San Diego NPREP Drill Day 1: My First Command Post Experience

I recall reading Mike’s blog posts during the Deepwater Horizon Response and finding myself unable to quite comprehend the magnitude of a command post. On June 12, 2010 Mike wrote:

“The Houma ICC [Incident Command Center]…in Shreiver, LA…is a larger, somewhat modern-looking building (steel and glass throughout) with a large gravel parking lot adjacent to it.  This lot has been built since the beginning of the spill to accommodate the 1,100 or so people who work in a facility designed to train about 100 people at a time.”

I thought, “Really?  1,100 people?  What are they all doing?”  As a novice in the world of oil spill response, I figured that the people involved in the spill response would be out in the field – at sea, on the coastline, at animal care facilities.  And, of course, the vast majority were.  But my experiences yesterday and today at my first National Preparedness for Response Full-Scale Exercise (NPREP FSE) have shown me just how wrong my initial questions were.  Perhaps I should have asked instead “Only a thousand people?”

On Wednesday morning, the San Diego NPREP kicked off with an 0800 ICS 201 Brief.  First command post lesson: everything has a number.  Meetings, forms, resources, people – all numbered.  So what’s a 201 Briefing?  I quickly learned that a 201 Brief is an all-hands meeting on the emergency at hand…

Wednesday 0800: 200+ exercise “players” representing federal, state, local, and private agencies and organizations are briefed on the drill scenario.  In the early hours of the morning, a large ship collided with an oil tanker off the coast of San Diego, releasing a large volume of crude oil.  Our goal for the exercise was to work through the scenario over the course of two days to test, validate, and improve the San Diego Area Contingency Plan (ACP).

Drill "players" hard at work in the Command Post.

0845: After the briefing, the Wildlife Branch settles in at a table in the Operations Section at a far corner of a huge room filled with folding tables, people, laptops, and, of course, coffee.  We are made up of representatives from Department of Fish and Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), OWCN, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Navy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.  People begin buzzing around the room, attending meetings and team briefings, introducing themselves, getting down to work.  Brightly colored vest identify Section Chiefs and Unit Leaders.  Against one wall, a projector displayed the modeled trajectory of spilled oil.  As teams began work, the walls quickly become populated with maps, diagrams, lists of personnel and resources, and objectives.

Christine, Laird, and Martin.

0900: Laird Henkel (OSPR), the Wildlife Branch Director, deputizes Sarah Wilkin of NOAA to be his second in command.  He gives us a briefing and assigns roles.  Kyra, as Recovery and Transportation Group Supervisor, begins planning and mobilizing R&T teams from local OWCN member organizations.  Christine, as Care and Processing Group Supervisor, notifies SeaWorld San Diego, the nearest OWCN primary care facility.  USFWS representatives Jason Stayer, Clark Winchell, David Zoutendyk, and Ayoola Folarin in the Reconaissance Group begin organizing reconnaissance teams, aerial and shoreline wildlife surveys, and prepare to receive calls from the wildlife reporting hotline.

1015: The Wildlife Branch received its first “inject” (a memo describing information or a simulated event that is used to drive and guide the drill participants) relaying simulated information from a member of the public about oiled wildlife.  Throughout the drill, these injects tested our team’s ability to protect and care of wildlife in an evolving oil spill response.

Onwards throughout the rest of Wednesday and into Thursday.  We kept chugging away at new problems, meeting goals, setting new ones as the scenario evolved, and navigating our way through this simulated spill.

Over the course of the drill I began to understand what exactly all those 1000+ people were up to in the Houma ICC during DWH. I walked away with a feel for how daunting the task of leading, planning, and executing an oil spill response can be.  But I also walked away impressed and excited by the readiness of all these people to get it done.

– Emily

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