A Science in the System

"Big oil spills are the most scientifically interdisciplinary event you'll ever run across."

by / October 25, 2007

Story and photos by PA2 Luke Pinneo 

Here, there are systems within systems. There is order, development - and there is evolution.

It is organically structured within a flexible membrane that allows for change. When placed under stress, all elements morph and adapt until the entire system restructures itself toward higher levels of productivity.

What sounds like something described in a field ecologist's notebook, is instead an emergency response strategy designed and used by U.S. government officials. It is the Incident Command System, and is known to many responders simply as the ICS.

Though it has many uses, a common application of the ICS is responding to oil spills.

In such cases, scores of agencies will flock together to form structures that upon close inspection will often ironically resemble the ecosystems they were formed to protect.

Here, in the case of a spill, there are many diverse parts with different functions: state and local, community groups and trustees, federal agencies - all fused together with a common cause: protect the marine environment. In some cases, the differences between agencies are subtle. Other times, they are more obvious, especially if a spill occurs in a body of water near the border of two countries.

The Passamaquoddy Bay, which empties into the Bay of Fundy, Canada, to the north and into the Gulf of Maine to the south, is a crystal clear example of where this becomes a paramount issue.

"Fish and other marine life don't recognize the border so if there's extreme impact on one side versus the other, everybody's resources are impacted," said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Wyman Briggs, of the Coast Guard First District in Boston .

Briggs is the assistant chief of the incident management branch of the First District, which spans from New Jersey to the Maine/Canada border.

In his job, if there were ever an oil spill in or even close to the Gulf of Maine - it would be his business.

Briggs has served with the Coast Guard for nearly 20 years, half of which he's devoted to the service's environmental protection mission. Armed with an environmental science undergraduate degree and an environmental policy masters degree from Harvard University, he has battled such monster spills as the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and others ranging from 60,000 to 100,000 gallons, each in geographically diverse environments.

His connection to the Gulf of Maine has deeper roots than just the job. As a boy, he said he spent many summers along the coast of Maine fishing, hiking and absorbing the natural splendor of the land.

It made such an impression on him that he chose to stay. He now works at the district building in downtown Boston, and at the end of every day he drives nearly three hours north- back home to Portland, Maine.

The job provides him with a chance to give back to the land. Recently in September 2007, he, other Coast Guardsmen, and a number of agencies and responders from both sides of the U.S./Canadian border met for a week in New Brunswick to train in a true-to-life oil spill scenario. The exercise was designed to resemble a real oil spill where many agencies from the U.S. and Canada would respond. The real challenge that was soon evident to Briggs and others was that the ICS was not used during the drill, but rather Canada's brand-new RMS (Response Management System).

Briggs admitted the RMS was about 80 percent the same as ISC in both structure and function, but the enormous drawback was

that it conflicted with one of the main traditional ideas of the ICS: common terminology.

The example of communication breakdown Briggs provided was when the U.S. Coast Guard refers to "public affairs," they speak for the most part of that element within the ISC that handles media affairs.

The Canadian agencies refer to the media affairs group as the "communications" unit. That is to say the group or unit that will communicate the situation or event to the public and the media.

But in ICS lingo, the term "communications" is usually associated with hand-held radios, telephones, Internet connection and other means of "communications."

Same word, entirely different interpretations, and that's simply one example.

The use of common terms is essential in the clutch. When many people, from many groups with different agendas show up - under stress - at a spill, the need for clear interpretation is obvious and yet the likelihood for misinterpretation is high.

As it is with ecosystems, in the ICS, communication flow and a fluid exchange of information from one part to another is vital to the successful production of the whole. And although the ICS was designed to use common terminology, there still are several instances of misunderstanding.

According to Briggs, one way the U.S. Coast Guard overcomes some of the terminology challenges that arise during an ICS guided response, is through the use of scientific support coordinators.

The SSCs are representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and they are, in essence, translators - translators of the language of science.

During a spill, the SSCs rise to the surface and form a bond and communication loop between the responding scientists, the on-scene coordinators, and the command.

