Could Oil Spill Debacle be Fatal to NIMS/ICS? (Opinion)

An overtly politicized response could undermine trust in future events.

by Gerald Baron / July 20, 2010
Oiled Brown Pelican upon intake May 20, 2010 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana Oiled Wildlife Center. International Bird Rescue Research Center

[Photo: An oiled brown pelican upon intake on May 20 at the Louisiana Oiled Wildlife Center. Courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center.]

In the 250,000-plus media reports on the Gulf Coast oil spill, there have been many examples of poor reporting. One was The Washington Post story on June 13: Oil Spill Makes Unlikely Partners of BP and the Federal Government. The article said the spill created an uneasy marriage between President Barack Obama and BP. It couldn't be more wrong.

For 20 years, federal, state and local government agencies have practiced this marriage with every major oil company and oil shipping company. Why? Because the law required it. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, required the government and private company identified as the “responsible party” to collaborate in stopping the spill and cleaning it up. The responsible party pays the government under authority of the lead federal agency, approves all plans, all actions and all information. That’s the way it has been — until 2010. That’s when the biggest event of all called for everything invested in this system to pay off.

But we have been bitterly disappointed. The marriage has turned rocky and the reason is politics. To avoid blame, the administration turned an effective marriage into a messy divorce. Public communication, the most visible element of the response, is no longer joint. The public no longer sees the parties working in concert toward a common goal. The public wonders why BP continues to bungle and why, as inept as it is, it continues to be involved at all.

This is potentially deadly to the future of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Joint Information Center (JIC) because other responsible parties, emergency managers and elected officials, are observing this. Everyone who may be involved in a joint response under NIMS must wonder if they may too be thrown under the blame bus in such circumstances. Response effectiveness suffers when trust is lost. Public confidence in the response will be seriously undermined, as it has been here, when the partners are throwing stones at one another.

The political messaging that overwhelmed the JIC is made possible because of ignorance of NIMS’ Incident Command System and the JIC. The story from The Washington Post is just one example. Fox News ran a viewer survey asking: Who should manage the response, the federal government or BP? Almost every reporter incorrectly blamed BP for the initial low estimate of spill volume that was provided by Unified Command. (Incidentally and Rolling Stone got it right.)

The important question is: What effect will this event will have on how major events are managed in the future. Will they be characterized by mistrust and pre-emptive political messaging? Or will future administrations look at the damage caused by an overtly politicized response and return to the idea of a collaborative response built on proper oversight as well as mutual trust and respect — an idea that lies at the heart of NIMS and a good marriage. If not, the damage to our national interests may exceed that of the economic and environmental damage so visible in the Gulf.

Gerald Baron is the creator of the PIER System used by Unified Command for Web-based communications. He is executive vice president of O’Brien’s Response Management and the author of Now Is Too Late2: Survival in an Era of Instant News.

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