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.


Kicking the Tires

Happy Friday, Friends!

Over here at OWCN central, we’re in the final phases of preparation for next week’s full deployment drill.  Just a few more “i”s in need of dots and “t”s in need of crossing.

drill intake

Intake personnel practice with decoys

Drills are our opportunity to kick the tires on our program.  They’re the best way, short of responding to an actual event (knock on wood), to find ways to improve and keep our personnel in top fighting shape.  In tabletop drills we make decisions and plans, run through paperwork, and virtually work through our procedures.  In a more targeted area drill, we’re able to test out very specific portions of our facilities and procedures in great detail.

Next week’s drill is a “full deployment drill”, which means we’re testing out all four of our response streams – Wildlife Recovery, Hazing, Care & Processing, and Field Stabilization.  We’ll be working with staff and volunteers from 19 organizations, and we’ll be responding to a variety of species, including both birds and marine mammals (although exactly what and how many our Wildlife Recovery folks will bring in is a secret known only to our Director – and Drill Master – Mike Ziccardi).


Drill Briefing

2012 full deployment drill participants receiving a briefing.

This year, the drill will be taking place on the central coast, hosted by two of our wonderful Member Organizations, Pacific Wildlife Care and The Marine Mammal Center – San Luis Obispo.  It’s not easy accommodating an event of this size while still continuing normal operations, but these wildlife professionals don’t shirk from a challenge.

drill inject

“Injects” like this help to simulate the unpredictable, frequently challenging events of a real oil spill.

If you have a few minutes, I strongly recommend checking out their websites and blogs (linked above), where you can find stories about their wonderful operations–and if you’re inspired, you can support their heroic work through volunteering or donations.

I don’t know exactly what will happen during the drill next week, but I do know we’ll have an amazing opportunity to check our program for holes, work together with our Network partners, and brainstorm ways to keep the program current and constantly improving. 

What more could we ask for?