Wednesday, June 16, 2010

BP and Emergency Non-Response

If a report in the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the emergency procedures in place aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig would had the effect of slowing response to an emergency rather than encouraging an effective response. A Wall Street Journal article describes many of the problems. (

Of course it is impossible to know what would have happened with better emergency procedures. However the delay those procedures caused certainly didn't help and may have made the difference between a short incident and the current problem we now have with oil spewing into the gulf, contaminating everything it can reach. A few men on the drilling floor noticed the problem before anyone else was aware of it. What would have happened had they taken emergency action? We don't know but it might have helped.

I have some experience with emergency response, having been involved in mountain rescue for nearly 25 years and a church emergency response coordinator for many years. In our rescue organization, the greenest rescuer has authority to take action if appropriate – and before he enters the field he gets training to help him make such decisions and take such action.

Contrast that to the situation described in the Wall Street Journal article. Captain Kuchta actually chewed out the employee who sent the Mayday message. I find that obscene, an employee actually being told not to act appropriately.

The report also says that, “The written procedures required multiple people to jointly make decisions about how to respond to 'dangerous' levels of gas.” And “A rig worker attempting to contain a gas emergency had to call two senior rig officials before deciding what to do.”

The whole procedure seemed to militate against a good response; it treated emergencies as decisions to be made using normal procedure. That is a recipe for disaster, and disaster is what they got.

In my practice as a decision-making consultant I differentiate between urgent and normal decisions. For normal decisions it is useful to take the time to gather information and think about the issues. Not so with urgent cases. Emergencies are well, emergencies. By their very nature they require quick action. Any emergency action plan that blocks such action is probably worse than no plan at all.

An effective emergency response plan will have several parts:

a. Anyone likely to face the emergency must be empowered to act. That includes all employees down to the janitor.

b. Those people must be trained to recognize emergencies and react appropriately. That training must go beyond the common technique of showing a video once a year. Instead it must include actual practice.

c. People must not be punished for taking emergency action. There must be recognition that people will make mistakes but it is usually better to err on the side of caution.

d. All appropriate emergency equipment must be in place and people trained to use it. There are reports that the Deepwater Horizon was lacking an emergency shut-off valve. Such a valve might have made the difference.

I am convinced that we can drill in deep water safely and effectively. However to do so we must institute appropriate procedures. Those procedures must first aim to prevent problems and then to respond quickly and effectively to any emergencies that do arise.

This is one place where government regulation is appropriate. The law must require good emergency procedures and that law must be enforced.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review, No Apology bt Mitt Romney

No Apology, The Case for American Greatness by Mitt Romney, St Martin's Press 2010, 309pp plus index

I don't think there is any doubt that Mitt Romney plans to run for president again in 2012 and this book can be regarded as laying out his campaign agenda. However even without that it is a book well worth reading. Today our president is often called the “apologizer in chief.” Many in our government seem offended by the idea that the U.S. is anything special, some going so far as to claim that we should become subservient to the UN. This book provides a breath of fresh air in that regard. Romney makes it clear that he believes a strong United States is good for the entire world, besides being good for our citizens.

As described in this book, the U.S. has been the light to the world in terms of both freedom and technological progress. Our actions drove the Soviet Union to break up and our example has inspired people throughout the world to seek freedom. Meanwhile we have put a man on the moon, developed computers, many medical technologies, etc. While the U.S. is not perfect, it is a shining light on a hill to the rest of the world.

The author describes four strategies (as he calls them) competing in the world today:

1. Economic and personal freedom exemplified by the United States.
2. Economic but no personal freedom, exemplified by China.
3. Use of oil and other natural resources to attain world domination, exemplified by Russia today.
4. The jihad theory of the fanatic wing of Islam that wants to force their version of Islam on others...

Only the first, both economic and personal freedom, will satisfy our citizens, and only that strategy will lead to happiness, freedom, and real progress in the countries where it is practiced.

Today we face serious challenges from the other three strategies, all of which are practiced by tyrants who seek world domination. However the U.S. has never sought world domination, instead we freed and helped nations such as Germany and Japan after we defeated them in wars forced upon us. That is one reason we are an example to the world. However we must face the reality that there are tyrants in the world and those tyrants want to dominate us and destroy our way of life. In Romney's (and my) opinion, the current U.S. leaders are not facing up to that reality. He lays out his own plans for dealing with them.

Domestically we also have problems, including economic freedom, education, and health care. Romney is clear that the Obama health care plan (passed after this book was written) is very different from the Massachusetts plan established while he was governor there and he believes the Obama plan is terrible.

In terms of education, he describes many real reforms that have been effective but are generally blocked by teachers' unions. We should remember that those unions represent their members. They have no duty to represent students or parents and of course do not represent those people. Here Romney believes in hard data and analysis thereof. He believes teachers and administrators must be held accountable and he has data to show results when such is done. In fact he says that there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test if the test really measures what students should be learning. He also wants to encourage more students to study math, science and engineering, areas where the U.S. is falling behind.

Related to education, Romney believes that our economy will fall behind unless we improve education and produce more graduates in the sciences and engineering. We produce many rock stars, actors etc. but must import scientists and engineers. In fact he wants to change the current rules that allow foreign students to get advanced degrees here only on the condition that they leave the country after graduation. That policy deprives us of exactly the people who could move our economy forward.

The author does maintain a positive note throughout. While he describes the problems we face, he also points out that we have faced and overcome problems in the past and the people can do so again.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it does not say much about he author's belief about our constitution. I would have liked to see a description of his belief in the constitution and what he expects in judicial nominees. After all, he belongs to a religion which holds that constitution as at least partly inspired.

Romney clearly believes that the U.S. can and must remain strong, but he also states that the Democratic Party is working against that. “On almost every policy issue that would have an impact on our nation's strength [the Democratic Party] chooses the course of weakness. It justifies the choice by insisting that it is attempting to help the disadvantaged, but in reality, surely the most important thing we can do for the disadvantaged is to sustain a strong, prosperous, and safe America. Too often, I fear, the Democratic Party is focused less on the disadvantaged than on union bosses, trial lawyers, environment extremists, and the self-interested who want higher government benefits for themselves paid for by higher taxes on others.” (p290)

I recommend that all citizens read this book before the next presidential election. Even should Romney not be the Republican nominee, it lays out some points that we should consider. Should he win that nomination it will describe what we can expect from him.