Office of Emergency Management

Categories: Oil Spill

The field of Emergency and Disaster Management is constantly evolving. This evolution can come from scientific research, engineering advancements, or contributions from social sciences to name a few. However, the lessons learned from examining the response to an actual event provides real-time data that can provide feedback for future policy decisions. This paper will examine three events for lessons learned and the impact they had on emergency management. These events are the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, the 2005 Hurricane season, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

The cataclysmic nature of these events tested the resources and practices of emergency responders at the local, state and federal level. On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked a total of 4 airliners with the intent to use them as weapons against the United States. Three of those airliners hit their targets and one was brought down in a Pennsylvania field by a heroic group of passengers. The multiple attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon building shocked the nation and challenged emergency managers and first responders.

Prior to the attack, emergency management planners had prepared a plan to respond to major incidents in New York City.

The Office of Emergency Management had developed response models and conducted drills to practice these responses. The results were analyzed and improvements were made. However, on the day of the attack, “ previous plans based on drills were found not to address the unique issues faced and new plans rapidly evolved out of necessity.”(Simon & Temperman, 2001, para. 1) In fact, trade center officials said there had been no drills there that included the Fire Department, the police and the Port Authority’s emergency staff.

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(Dwyer, Flynn, & Fessenden, 2002)(Dwyer et al., 2002) One of the first major challenges was the ability of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to establish command and control.

This was because the OEM was located in World Trade Center tower 7 and main communication antenna was on top of tower 1. As soon as the first plane struck tower 1, the OEM began to direct resources to the location, however, less than 2 hours later, tower one collapsed and it became necessary to relocate the OMB to a safer location. With the loss of the antennae and the disruption of the OMB, “The coordination of the response of the Emergency Medical Systems (EMS), the New York Police Department, and the FDNY was significantly impaired…”(Simon & Temperman, 2001, para. 4) One of the lessons learned from this experience was to locate OEM facilities in buildings that are less likely to be considered a critical facility or high-value target. A second lesson learned was “there should also be redundancy in the communications network so that one blow will not be a knockout.” (Simon & Temperman, 2001, para. 8) Medical facilities and responders had a difficult time dealing with the influx of patients in the early hours.

One of the problems was the ability to direct emergency response ambulances. A portion of the ambulances was operated by the New York City Fire Department but there was also a large fleet of private ambulances that responded from hospitals. The lack of communications made it difficult to distribute the inbound patients to multiple medical facilities which meant that the closer facilities were overrun at first, quickly reaching capacity.

In addition, there were people walking into the nearby hospitals on their own. As time went by, the hospitals were able to triage some of the stable patients out to other outlying hospitals, making more bed space for more acute patients. Hospitals learned that in the event of a disaster and communication breakdown, facilities closest to the event should begin assessing patients as they arrive and having the stable ones transported to outlying hospitals. This will save the necessary `bed space for the critically injured.

In the same way, hospitals farther from the event should immediately make preparations for the influx of patients. The communication problems also affected the ability of police and fire to communicate. The police and fire departments were not even able to communicate on the same frequency. As a result, warnings that the 2nd tower was going to collapse went unheard by the firefighters. Prior to the collapse, police helicopter pilots had issued a warning that tower 2 looked like it was going to collapse soon and advised that the building should be evacuated.

The police heard the broadcast but most of the firefighters did not. In fact, it was later learned the fire department radio system had failed several times during the response. To make the situation worse, “the police and fire commanders guiding the rescue efforts did not talk to one another during the crisis.”(Dwyer et al., 2002, para. 3) In the aftermath, interagency communications became a major topic of discussion not just in New York City but throughout the country. Since that time, mutual aid systems have been upgraded to allow agencies to communicate with each other via radio during emergency responses. In addition, cities from across the nation have become part of the NIMS and NRF, which improves the ability to coordinate and adjust multi-agency responses.

Sometimes emergencies are the result of human actions such as the 9/11 attacks, but more frequently natural events wreak havoc on the US population. This is especially true of those who live along the coastal areas in the east and along the Gulf of Mexico. According to the National Hurricane Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “The official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) is from 1 June to 30 November.” (National Hurricane Center website, n.d.)

In 2005, the US saw a record number of Hurricanes form in the Atlantic. “A record 15 hurricanes formed in the 2005 season, and seven of those reached major hurricane status[Category 3 or stronger]. The previous record was 12 hurricanes in the 1969 season.”(Dolce, 2015, para. 2) Three of the strongest hurricanes were Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and Hurricane Wilma. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, with sustained winds of up to 140 mph. Less than a month later, on September 19, Hurricane Rita pushed across Florida into the Gulf with winds as high as 178mph. Finally one month later, Hurricane Wilma devastated the Mexican Gulf coastline with record-setting winds of over 200 mph. Wilma continued north and turned east towards Florida. Though now a category 3 hurricane with 138 mph winds, Wilma crashed across the Florida peninsula.

