Observing the JIC: Communications in an Oil Spill Exercise

I recently attended the three-day BP Shipping/Alaska Tanker Worst Case Discharge Exercise in San Mateo. As a member of OWCN’s marketing team, I went to observe the communications process of the exercise, which operates out of the Joint Information Center, or JIC. The goals of the JIC are to establish effective communication with the public and media within the first few hours of responding to a spill and to create a plan for the next 24-48 hours.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I’d never participated in a large-scale spill or spill exercise. As I approached the exercise floor, humming with activity, I started to realize the scope of an actual spill and the dynamic coordination required to address it. A couple hundred participants navigated the room toward their respective sections—from command staff and planning to logistics and operations—greeting one another along the way.


Members of the Operations section

Some attendees were in full uniform, like members of the Coast Guard and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly everyone wore brightly colored vests, which identified the various exercise roles. JIC participants, part of the command staff, wore white vests. My OWCN colleagues, Jennie and Lorraine, wore orange vests as part of the Wildlife Operations team.


Two of my OWCN colleagues, Jennie and Lorraine, representing Wildlife Operations in the Operations section of the exercise.

By the time the ICS 201 Incident Briefing started, it was standing room only. We were briefed on the exercise scenario by the Incident Commander and encouraged to collaborate across teams, share knowledge and ask questions. Then it was off to exercise play!

Inside the JIC, the lead Public Information Office (PIO) and JIC manager were identified and working groups were quickly set up for media, community relations, info gathering, written products and social media. Deliverables included a press release that announced the formation of the Unified Command, a VIP site visit and a press conference set for late afternoon. A plan was made to hold hourly check-ins and then everyone dove into their assigned duties.


Inside the JIC: California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s OSPR PIO Eric Laughlin takes a media call.

Within minutes, phones in the JIC starting ringing—simulated press calls from the exercise controllers—which the media team promptly jumped on. The social media team showed me a very cool online tool that the exercise controllers were also using to simulate posts about the spill from the public. The JIC manager relayed an approved social media handle and website name for the spill, and media were directed to them for updates. Both the media team and social media team shared high priority questions and rumors with the JIC manager and the written products team to help build out talking points, press releases and fact sheets for the exercise’s spill website.

spill exercise website

The exercise website included mock press releases, fact sheets, photos, maps and contact information.

In the afternoon, the JIC held a mock press conference. In preparation, the Incident Commander and federal, state and local agency representatives were selected and prepped with talking points. Copies of the press releases and fact sheets were on hand for the “reporters” as they checked in. A camera operator stood at the ready, and then the the lead PIO started the press conference. He provided a brief summary of the incident and then each representative provided a short statement. It was exciting and a little nerve-wracking to watch the representatives respond to some tough questions—I had to remind myself that this was not an actual press conference. The importance of the prep work became immediately evident.


The lead PIO responding to “reporters” at the exercise’s mock press conference

Watching the JIC in action was like observing a master class in crisis communications. It was a great reminder that information in an unfolding incident is constantly evolving, which creates opportunities for error and confusion (and at worst, panic). That’s why it is so critical that the JIC work closely with Unified Command and the section leads to ensure a single, verified source of communication with the public. A coordinated response effort and a controlled flow of communication help ensure accurate communications, and in turn the safety of the public, responders and crew involved in an oil spill.


The OWCN comms team, Kristin and Eunah, in the JIC.


Hosting the GOWRS meeting

This week, the OWCN management team and member organization International Bird Rescue are pleased to host the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) for a series of meetings, activities and planning.

GOWRS partners and OWCN staff at the boneyard facility.

GOWRS partners and OWCN management team members at UC Davis. (Richard Thompson/RSPCA)

A collaborative project comprising 11 partner organizations, GOWRS is working to raise the level of oiled wildlife readiness and response and care worldwide. Among its objectives: develop a governance system for the notification and mobilization of international wildlife response resources during large oil spills and establish international standards of animal care. GOWRS also aims to help build or expand response networks in regions that don’t have the capacity to respond to animals in distress.

Group of people around a meeting table listening to a presenter.

Adam Grogan, RSPCA, leading a governance discussion with GOWRS partners at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. (OWCN)

Facilitated by the Sea Alarm Foundation (Belgium), GOWRS meets twice a year in alternating locations. This was the project’s first visit to California. In addition to SAF, OWCN and IBR leadership, attendees included representatives from Massey University (New Zealand), RSPCA (UK), Aiuka (Brazil), Focus Wildlife (WA state and Canada), PRO Bird (Germany), SANCCOB (South Africa), Tri-State Bird Rescue (Delaware) and WRCO (Belgium).

“This is an entity that brings in new ideas from all around the world,” said Curt Clumpner, OWCN deputy director of animal care operations. “Learning how one another’s organizations approach different kinds of problems and care for different species makes us all stronger as a global response system and as individual organizations.”

