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.

1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

One thing that stands out is reoccurring theme that the government often obstructs the necessary action to get the job done. This is the reason that I believe in smaller government and more local control.
This obstruction is playing itself out in all aspects of our life from the border security to health care to disaster cleanup to the financial meltdown.
The oil companies are already very heavily regulated with something like 40 different oversight agencies. One more will not help. Often it is lack of the existing ones to do their job that leads to these disasters, not the need for new ones.