Major spills such as this teach response authorities a lot and the Sea Empress has been no exception. Our British colleagues did not wait for clean-up to terminate before setting up the SEEEC (Sea Empress Environmental Evaluation Committee) in a bid to monitor the effect of the spill on the environment.
Theoretically, information flow should mirror and support a response command structure. With the Sea Empress spill, the command structure was set up promptly but information and decision contents were routed very slowly to the Coast Guard Authority during actual operations. Furthermore, important messages such as those regarding « people on board » were diversely interpreted. Admittedly, the weather was very rough, a lot of vessels, authorities and private organisations were all working in or for the response authority. As a result, slow communications channels and mishaps in understanding message content could have jeopardised personnel safety and lead to the mismanagement of the entire emergency on the part of the people in charge of co-ordinating the response teams and equipment.
Two solutions were advocated to resolve a number of problems such as appointing « liaison officers » as and when required by the in situ response authorities to ensure that appropriate information reached those needing it in addition to ensuring that message content was clear and well understood. In addition, care was taken to ensure that messages were drafted accurately whilst complying with IMO standards on alert and message formats.
The extent and the sheer complexity of the Sea Empress spill and the fact that it occurred only three years after the Braer spill in the Shetlands were serious handicaps for them and their contacts with the press and the media.
Initial findings have provided pointers on how communications were managed during the spill :
Response plans proved inadequate on two accounts, trained personnel and available equipment
A Press Office set up in Southampton in an attempt to relieve responders of media pressure for information was quickly spurned by journalists that had serious doubts as to the credibility of the information given to them by press officials working in an office that was a long way from the scene of operations. As a result, the entire Press Office had to be relocated to Milford Haven causing serious logistics problems.
There is clearly a need for a National Media Contingency Plan to deal with contacts with the media where duties and obligations are clearly set out in addition to the respective roles of local and national authorities. The plan will indicate, inter alia, what support is to be expected from the oil industry.
The media asked a great number of general questions on matters such as existing organisational structures, response techniques, dispersants and how to use them and so on. The questions had no relation as such with the spill. The reports and the documents drafted to deal with the Sea Empress spill will be the templates for draft documents that will be updated regularly and handed out to journalists if ever another spill occurs.
Decision-makers need information and pictures as soon as they can be made available (video or TV) and experience has shown that plenty of information sources are available for shore response but not much on sea response. Consequently, two options have been envisaged: an agreement with professional producers (public or private producers) for providing video/film footage in addition to providing response HQs and Crisis Management HQs with access to satcom facilities.
Officials will be in real need of training on how to cope with interviews on radio and TV so as to optimise performance.
Going forward, all NCPs will have to ensure that the professional media are given special treatment in terms of information content. Associations, activists and local populations will be dealt with separately.
Experts will need to put more thinking into how new information dissemination vectors can be mastered and particularly the information relayed by the Internet.
Many sea and coastal responders have had the opportunity of acquiring a lot of valuable experience on spills and as a result have been used to keeping a « log » of what decisions they took, and what options they envisaged all of which was used for writing up their reports. The snag has however been that not everyone has systematically used the same approach since responders tend to come from different horizons where operational procedures are very varied. As a result, information on the Sea Empress spill has been recorded in all sorts of media not to mention different formats and information content.
Our British colleagues have come to the conclusion that there is now a real and urgent need for a standard archival procedure for all of the data on spills and that the best way to store the data is in a GIS (Graphical Information System). Discussions have been organised with local authorities, oil companies and ITOPF on what information should be acquired and how it should be stored and processed.
The MPCU has come to the conclusion that ORs have an urgent need of non-technical clerical staff capable of acquiring the data, recording it, disseminating it as appropriate in addition to providing full logistic support. Such, apparently, was not the case with the Sea Empress spill.
The British Authorities have identified the need for a team of people capable of answering questions raised by Ministries, Parliament and the public at large. During the Sea Empress response operation, the Shipping Policy Directorate was tasked with this job and had to answer 103 questions from Parliament, 405 questions from Ministries and 2,700 questions from the public at large. The British NCP will undoubtedly be reworked in a bid to mirror the role played by the Shipping Policy Directorate in the event of a major spill.