Among the week’s agenda items: discussion of governance issues critical to efficient emergency response built on trust and teamwork, tabletop readiness exercises for spill scenarios occurring in Malaysia, Denmark and Kazakhstan, meeting OWCN management and IBR staff, and taking tours of the OWCN “boneyard’ equipment facility and the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center managed by IBR. Chevron and ExxonMobil representatives from GOWR’s Industry Advisory Group will join meetings on Friday.

Viewing the inside of a response trailer.

During the visit, GOWRS partners took a tour of the OWCN “boneyard” where response equipment is stored, from trailers to Tyvek, and tents and nets. This is the inside of our MASH—Mobile Animal Stabilization Hospital. (OWCN)

As you might imagine, many of the representatives are fanatical birders. So fittingly, the visit will come to a close with a pelagic birding trip out of Half Moon Bay, a small coastal city about 25 miles south of San Francisco. GOWRS will meet next in the fall.

— Kristin

And the next Oilapalooza will be – wait for it…

Scott, Greg, and I are on our way back from the latest Basic Responder Training at the Marine Wildlife Care Center, located on Humboldt State University’s campus in Arcata. The last time I was in Arcata was nearly 20 years ago for the predecessor of the BRT, which was called Advanced Supervisors Training. Interestingly, this was the first time I met Greg. We only know this because of photographic evidence – neither of us actually remembers meeting each other, but we have actually known each since 2001, not 2010.

The Basic Responder Training brought in members from Shasta Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, Humboldt State University, and a strong showing from Bird Ally X @ Humboldt Wildlife Care Center. We actually have a lot of Network members in this region. We had the chance to visit the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center and check out the new location of the Institute for Wildlife Studies – one of our hazing and collection Network members that is also based in Arcata.


I forgot just how much is happening in this area, and just how beautiful it is. The drive up through the redwoods was stunning. We arrived early the day before the BRT, which gave us plenty of time to check out the incredible facilities of our hotel – the Best Western Plus, Humboldt Bay Inn located in Eureka – which has a solarium with a pool table, a swimming-pool-sized hot tub with a waterfall, and tikki bar with fire pits. Just a couple blocks away is old town Eureka, which has an incredible food Co-op and a lot of great restaurants.

You may be wondering right about now why I’m rambling about hotels and towns in this distant refuge behind the redwood curtain. That’s because this is where we’ll be hosting the next Oilapalooza, this October 16-17th!!! With the improved highways and direct flights from LA, access to this beautiful destination will be much easier for all of our member organizations.

As if the Network partners, natural beauty, and incredible wildlife (not to mention the spill history) of this region weren’t enough, we’ve already started planning for some incredible workshops, lectures, and hands-on experiences. Stay tuned for more on that. For now, save the date: October 16-17th2019. Additional information and registration details coming soon.

oilapalooza is coming

Hope to see some of you in Humboldt County!!

~ Danene


Danene Birtell – OWCN Readiness Coordinator





Basic Responder Training in the San Francisco Bay Area

On Monday, members of the OWCN management team led a Basic Responder Training (BRT) in Tiburon, California, at the Estuary and Ocean Science Center, a research and service organization of San Francisco State University.

BRT attendees represented OWCN member organizations from across the Bay Area, including the EOS Center, The Marine Mammal Center, Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, the SPCA for Monterey County, Lindsay Wildlife Experience and the Greater Farallones Association. Newly hired OWCN management staff also participated.

View from the training of the San Francisco Bay

Our view of the San Francisco Bay during training.

After enjoying coffee and a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay, the 22 BRT attendees focused on the objective of the day: Learn the core concepts and fundamental skills needed for oil spill response.

While participants already have established skills in animal care and previously completed the OWCN Core Webinar series providing basic information on oil spill response, BRT gives them the opportunity to walk through the response process firsthand and learn their roles in various spill settings.

“After this training, the volunteers are better equipped to jump in and help us respond to a spill immediately,” said Scott Buhl, OWCN responder specialist, who helped lead the training.

Basic Responder Training participants

The all-day event included sessions on human safety, animal handling and restraint, documentation, and the importance of resiliency — recognizing the need for self-care during chaotic emergency response. Participants also took part in spill response role-playing scenarios and a personal protective equipment (PPE) exercise.

By day’s end, attendees are considered “pre-trained volunteers.” When there is a spill, they are among the first to be called to help.

Basic Responder Training is offered five-to-six times a year throughout the state. Our next BRT event will be held March 12 in Arcata at Humboldt State University’s Marine Wildlife Care Center.

Thank you to the Estuary and Ocean Science Center for hosting this training, and for providing caffeine and sustenance to fuel our day!

