In the scenario, two ships collide and lose their cargo near Isle Royale National Park. Participants from the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards established a unified command with representatives from the state of Michigan, Houghton County, tribal leaders, and private industry.
The training is required annually to test some aspect of the Coast Guard’s contingency plan. They toggle each year between full-scale or functional exercises, like this week’s, or more discussion-based activities, like workshops or tabletop exercises, said Marine Safety Unit Duluth’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Frances Smith. Each session tackles a new aspect of the plan, she said.
“The fact that we haven’t had any major spills in recent times is more reason to get these exercises done, so we just don’t get complacent and forget that it’s always a possibility,” said Capt. Anthony Jones, commander of the Coast Guard’s Sault Ste. Marie sector.
Wednesday, they worked with the state and county to set up initial planning cycles of developing actions in the scenario, Smith said.
“As soon as any of us would have gotten called, we would have immediately started sending resources — helicopters, people — to get eyes on scene for something out at Isle Royale,” she said. “So that’s our initial operating period.”
That’s followed by bringing in technical specialists from various organizations who have both the resources and the authority to act in the scenario. Once they’re involved, the whole group begins planning and developing tactics and strategies for the next operation.
“We work with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and they give us a projection,” she said. “So we said this much, this type of project was spilled in the water, and then they use a computer software system and they project where it’s going to go.”
The response was divided between rooms. After unified command lays down goals for the next hours or day, the operations room will come up with tactics for how to accomplish them. From there, people in the planning room work on lining up the equipment or resources needed for the task. Dave Mergenthaler, a Coast Guard emergency manager from Buffalo, New York, pointed out the roles of several people nearby: one on the phone with Lansing figuring out national Guard support, an EGLE representative lining up local lodging, a finance person tracking the burn rate of spending, and someone from a response organization launched through the ship’s insurance. They might ask the Coast Guard for help in lining up a tanker that could hold 25,000 gallons of oil.
“It’s not like they’re running in their own lane and we’re running our own lane,” Mergenthaler said. “We’re kind of doing it together.”
Mergenthaler was part of a team of evaluators, watching the activities and seeing where the contingency plan needs to be tweaked, such as mentioning a business that no longer exists. One room is devoted to the simulation team, which sends out “injects” to keep responders on their toes — an injured member of the response team, or birds covered in oil.
Another real-world complication was the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the amount of in-person participation.
At the end of the day, the agencies come together for a “hot wash,” where they review the response and go over positives and things to improve, Smith said.
On the local side, the biggest role would be providing on-the-ground knowledge — such as places to anchor or land — as well as coordinating local volunteers, said Chris VanArsdale, emergency management coordinator for Houghton and Keweenaw counties.
While there haven’t been any multi-ship oil spills near Isle Royale, smaller versions of the same response have already been put in place, VanArsdale said.
“In the tanker spill in Chassell three years ago, we had a lot of the same people here — the Coast Guard was here to see if any oil had gone in the water, the EPA was there, EGLE was there,” he said.
Jay Eickholt from EGLE had worked extensively with local agencies on the response to the 2018 flood. But after up to 40 phone calls and more emails, this is the first time he and VanArsdale had met in person.
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) would provide technical advice through scientists, specialists and environmental staff embedded in the units, said Eickholt, the state on-scene coordinator for the training exercise. As emergency management coordinator for EGLE, he is responsible for giving state approval for actions going forward.
While he’s worked with the Coast Guard sector in Sault Ste. Marie extensively, some of the people involved, including from the Coast Guard’s Duluth station, he’s dealing with for the first time.
“It’s a great opportunity to use these to exchange the business cards, get the phone numbers and start to get a rhythm of ‘This is how we operate together now,’” he said. “So if, God forbid, we ever have to roll up on scene together, we know who’s who.”
So far, the exercise had been running smoothly, Van Arsdale said. He was happy to see other agencies use the same response format, which helps them to coordinate quickly when arriving on scene.
Responses the size of the one in this week’s training generally aren’t seen locally, VanArsdale said.
“Even for the flood, this is an order of magnitude larger than that,” he said. “To me, that’s very impressive, to walk through and see all these people, all these different rooms.”
One of the most impressive parts was the Coast Guard’s Enhanced Mobile Incident Command Post, which sat in the MUB parking lot. Based out of Chesapeake, Virginia, it is one of two in the United States, the other handling events west of the Continental Divide.
The post, which can supply power and internet, has been active in the past four hurricane seasons, said Information Systems Technician Second Class George Lopez, team lead for the post. In an emergency, it can mobilize in six hours.
Six people were deployed with the post. Lopez liaisons with points of contact to figure out what is necessary.
“You can’t be too meticulous,” he said. “If we forget a cable, we fail the mission, essentially.”
The post can provide power, internet and cell coverage. Two satellite dishes mounted on top bring in internet, with routers devoted to the Coast Guard, voice and phone capabilities and typical internet browsing.
“We’ve been able to maintain comms the entire time, so in the case that this was a real event, we’d be just fine,” Lopez said.