Simple Communication Practices for Complex Incidents

Flames erupt from the cargo holds of the New Carissa, after response crews intentionally set the blaze as a tactic to burn off fuel oil in the crippled ship before it could leak and wash ashore. Coos Bay, OR, Feb. 1999.

Flames erupt from the cargo holds of the New Carissa, after response crews intentionally set the blaze as a tactic to burn off fuel oil in the crippled ship before it could leak and wash ashore. Coos Bay, OR, February 1999. (image by the author)

At times, a simple incident – whether it be small or large – can become complex quickly, and require more from professional communicators than is the norm for mitigating disaster through their work with the community and media.

What makes an incident complex? An increasing magnitude of the incident or larger scope of area and people affected. An incident within the incident. More things happening as a result of the initial incident, compounding problems for incident management teams like a domino effect. Any number of things, really.

I’ve been deployed to plenty of complex incidents throughout the years, but a favorite example has always been the grounding of the 693-foot bulk carrier New Carissa, off Coos Bay, Ore., in February 1999. When I was deployed to the scene it was simply a grounded vessel, in rough conditions, with a potential threat of pollution. Boy, did things escalate quickly! During the course of the first few weeks of the incident, many factors were added-on that made it more complex:

  • Once on scene, we quickly found out that the ship was hard aground parallel to, and just a hundred or so yards off, a national recreation area – which are protected wildlife preservation areas.
  • We then learned that there was an endangered species of bird that nested in the area – and nesting season was beginning – and the birds nested on the very beach that was threatened by potential pollution from the ship.
  • After days of trying to battle Oregon’s rough surf with towlines and tugs to pull the ship free, it was evident that it would not budge — and was, in fact, harder aground.
  • The incident management team worked with subject matter experts, and decided a plan of action to conduct an in situ burn aboard the vessel – essentially, load portions of it with charges and napalm in an attempt to burn off fuel oil before it could leak and impact the beach.
  • Burn 1 was not sufficient, so burn 2 (pictured) was planned and executed the next day with – more napalm! Estimates in the hours after the burn was started provided calculations that deemed it successful.
  • However, the high heat from the burn weakened the ship, and in the middle of the night, it broke in two. Some fuel oil began leaking, but the bigger problem was now that there were two very large pieces of ship that needed to be salvaged – the aft section was smaller, and basically consisted of all the superstructure, engine room and other working spaces; the bow section was everything forward of that – essentially all the cargo areas of the ship. It was about a 70/30 break.
  • The aft section of the ship was going nowhere, and would have to be salvaged in place (a risk-filled operation); however, the bow section was buoyant enough to float. It was eventually pulled free, and under tow began a journey out to sea to a deep part of the Pacific to be sunk. The first night of the tow, a violent storm caused the towline to part, and the bow was adrift, eventually – get ready for it – going aground on the Oregon coast, many miles north of the original grounding.
  • As salvage began at the original grounding work site, teams were deployed to once again free the bow section, and tow it out to sea.
  • Upon arrival at the designated sinking area, the crew of a U.S. Navy destroyer used the 400-500-foot section of ship as target practice. It would not sink. A Navy submarine finished the job with a torpedo.
  • Pollution prevention and response operations in Coos Bay continued for months, and the salvage of the aft/stern section took years.

Whew! And those were just the highlights. The crisis communications team had many, many more complexities to deal

The New Carissa when it was still in one piece, hard aground off the coast of Coos Bay, Ore. February 1999. (image by the author)

The New Carissa when it was still in one piece, hard aground off the coast of Coos Bay, Ore. February 1999. (image by the author)

with during the first few weeks of the incident. Here’s how we did it, and how it’s been done successfully for other

complex incidents since:

Quickly Meet the Needs of the Media – Easier done now, with much more technology at our disposal, but back then we quickly set up media work areas adjacent to our command post, held regular briefings with leadership twice a day, devised safe ways to give the media access to on-site operations and provided them with subject matter experts to gain insight into all the complexities we faced. Within days we had a “satellite city” of television news trucks from throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern California – but we planned for the onslaught, and it was well-organized.

Quickly Meet the Needs of the Community – Area residents were not directly affected by the incident, per se, but were heavily affected by hundreds and hundreds of incident response workers descending on their small towns for extended periods. We were selling out all their hotel rooms, filling their restaurants and other service-based businesses and quickly depleting local stores of supplies. We carefully planned for and held well-attended community meetings within days of the initial incident, and provided subject matter experts, incident management leaders and plenty of visuals to explain what it was we were doing, and how. Literally overnight, the entire community vocally supported the incident response efforts and those people carrying them out. Lettered signs in front of businesses contained messages cheering on responders, and a local elementary school class wrote a song about the incident and invited leadership back to their own event so they could perform it (now that is support!).

Drive the Narrative – Too often in complex incidents, those responsible for communicating the crisis will fall “behind the story,” after allowing the media to pick and choose what they think is most important to report. In Oregon, we triaged our issues and focused on what we knew was most important first. Our ability to do this allowed for successful issues management with limited resources, and gave the public the most important information first.

Be Resilient – The initial crisis communications responders were prepared for the long haul, had plans to collaborate with communicators from multiple agencies ready to go and came equipped with a plan to establish, staff and operate a joint information center. Resiliency and the ability to triage issues at the scene of a complex incident both rely heavily on preparedness, but also flexibility.

Operationally, plenty of things didn’t go according to plan during this incident. Remember – it started off as a simple ship grounding. However, media coverage and public opinion was overwhelmingly positive for the months that we spent communicating the crisis, for the very reasons listed above.

Talk to me, Goose.

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