October 19, 2011

Events from Around Town: Science During Crisis: Lessons Learned From the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

On Monday, I attended an event sponsored by the Paul H.
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.  Dr. Gary Machlis, the Science Advisor to the Director of the
National Park Service, spoke on his experience as the lead scientist for the
U.S. Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Working Group during the
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  This
was an experimental working group designed to aid in the natural resource
damage assessment process.  Because
it was experimental, it was conducted outside the standard response structure
mandated for oil spills by the National Contingency Plan, the Incident Command
System (ICS). The ICS is also the standard command structure under the National
Response Framework and National Incident Management System for all domestic
incidents and offers the benefit of a known cadre of key positions and
structure that is easily recognizable across first responders from the federal,
state and local governments. It does not, however, currently call for a
strategic science working group either within the command staff or within the
general staff.  Having this group
outside the formal ICS did not prohibit them from briefing key leaders within
the organization on their findings, but they were not staffed or funded by the
formal ICS process.

One of Dr. Machlis’ most interesting points was the concept
of incorporating strategic science within crisis response.  From his presentation I took strategic
science to mean a methodology by which an environmental system can be evaluated
based on the best available interdisciplinary science being used to assign a
likelihood of occurrence to cascading events under desired scenarios.  It is not the tactical science used to develop
the capping stack, or monitor the flow of oil.  His group modeled the impacted human ecosystem, including
biophysical resources, socioeconomic resources and cultural resources, and
examined the expected impacts across three scenarios: oil flow containment
until recovery began; short term and long term recovery and restoration; and
recovery and restoration where stress on the human ecological system was
declining.  Each scenario was based
upon the best available scientific information and included variables such as
flow rate from the well, time to contain the oil flow, length of time for
recovery and others.  Each
potential event was assigned a probability of occurrence.  The likelihood of occurrence drove
subsequent events until the scenario had been played out.

This seems to me to be a more formalized version of a risk management
model that an incident commander goes through in his mind, prior to making an
operational decision.  Both are
based on educated guesses as to what the future holds and rely on the
experience and judgment of the individuals involved.  What appeals to me about the strategic science methodology
is that it offers a structured opportunity to look at the longer-term impact of
a response while it is ongoing, rather than winding down. Response strategies can
be developed that might have otherwise been overlooked in the often-hectic
decision making that goes into creating and adopting a plan for the next
operational period.   

I am not suggesting that an incident commander must go
through a strategic science model prior to making a decision.  Rather, I am suggesting that an
incident commander could benefit from having a dedicated staff provide advice
on potential long-term impacts of a response and adopt efficiencies during the
response that can ultimately speed recovery.  An important caveat to this advice is that speed is essential;
otherwise the recommendations generated will become irrelevant as the decisions
will have already been made. 

Read a report on the work of the Strategic Sciences Working
Group during the spill at: http://www.oceanrecon.org/pdf/press-packet-final.pdf.

Commander Shannon Gilreath
is the Senior Coast Guard Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The
views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect
the official policy or position of the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland
Security or the U.S. Government