Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Journalistic ignorance of NIMS/ICS is hurting the nation

Here's one of the most egregious examples of journalistic ignorance of the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System, the Joint Information Center and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990: The Washington Post says the spill has created an uneasy marriage between BP and the government.

For twenty years government agencies at the federal, state and local levels have practiced this marriage with every major oil company and oil shipping company. They've been at the altar for 20 years, well, actually way past the altar. Why? Because they like each other so much? No, because the law required it. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following ExxonValdez required the government and private company identified as the "Responsible Party" to collaborate in stopping the spill and cleaning it up. The RP pays, the government under authority of the lead federal agency, approves all plans, all actions, and all information. That's the way it has been--until 2010. That's when the biggest event of all called for everything invested in this system to pay off.

But we have been bitterly disappointed. Not by BP, not by the Coast Guard or the other agencies involved. But by the highest office in the land which has chosen for its own political future to put aside the 20 years of productive, cooperative and highly effective investment in a collaborative means of responding to big events. This action, as I have stated here before, is putting the future of NIMS and the JIC very much at risk--I believe putting at risk the ability of our nation to respond effectively to events in the future including major terrorist events. To what end? To avoid this administration being painted with the Katrina brush. It is a high price to pay in my mind. One we may all have to pay for in the long term.

But the political messaging that has overwhelmed the Joint Information Center releases is only made possible because of ignorance of NIMS/ICS and the JIC. This headline from the Washington Post demonstrates it, as does the seriously light weight cover story in the New York Times today.

If the reporter writing for the Washington Post was more informed about Unified Command, he would not be surprised about the forced marriage of BP and the federal government. He would be far more surprised, shocked even, that in this event a relationship that has been worked out through years of smaller events and large drills would be so badly damaged--to the detriment of the response and the victims--by a heavy handed political overlay.

It's long a truism in management that effective teamwork requires mutual trust, respect and open communication. That existed in the early days of the response. The marriage was there, tested and tried by time and effort. But that marriage was destroyed by dictate. The response is not better for it, the gulf is not better for it, BP is certainly not better for it, and I would suggest that the administration is not more respected for it.

The Washington Post, had it been more informed, would not have written about an uneasy marriage. But how a perfectly good marriage, so desperately needed in this response has had divorce forced upon it. The question ahead, and I would hope some better informed reporter would focus on it, is what does this forced divorce mean for the future of collaborative response? That may be one of the most distressing legacies of this very sad chapter in our history.


  1. Are we really surprised at the political play in this whole affair?

    We're no longer in a age where perception is reality. Perception has surplanted reality in every way. No more so than our political classes cultivating the myth that they are really in charge when a crisis occurs.

    It may be misguided but it's what the public expects: to have someone at the top who knows what's going on ... or gives the appearance of being in charge.

    Another illusion that will persist ... despite the fact that 85 to 90 per cent of our infrastructure is privately-owned. People look to whomever they have elected to lead the way.

    Not sure we're on the right path thhough. You're in a tough spot Gerald...