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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.