The moment an oil spill occurs, response speed is of the essence. Yet how often have you participated in the Incident Command System (ICS) at a spill and been frustrated with the speed or the coordination of the response? How often has a response been declared a success but getting there was so frustrating and exhausting that you've sworn you won't work that way anymore?

ICS is here to stay; yet how you can consistently make it work optimally for you and the response remains a challenge. This paper is based upon the premise that ICS enables the right information to be communicated to the right people, in the right format, at the right time. However, during most response debriefs, at the top of the “needs improvement” list you will find numerous references to the failure of information flow and communications. In this paper we share some of the hard lessons-learned in spill response along the California Coast, and ways in which some of the agencies involved today are proactively “preparing to communicate” within the Incident Command System.

We use case histories of past and recent spills and the California Spill of National Significance 2004 exercise to illustrate the communications and coordination problems inherent in most response Incident Command structures. A variety of issues are considered; from the evolutionary paths of most responses; to the numerous personalities and egos involved; to the wide array of expectations amongst participants and stakeholders; and the often unique and varied authorities and agendas that multiple agencies bring to a response.

We also suggest innovative ways in which the process of communications within the ICS is being augmented, enhanced, and set-up for success. We introduce concepts such as “data mining,” “embedded information specialists,” “fault-tolerant” communications mechanisms, “message mapping,” and “NEBA front-end loading”. A number of communications tools and concepts are described, that if implemented, will greatly improve multi-agency coordination and communications during a response, leading to a less stressful and more successful response outcome.

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