Aftermath Algeria: Incident Response 101 – Containing and Taming the Crisis
Tim Haidar: Hello! Welcome! This is Tim Haidar. Today, I’m speaking with Peter Johnson, Incident Commander for the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency otherwise known as FEMA in the US. Peter thank you very much for joining us today.
Peter Johnson: Thank you.
Tim Haidar: Peter, first I know you’ve got quite a long and storied career in incident response and management. Can you maybe take us through a brief snapshot of your work so far?
Peter Johnson: Well, I started off very early in the fire department. I was in charge of Special Search & Rescue and moved over to doing environmental remediation and emergency response for FEMA and have been kind of building my career on that since then, doing a lot of natural disasters throughout the United States as well as Canada and Mexico and throughout the coordinating the responses and securing areas and making sure that they are safe again for repopulation.
It’s been a wild ride all the way from the start to where I am today!
Tim Haidar: How would you say that the oil and gas sector differs from other sectors with regards to incident response? Is there anything that makes it particularly challenging?
Peter Johnson: The oil and gas sector is actually somewhat well-defined area of emergency response compared to some of the other responses I have done which have been uncontrolled. For instance, during World Trade Centre, we had numerous varieties of chemicals, numerous varieties of hazards that had to be overcome and taken care of.
The oil and gas industry has a much better defined set of hazards and a much better defined set of risk management to alleviate some of the hazards that are present and can occur. The difficulties, I think, within the oil and gas industry is that it’s a very transient workforce within the company so that the oil industry itself has a pretty stable workforce. But each individual company has a very transient workforce. And this is what creates the problems for doing emergency response. The workforce is not accustomed or trained to what that company’s specific requirements are. That’s where it becomes problematic for oil and gas.
Tim Haidar: Now, when it comes to incident response within taking place in the Middle East, is there anything in particular which you see nations should be more aware of with regards to response? I’m presuming that there are logistical challenges over large, inhospitable tracks of land, lack of water, that kind of thing.
Peter Johnson: That is probably the largest challenge that I have faced, logistical and resource availability and the time delay that occurs trying to get those logistics into place so that they can be deployed. Water is obviously a huge factor but not the only contributing factor. It’s also getting the personnel in that are trained to do this work and have them in place and ready to go.
The actual logistics of trying to get that accomplished in a timely manner is a very daunting task within the Middle East.
Tim Haidar: We’re in 2013 and the Middle East Region has seen and still is seeing on-going political crises. Would you say that working for an oil and gas company in the Middle East at the moment is more dangerous than it was, say, 5 years ago?
Peter Johnson: Absolutely! The political picture at this point does raise quite a few concerns primarily in terms of the health and safety and the protection of the people who are working. But also on the resources that are being harvested from the oil and gas whether it’s crude, whether it’s natural gas, whatever, the impacts from instability create also a domino effect of environmental hazards down the road that are not taken into account obviously during an uprising or instability or time of strife. But it has to be recognized down the road. And that again, creates a health hazard for future generations that may be working there or may actually be building residences there.
So, it has become more dangerous not only in the immediate sense of personal security and protecting the asset, but also in the longer term view of the damage that has occurred and the contaminants that maybe present and the long-lasting effect that presents to the people who are going to be there five to ten years down the road.
Tim Haidar: When you think of emergency response, you’re thinking of "there’s a fire". Once the fire is out, that’s the end of the story. Everyone can go back to their normal lives even in the case of the World Trade Centre. You had almost lava-like fires burning for weeks afterwards.
Peter Johnson: Absolutely. I mean, if we take a look at the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the release of crude was a short-term crisis that had to be taken care of immediately and that’s for obvious reasons. But now, you will get at the subsequent cost down the road and BP is looking at funding, basically for about the next 10 years, the restoration of the environment that was impacted by that spill.
So, when we talk about crisis management, again we have to have two views of how we look at it. What is the immediate fix for this problem that we have? But at the same we have to look at what are the long lasting impacts of this crisis and what do we have to do to correct them and make sure that they’re remediated and mitigated so that there’s no future harm.
Tim Haidar: If there were three things that you would say to anyone out there in charge of the incident response and crisis management at oil and gas companies, what should those three things should be?
Peter Johnson: I come from a production background. My whole career has been based on production and meeting all their goals whether it’s financial, operational, whatever. That has been my background; working with health and safety and managing health and safety within my responsibilities. I have seen the effects of how this enhances a company and enhances the worker and gives the worker a much higher degree of motivation to perform the work.
The first thing always is going to be the health and safety of that person and the work crews that are out there doing that response.
The second thing is I think incident commanders have to acknowledge that in the rush of the crisis and the initial hours of the crisis there could be mistakes made by the response effort from the incident commander all the way down. There are going to be mistakes made. And those are acceptable if the intent is to mitigate the crisis that is occurring and also maintaining health and safety of that person. We may not come up with the best practice immediately. A lot of incident management is reaction at the initial stage. And then, after a period of time, you can start planning out a lot better what needs to be done.
And the third thing is just the willingness to make those decisions. Don’t hesitate. Don’t try to lead by a group. As an incident commander, I have many points of information coming into me. And many times a lot of that information is conflicting. The one thing that is vital is to make a decision and make it fairly quickly. Don’t wait to make a decision that could impact the overall response.
Those are basically the three points that I would bring up.
Tim Haidar: Great! Well, Peter thanks for your time today and that primer in incident response and management there.
Peter Johnson: Thank you very much, Tim.
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