Justin Cox (Fourth from right) joining the rest of the OWCN team during the pre-drill festivities in Quincy, CA
I’ve managed communications for the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, which is home to Oiled Wildlife Care Network, for the past four years. About halfway through my tenure, I booked a week-and-a-half long vacation so that the band I play in could go on a 10-date tour. The first of those shows was on May 20, 2015, which is not an insignificant timeframe for the OWCN.
That’s one day after a pipeline burst and the Refugio Oil Spill began! Of course! I spent the next two days making phone calls and sending emails to put the ducks in a row – coordinating with the UC Davis communications team to make sure they could send people down there to capture photos and document our team’s work.
To take matters to their logical extreme, the bulk of the OWCN team was at a conference in Alaska when the pipe ruptured. They had to fly down in waves as the severity of the spill became clear and seats opened up on flights. Some flew to Davis first to prep equipment and transport it to the spill. I was there to watch Kyra and Tim pack the MASH and head south. Fast and efficient from top to bottom. It was cool to watch.
I reflect on this today because, after four years in my position, I am moving on to an exciting opportunity with the SeaDoc Society in the Pacific Northwest. It’s another Wildlife Health Center program, so I’ll still be part of the family.
I’ve always found the OWCN to be interesting (compared to the many other programs I work with at the WHC) in that there is this constant need for readiness because disaster can come at any time, and those disasters can take many shapes and sizes.
That constant need for improvement is abundantly clear at the Network’s yearly full-deployment drills, where every fathomable curveball gets thrown just to make sure the team has the skills to hit them. If there’s a swing and a miss, then it’s time to talk about ways to improve for next time. That cycle is endless.
There’s no way to ever be 100% prepared, especially with the expansion to inland spill response and the many threats posed by rail transport, but the OWCN does an impressive job of getting as close as possible, and never resting on their laurels.
That extends beyond animal response and care. They manage databases, run trainings, mobilize teams and even handle the bulk of their communications on their own. The fact that they maintain a weekly blog is impressive given their array of other responsibilities. During Refugio, the team provided updates on social media, answered important questions via blog posts and responded to requests from the media.
By the time I made it down to San Pedro where dozens of oiled pelicans were recovering, the most urgent work had been done. The team had seized upon the unfortunate reality of the spill and used it as an opportunity to put trackers on a selection of pelicans to monitor their behavior and survival after the spill. Those results will inform and improve future oil spill responses. Such is the quest for steady improvement at the OWCN. I feel lucky to have worked alongside this team.
I plan on refreshing my HAZWOPER certification in the coming month, so if/when a big one happens, drop me a line and ask my new boss to send me down with a camera and a notepad!
NOTE: Me and the entire OWCN team wants to sincerely thank Justin for his behind-the-scenes professional telling of our story over the past several years, and wishes him and his family the best of luck in his new adventure with our sister organization up north on Orcas Island! And, yes, I will be on the phone with Joe Gaydos when we need him! – Mike