Steve Lehmann is the SSC for New England, and is quick to etch a clear line between what the SSCs are and what they are not.

"I'm not a biologist, or an ecologist. My job is to coordinate science and to interpret science."

Like Briggs, Lehmann, works in downtown Boston. In his quiet and sun-filled office, his walls are a testament to both his love of nature and his passion to protect it. A historic and colorful collection of photographs, most of which he took, feature a blend of pristine natural landscapes contrasted by other documentary images of oil spills, vessels oozing with black sludge, and pollution disasters of the past.

Lehmann elaborated on his role of protecting the environment as a scientific coordinator.

"To a large degree we don't always try to be the smartest people in the room, but we always know who the smartest person is," he said, with a half smile. "We speak softly and carry a big Rolodex."

He is a vital link.

He said Coast Guard responders, especially those that occupy the command element, must have a clear picture of what's happened, what is still happening, and how it will effect the environment in the near and long-term future. It's the SSC's role to know which scientists can provide the most accurate information about the situation, and to relay that data back to the command.

Without a full understanding of each cause and its effect, it's possible that some command choices could be more harmful than helpful.

Briggs agrees.

He suggests hypothetically that during an ICS oil spill cleanup, after the Coast Guard boat crews have recovered all the oil from the water, a command decision is made to start cleaning oil from the shoreline.

Seems like a logical next step. Or is it?

Briggs argues that in some cases, to have cleanup crews trudging and stomping through fragile marshes or wetlands might be devastating to the

nesting wildlife and ecosystems that live and produce there. At times, it makes more sense to let nature break it down over time, or let the tides capture it where it can be cleaned from the water.

Either way, responders are left to make tough choices. At best, they need to be able to make informed and educated decisions.

Lehmann said in cases like those, and others where scientific data and prediction models are crucial to an effective response, the Coast Guard leans heavily on the SSC.

He adds that when a spill happens, the conch calls on nearly every branch of science to respond. "Big oil spills are the most scientifically interdisciplinary event you'll ever run across."

He describes a concert of scientists including marine biologists, ecologists, physicists, chemists, geographers and others.

Once all of the components - scientific, government, private, community - are in place, the challenge Lehmann sees time after time is getting consensus. "One man's ceiling is another man's floor," he said.

In some cases, there are environmentalists screaming on one side and the responsible party, or spiller, screaming on the other. Lehman said that the Coast Guard and the SSCs are usually wedged tightly in the middle.

"When you have two scientific or two political groups that are screaming really hard, there's probably a little truth in what each of them is saying, and it's our job to meter in between."

It then becomes a goal of achieving balance.

"If you look at an ecosystem, nobody set it up that way," said Lehmann. "It's that way because it's balanced. Sometimes it gets out of balance, but it usually gets itself back into balance. It may take some time, but it finds its own balance - it finds its equilibrium."

Command structures, he observes, are the same way. He said he frequently refers to the organizational structure of a command as being organic.

"You can impose a system on top of it. You can impose this Incident Command System - which is a very good system - but if you try to hold that system too tightly, it's going to finally break around the edges because it's not allowed to grow. If you give it some flexibility, which is how it's designed to be, then slowly and sometimes rapidly, that spill command structure morphs into what is needed."

He said it almost always happens.

"When it doesn't happen is when it's not allowed to do that - when there is some human force preventing that from happening," he said.

That force, he said, is rigidity.

And sometimes the response is not successful. As he illustrates, there are also ecosystem that don't make it at first, but they evolve until they're productive.

The same is true of an oil spill response using the ISC.

"A spill that is going to go on for a while - it evolves into its own management structure," he said. "It finds an equilibrium with the spill."

Is it any wonder, that our man-made systems and our structures and our models and methods mirror those of ecosystems, and the natural order of the planet in general?

It shouldn't be. Given the chance to step back and observe from a clearer viewpoint, one can easily see that we're all part of one big picture.

And, as Briggs noted, it's a pretty picture and a precious one. "It's amazingly productive, as long as we don't abuse it."