Thoughts from a Spill Newbie

I’m Sarah, and I’m working as the Deputy Marine Mammal Team Lead.  This is my first spill.  I’d participated in drills before, and even a few events with a modified ICS, but nothing really prepared me for life here at the Houma ICC.  I’m not sure that anything could have, though.

I’ve been here for a few days now, and I’ve got some pieces of advice if you ever find yourself in my shoes (or just involved in anything on this scale).  Here we go:

Prepare to be in completely over your head.  All of my ICS training (and I’ve had a bit) did not prepare me for this world of forms, jargon and abbreviations.  Just figuring out who sits where can take a while.  The schedule of meetings/conference calls is bewildering and seems to always be changing.  There is always something more to do… the to-do list is an amazingly tenacious beast.  Your day will fly by, and yet you’re not really sure that you’ve accomplished anything.  The best way to cope with this fact?  Realize that everyone here is in exactly the same boat.

Prepare to be both frustrated and dismayed by the enterprise you’ve become a part of, but try and keep some perspective.  There are now a reported 22,000 people participating in the Unified Command for the spill.  Companies with similar workforces include Cox Communications, Syngenta, USAA, Monsanto, or Abercrombie & Fitch.  The difference of course is that this “company” is 33 days old.  So, yeah, there are problems with orders being lost, contracts taking a long time, and communications getting jumbled, but for the most part it’s damn impressive how much is getting done and how quickly.

Look out for your team.  Everybody is going flat out all the time, and people are stressed, tired, and usually slightly depressed.  Do your best to help out your immediate group, whether it’s asking them if there’s anything you can do (they usually say no, but seem to appreciate the thought), commiserate over the billions of e-mails that pop up in your box when you return from a conference call, make sure you take meal breaks, and pressure each other to get out of the command post as early as possible (based upon my experience so far, if it’s in the 1900’s, it’s a banner day).  Try and look out for your boss, whether that’s ordering her to sleep in (and not negotiating on the number of minutes) or posting a blog entry for him so that it’s one less thing to do in the day.  Of course the good bosses like Mike, Teri and Barbara don’t really seem to need much, but try anyway.

–  Pick your peeps.  There are at least twenty people in the Logistics Unit, all clustered around a table and frantically processing requisitions and contracts.  Of the twenty, there are a few who will consistently go the extra mile for you, especially when you tell them that you’re saving all that cute wildlife (OK, maybe not singlehandedly, but you know what I mean).  It is in your best interest to identify those few people and then just return to them when you have any questions.  Ditto the Environmental Unit, the SCAT teams, and every other facet of the operation.  It helps if you have people you are rotating in for, as they will have already made contacts and can point you to the right yellow vests (thanks JayTay!).

Develop your thick skin.  It is not possible to keep everyone happy.  I will say it again (because I’m still trying to convince myself of this).  It is not possible to keep everyone happy.  You will be stepping on toes, you will be going around people (or above their heads), and you will be generally doing whatever it takes to get things done.  You will likely snap at someone or send a snarky e-mail.  You may realize that your tone of voice is kind of strident and you’re not nearly as pleasant as you are “normally,” or that you’re losing patience with people.  This will not make you the most well-liked person, and it can lead to tension.  Also, you’re going to screw up.  You are going to leave someone off an e-mail that specifically asked to be added, you will not follow the proper protocol and tell someone something that you weren’t supposed to, or you will attach the wrong version of a revised document.  These things happen to all of us at one time or another, but it turns out it’s especially easy to do this at 11:30 PM when you’re running on approximately 5 hrs of sleep per night, and when you’re getting the billion e-mails I referred to earlier, all of which you’re trying to keep straight.  All of these are reasons that you need your thick skin.  People will probably be mad at you.  People will feel like they’re not in the loop (if information is on a need-to-know basis, you might be surprised at how many people think they need to know).  People might be mean to you (or at least less pleasant than usual).  You have to somehow figure out a way to not take it personally, and to not beat yourself up about it.  This is possibly one of the hardest things for me to do, and I’m still working on it (pretty much every day… in fact, every hour… maybe less).

Figure out what you need to do to decompress.  As I said, everybody is going flat out all the time.  That includes you.  You will be getting by on much (much) less sleep than you’re used to.  As the mother of a toddler, I understand sleep deprivation, but back in the hazy days of having a newborn baby, the most challenging thing I was asked to do was change a diaper or maybe a take trip to the grocery store.  Now I’m getting 5 hours of sleep a night and writing talking points that might be used for testimony in front of Congress.  Yikes!  So try and do whatever you need to in order to stay sane.  Eat cake for lunch.  Do some yoga. Go for a run.  That works if you leave the building when it’s light out.  Today was my day to sleep in for an hour and I was amazed to see this bright yellow ball in the sky (note to self: possible vitamin D insufficiency; try to drink more milk).  Find the local 24-hour gym (or just ask Trevor for directions).  I brought my knitting.  I haven’t taken it out of the bag yet, but I know it’s there, and that calms me somewhat.

Remember why you’re here.  You might be washing birds, labeling bags, or doing laundry.  You might be drafting documents, participating on conference calls, and reporting information to the right people (figuring out the format they want it in is another story, best left for another time).  You’re doing absolutely everything you can to make a difference for the better.  It might be in making the response faster, it might be in getting people the equipment they need, it might be in helping a single sea turtle, or it might be in making a one-pager that spells out your information so everyone can understand it.  In some way, you are helping.  And really, that’s about all anyone can ask for.

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