– Kristin

Bone Barn Bash

Bright and early last Friday morning a group of us gathered at the Bone Barn with our “good morning attitudes” and coffee in hand. The “Bone Barn” (or Bone Yard – we use them interchangeably), is what we call the location just off campus where we store all our response equipment, from trailers and Tyvek to tents and nets.

With the heaters on full blast, we came up with a game plan to re-organize the barn to further enhance its ease of use and transform it into an even more aesthetically pleasing space. First on the docket, reorganizing the carriers. We went through each one individually, ensured that it was in good condition, and tossed the ones that were no longer durable. We then created four different sets of “nesting” carriers that contained one size of each carrier (mini, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, and 700). These we placed back on the shelf where they are easily accessible, when the disaster strikes! The rest of the plastic carriers were stacked and placed inside the metal ones for extra space saving consolidation.

We then set our sights on inventorying and organizing our Tyvek stash, ensuring all the boxes were in tip top condition, noting expiration dates, and recording what sizes need to be restocked. Next up, were the traps! The fact that they are all different sizes, types, and shapes made it a bit tricky. However, Scott did an excellent job with his tetris skills to get them to all fit neatly in one spot together! By early afternoon we had an entire section of shelves reworked, the traps organized and strapped together, and stomachs that were ready for lunch! As we admired our work and helped ourselves to Wendy’s delicious homemade cupcakes, we were ready to call it a day.

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Readiness Takes a Seat at the Table

Planning, preparation and training are critical to any crisis response effort. This is especially true when a crisis requires a large-scale response, with multiple teams of people and equipment arriving on scene from various agencies, organizations and impacted communities. With so many moving parts, the potential for confusion, error and inefficiency is high. There is no time to waste herding cats.

Readiness is one of OWCN’s four core principles, and we constantly train personnel and test procedures throughout the year to ensure that we are prepared to respond to oiled wildlife events.

Last week at OWCN headquarters, the management team and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) held their first-ever “tabletop” training exercise. Approximately 25 participants at this all-day event evaluated various strategies and aspects of oiled wildlife response, from notification, activation and staffing to reconnaissance, hazing and animal care.


OWCN and OSPR leadership planned two spill scenarios for the exercise: a major marine spill in Monterey Bay, and a tanker truck incident near the Stanislaus River. OSPR Program Manager for Response Technology, Greg McGowan, facilitated the discussion.

In addition to ensuring that everyone is on the same page operationally, it was beneficial to sit down face-to-face with OSPR field teams to share resources and build rapport. Strengthening our partnerships during “peacetime” helps to create a more cohesive environment when a spill happens.

We look forward to more tabletop exercises in the future!




At 9:18 am Monday morning the OWCN Senior Team received a heads-up text from Julie Yamamoto at California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) alerting us to an accident involving a tanker truck earlier that morning at Dutch Flat on I-80. As you might imagine whenever we get a text that includes “this is not a drill” the adrenaline spikes. At 9:19 the whole OWCN Management team here in Davis looked down as our phones beeped for a Group Me message from Mike Ziccardi with the information from Julie and instructions to confirm we have received it. (How does he type so fast?)

    Blog Julie Y text Dutch flat IMG_5530.jpg                Mike text Group me Dutch IMG_5529.jpg


Immediately those of us who don’t know where Dutch Flat, CA is headed to Google Earth or Maps to get an idea of the location, topography and access roads and then check the temperature and weather at the site.

Dutch flat.jpg

Kyra led a quick informal discussion with the some of the Readiness and Field Operations staff who were working at the Boneyard and came up with a contingency plan to be ready to immediately deploy an initial Wildlife Recovery team directly from Davis if we were activated.

Cal Spill Watch 10;31.jpg


At 10:21 CDFW Cal Spill Watch tweeted a report of the incident and a photo of the wreckage. As we waited for more news, we discussed potential species impacts, wildlife survey recovery methods in steep terrain, equipment needs, and potential care operations locations as we celebrated a staff birthday with lunch out.

Just about the time our burgers and fries arrived, so did an update tweet from Cal Spill Watch detailing efforts in the investigation and the plan to construct a barrier to contain the spill and keep it from the nearby creek when the rain (forecast for later in the day) arrived.

As the day went on and our lunch digested with no call to activate or even formally stand by, our blood pressure and heart rates settled back to normal. While the efforts to remove the truck and clean up the environment continued, we stood down and went back to the daily work of our team. Checking and maintaining equipment, replacing or improving, arranging trainings, and doing all the little things that make it possible to be ready to roll when the call or text lets us know that “this is not a drill”. Waiting for that next jolt of adrenaline those words bring to responders of all kinds including us here in Davis and all of the Member Organizations up and down California.

Cal Spill watch last.jpg


PS Later Monday night we learned that the driver of the truck died in the crash. Although it appears at this time that the damage to the environment was much less that it could have been, we recognize that for the family and friends of the driver it could not have ended worse. Our thoughts are with them today.