What Deepwater Horizon taught us about being Always Ready

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft addresses members of the Plaquemines Parish branch regarding the Deepwater Horizon response, Aug. 9, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft addresses members of the Plaquemines Parish branch regarding the Deepwater Horizon response, Aug. 9, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal.

Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.

One of the greatest tests of the Coast Guard’s ability to surge forces in response to a major contingency occurred five years ago today when the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the Coast Guard responded along with others in the maritime community. While the collective response saved 115 people from the rig’s crew, 11 lives were tragically lost.

In the ensuing months, thousands of Coast Guard active duty, reserve and volunteer auxiliary personnel from around the country continued to respond, surging to the Gulf Coast to combat the approximately 3.2 million barrels of oil discharged. For our reserves, it was the largest activation for a domestic emergency in Coast Guard history. They augmented response forces and freed portions of the active component to maintain our daily operations across the spectrum of Coast Guard missions around the Nation. As the Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the spill, I saw firsthand the vital surge capability the citizens of our Nation expect from the United States Coast Guard.

Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft conducts an overflight of the Louisiana marshlands July 2, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally.

Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft conducts an overflight of the Louisiana marshlands July 2, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally.

Having led part of this monumental response, and now as Commandant, I challenge myself by always asking: Are we ready for a major contingency of this magnitude today? Are we ready for another Deepwater Horizon? Are we ready for another Hurricane Katrina? Are we ready for an act of terrorism in the homeland? Are we ready for any of these crises to happen concurrently? And, are we ready to do so without compromising all of our important daily operations?

From violence in Central America to increased activity in waters of the Arctic, from the vast and complex reaches of cyberspace to the energy trade now fueled by significant domestic hydrocarbon production, the Service is facing a convergence of historical trends demanding the Coast Guard’s focus and resources. And, we must do so in the most efficient manner possible given the austere fiscal climate we face.

In best preparing for the future, the Coast Guard must have the right personnel levels. Today, we find our reserve force at its smallest level since 1957. Trends such as this are concerning to me because I know that we cannot surge leadership in a crisis. We cannot surge experience. And, we cannot hire it off the street when we need it – it will be too late.

As such, I am committed to maintaining a proficient, appropriately sized active duty and reserve workforce with the leadership and experience to meet daily operational demands, while also providing the necessary surge capacity for major contingencies. Proficiency across the Service can become diluted as junior people elevate more quickly and we lose vital experience in our more senior ranks – potentially compromising our missions and the safety of our personnel and those we serve.

We saw this in the late 1990s when our personnel levels were reduced significantly while still trying to meet our mission demands. It took several tragic events for us to learn that maintaining a proficient, appropriately sized workforce ensures the Coast Guard can respond to incidents of national significance, while also meeting steady-state mission demands in all corners of our country.

The mobile offshore drilling unit Development Driller III (near) is prepared to drill a relief well at the Deepwater Horizon site May 18, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.

The mobile offshore drilling unit Development Driller III (near) is prepared to drill a relief well at the Deepwater Horizon site May 18, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.

While a small contingent of responders continue to address residual oil issues from the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Coast Guard has applied our corporate knowledge from the spill to bolster our readiness in responding to complex catastrophes. Our efforts to address Deepwater Horizon lessons learned far surpassed any previous Service analysis and the overall process significantly enhanced national marine environmental response preparedness setting a high standard for future incidents. More recent surge operations, including Superstorm Sandy and our domestic response to Ebola, relied heavily on our proficient workforce, well-established interagency relationships and incident management concepts gleaned after the spill.

As an even wider array of global trends and geostrategic threats reveal themselves, the Coast Guard’s inherent ability to surge to domestic contingencies, in a highly specialized way, in environmentally challenging scenarios – must be maintained. The Coast Guard cannot remain Semper Paratus, Always Ready, through steady-state and surge operations, without a proficient, appropriately sized workforce.

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