As she re-entered the Atlantic ocean Wilma gained speed and moved north along the eastern coastline until she lost speed near Nova Scotia, Canada. These three hurricanes forced some of the largest evacuations in US history. the damage was estimated in the billions of dollars. Hurricane Katrina alone was estimated to be $108 billion. The impact of Katrina was immense. Katrina covered 90,000 square miles and 7 states. If that were not enough for FEMA to handle, Rita and Wilma compounded the problems in many of the same states over the next two months. The initial response from local, state and federal governments were substandard.

Evacuation orders were given too late, there were many poor and elderly that had no means of escape, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many in New Orleans lost their lives in the flooding. Conditions on the ground were horrible. Due to the poor evacuation efforts many were left stranded for days or forced into the SuperDome where there were crowds that had not been prepared for and supplies that were slow in coming. Following the 2005 Hurricane season, FEMA regrouped and reorganized so that it could respond more efficiently in the future. “Specifically, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) of 2006, gave FEMA clear guidance on its mission and priorities, and provided the legislative authorities needed to better partner with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments before, during, and after disasters.”(‘FEMA,’ 2015) FEMA can now provide advanced support to states and tribes before a disaster.

There was a National Disaster Recovery Framework established to guide recovery efforts. An Incident Management Assistance Teams is now available to respond in support of local incident commanders. “FEMA has better integrated search and rescue assets from across diverse Federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior.”(‘FEMA,’ 2015) Establish the Regional Emergency Communications Coordination Working Groups to coordinate more effective communications networks for use during disasters and emergencies. They have Enhanced partnerships with the private sector with better information sharing between the public and the private sector. This last step of improving information between the public and private sector is a very important one. FEMA depends a great deal on volunteers when disasters strike and the 2005 hurricane season was no exception.

In the FEMA publication, “Volunteers Meet Hurricanes Head On” FEMA officials describe disaster volunteers as “indispensable”. They listed volunteer efforts such as staffing phone banks, distributing emergency food and water, and clearing debris as examples. (‘Volunteers,’ 2006) Emergency Managers face terrorist acts and natural disasters, but there is another type of disaster that could be avoided. those are disasters caused by human error or negligence. One such case is the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig was drilling for oil 5000 ft below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico. On that day, there was an explosion on the rig which resulted in the largest oil spill in history. The disaster resulted in the deaths of 11 people and another 115 injured. The explosion occurred because of the use of a failing concrete plug used to cap the well.

The type of concrete used in the core was the wrong type and later court records revealed a similar accident had “occurred on a BP-owned rig in the Caspian Sea in September 2008.”(Pallardy, 2010, para. 1) The rig eventual sunk 2 days later rupturing the riser and allowing oil to flow out at a rate of up to 60,000 barrels a day. The oil contaminated 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida and flowed more than 100 miles out to sea. “ A large volume of oil sank to the ocean floor. In the attempt to clean up the spill, incalculable damage was done to fish and wildlife and to vital marshes and estuaries.”(Ebinger, 2016, para. 3)

The broken riser eventually to 3 months to plug. During that time, emergency responders fell ill working around the chemicals used to clean up the spill. The problem was not the offshore drilling or even the depth at which they were drilling for the oil instead it was the “cozy a relationship between regulators from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) and owners and operators of the Deepwater Horizon rig…”(Ebinger, 2016, para. 9) This relationship led to lax oversight.

In addition, BP, Transocean, and Haliburton employees were unclear about who was responsible for what. The contingency planning for such an event was non-existent. Neither of the three companies nor the U.S. Coast Guard had an emergency response plan. The subsequent clean up effort was supervised by the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency utilizing public and private efforts. “BP, Transocean, and several other companies were held liable for the billions of dollars in costs accrued”(Pallardy, 2010) Some of the recommendations made regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster are to “increased regulatory standards, require better company transparency for stakeholder accountability, require spill response drills and contingency planning for the U.S. Coast Guard; and utilize the best available technology and continuing job training for rig operators.” The lack of interagency cooperation on comprehensive emergency management can have grave consequences whether those consequences be the loss of life and or billions in damages.

For instance, in the case of Deepwater Horizon, it is hard to imagine the Coast Guard did not have an emergency response plan in place especially since they were one of the lead agencies in supervising the cleanup. Drilling for oil is done safely on a daily basis but when disasters strike, they are extremely costly.

Especially when done at sea where the currents can quickly move the oil over large geographical areas. The EPA and Coast Guard should ensure there is an effective plan in place to prepare for disasters through training and mandatory drills. Businesses such as oil interests should be required to demonstrate contingency plans in advance that are able to quickly shut down leaks and mitigate the damage. Finally, in industries that generate large profits such as the oil industry, it is tempting to cut corners now and pay later if something goes wrong. In the cases where it is determined that the ownership knowingly sacrificed safety for profit, there should be appropriate criminal penalties as well as civil penalties.

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Office of Emergency Management. (2022, May 02). Retrieved from

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