On March 22, 2014, a barge carrying nearly 900,000 gallons of marine fuel oil collided with a ship in the Houston Ship Channel. The collision led to the spill of an estimated 168,000 gallons of the heavy oil into the channel. The spill closed a critical area marine hub, impacted the local migrating wildlife, and spread nearly 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
The event highlights the importance of minimizing impacts through immediate, effective, and decisive communications and response actions. As the duration of an incident increases, it is likely that impacts will broaden. Real-time incident management is becoming more of an expected standard in today’s industrial settings. Current societal norms dictate the necessity for immediate access to crucial and timely information, especially during an emergency response.
A real-time incident management system (IMS) allows for real-time transmission of incident details, including location, severity, impact, and status. Because of the instantaneous communication, decisions and coordinated efforts can be tailored to an event as it evolves. A real-time system can:
- Reduce exponential impact of incidents through timely response
- Increase effectiveness of response
- Track status of the incident and all aspects of the response based on each organization/departments assignment(s) and operational levels
- Clarify necessary deployment of resources in order to prevent duplication of efforts
- Provides a means to aggregate data into a format that enables real-time analysis and decision making to ensure the most efficient and effective emergency response
- Provide an instantaneous method of emergency situational awareness
However, response actions must not fall victim to exaggerated miscalculations, rumors, and inaccuracies. The incident commander must ensure rapid responses and decisive actions are relevant and best suited for the site-specific scenario. In order for a real-time IMS to be effective, specific situational checklists should be created. Responders must understand applicable emergency procedures, status updates that need to be communicated, and in what time frame communications need to be documented. An incident should be managed through clearly identified and communicated objectives. These objectives should include:
- Establishing specific incident objectives
- Developing strategies based on incident objectives
- Developing and issuing assignments, plans, procedures, and protocols.
- Establishing specific, measurable tactics or tasks for various incident management functional activities, and directing efforts to accomplish them in support of defined strategies.
- Documenting results to measure performance and facilitate corrective actions
Just as timely communication methodology is important, commonly understood terminology is essential. A multi-agency incident response requires simple and parallel language. Rapidly communicating through unfamiliar company radio codes, agency specific codes, perplexing acronyms, unanticipated text messages, or specialized jargon will disconnect and confuse responders, and/or stakeholders, possibly prolonging a response.
Maintaining an accurate and up-to-date picture of resource utilization is a critical component of incident management and emergency response. Each real-time status update should identify the following in order to clearly communicate to those in the Incident Command System:
- Time of update (timestamp)
- Incident or event name
- Elapsed time of incident from initiation
- Name/position of responder making status updates
- Current planning phase and/or specific status update
- Tasks assigned, both internally and externally, and resources used or required
- Emergency Operations Center location and contact information
Companies that are required to maintain emergency response plans for regulatory purposes should consider the use of web-based response plans that integrate with a real-time IMS. Minimizing the consequences at the site, the environment, and the responders offsets the cost of implementing a new IMS. Improving reactive decision management, timeliness of an ongoing response, and swift implementation of recovery strategies can limit resulting effects of any emergency situation.
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