Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Incident Commander's Incident Commander--Admiral Allen

As the tide of battle, public opinion and politics begins to turn in the Gulf Spill (see story in this morning about the great job done), it is time to give recognition to a true national hero, Admiral Thad Allen.

If you ask any Incident Commander around the nation to describe what an ideal Incident Commander looks like, I would guess most would pretty much describe the Admiral. For good reason. He not only served as National Incident Commander in this event but also came in to Hurricane Katrina after the cataclysmic failure of local and state government response, took charge and achieved remarkable results. It is no doubt in part due to his leadership there that the Coast Guard stood out among all government agencies with its reputation (and funding) significantly enhanced after Katrina.

In the Gulf Spill, he got involved as National Incident Commander as things were starting to go seriously sideways. BP was failing on multiple tries to stem the flow. Media reports were scathing of the response. The administration, doing its best to avoid the "Obama's Katrina" meta-narrative was doing their best to heap outrage on the Responsible Party, key administration leaders were speaking for the response indiscrimately, and the Admiral clearly understood the vital role that BP needed to play to stop the spill.

I wasn't there to observe the operational side, but I had a pretty good ringside seat on the communications. While I have been highly critical here and in other observations about the abandonment of the NIMS JIC model and of the failures of BP, I have been amazed at Adm. Allen's performance as a spokesperson for the administration and response.

He provided the regular briefings with clearly a very deep knowledge of the complicated technology and engineering challenges the response team faced. He made it clear through both policies and repeated statements that Unified Command was committed to full transparency with only the limits of safety and security interfering. His common question to a reporter after providing a response was "was that responsive?" making it clear he was intent on not ducking anything, not equivocating, not spinning, but providing the unvarnished facts as he saw and understood them.

He was not shy about getting reporters on the right track when he saw them veering onto a rabbit trail or agenda. He challenged them but only by coming back to the facts. He was also not shy about contradicting major administration officials; specifically when Sec. Salazar suggested that BP would be thrown out of the response and Sec. Napolitano adamantly denied that BP was a "partner." The Admiral calmly communicated that BP's technology, expertise and commitment were essential. He was even willing to be so honest, in a political and media atmosphere that wishes only to heap scorn on BP, of commenting that their operational response was very good if not excellent, while also criticizing their reserve and ineffectiveness in meeting the American public's need for effective communication.

President Obama's decision to clear the public stage of all the Secretaries and department heads who wanted to speak about this and rely on the Admiral as the single voice of the response is one of the best decisions he made during this event. The Admiral more than lived up to the president's high expectations for him. I still regret that the Unified Command message was lost and that BP was also thrown off the stage, but our nation could not have had a better, more commanding, more reassuring and completely honest and transparent spokesperson for this event. It appears that President Obama has avoided the "Katrina" label and this event will neither define his presidency nor harm his political future. For that, I think he has no one to thank more than Admiral Allen.