There is a lot of red tape to jump through, but a lot of good can come from the proliferation of knowledge, and this has the potential to aid in the cleanup efforts by identifying additional impacts and can shape better restoration plans. In addition, this could set a new precedence for how oil spills are responded to, by using low cost yet effective tools to look at the entirety of the site that is covered in oil, not just the surface.
Though it sounds very tough, the key is education, and being prepared before something like this happens. There are many volunteer organizations which help people get the training so they can respond to such incidents. These organizations include Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) http://www.fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams, International Bird Rescue http://www.bird-rescue.org, and many others.