It was September 2008, and Texas’ Gulf ports – Galveston, Port Arthur/Beaumont, Houston, Freeport, Texas City, and Port Lavaca/Point Comfort – were a wreck. In the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, all port facilities were closed, with no maritime traffic permitted without the approval of the Coast Guard captain of the port, a measure taken to minimize the storms’ effects on port infrastructure, help restore the marine transportation system, and resume the flow – however slow it might be – of shipborne commerce.
The waters off the Gulf Coast were dotted with dozens of cargo barges and tankers, waiting their turn to come in. The delivery of some of that cargo – perishable food, materials, or chemicals needed to manufacture essential goods, supplies needed for the recovery itself – was more urgent than other freight. How would the captain of the port ever sort through the sea of vessels and decide who would come to the front of the queue?
The unit, unique to the U.S. Coast Guard, that facilitated the movement of the most urgent cargo is one many people have never heard of: the MTSRU (pronounced MITZ-roo), or Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit. Charged with restoring cargo flow after a national transportation security incident, the MTSRU, as part of the Incident Command Post, was created by the Coast Guard in 2006, using the lessons learned about recovery issues after the major disruptions of maritime commerce that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The MTSRU has the job of informing stakeholders at all levels on maritime transportation issues after a disruption, of supporting and prioritizing recovery efforts, and of opening the communication channels and discovering the information that will facilitate the recovery of waterway traffic flow. A MTSRU, for example, helped facilitate the flow of relief supplies into Port-au-Prince after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
The task of helping to select from a floating expanse of cargo barges which among them should be the first to enter a crippled port, seems complicated enough. But when you consider that it’s just one of hundreds of tasks that must be accomplished, in the correct sequence in the wake of a disaster, it seems hardly possible. Coast Guard personnel, however, have long known the secret to getting things done: relying not necessarily on the person in charge, but on the one who knows the most, no matter who he or she may be.
“That MTSRU liaison has to be someone who has already made those contacts in that local area,” said Frank Shelley, training coordinator for the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Incident Management Assistance Team. “He or she knows what the concerns are, and knows who to reach out for: not the big kahunas, but the people on the docks who actually know what’s going on.”
The Coast Guard and the Incident Command System
The standardized system many American institutions now use to manage emergencies and recovery efforts, regardless of scale or of how many responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines are involved, is known as the Incident Command System, or ICS. It was born from the chaos and tragedy of a single disastrous California wildfire season, in 1970, in which the lives of emergency personnel were needlessly endangered by disorganization and lack of communication, and both people and materials were dispersed instead of being focused at points where they could most effectively meet main objectives. The protocols of the ICS are widely used today to respond to everything from local flash floods to an event of unprecedented scale such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
In such large-scale events, the ICS is designed to bring order to an enormous, often intimidating mess – and the Coast Guard, as the nation’s maritime first responder, has been able to lend the expertise of its personnel to the development of the ICS, and to the nation’s most historic emergency responses. “I’ve heard it said,” Shelley said, “that the ICS is comparable to setting up a Fortune 500 company and having it working in 18 hours.”
In order to get a response up and running, it’s necessary to have specialists placed where they can do the most good. The MTSRU is one element unique to the Coast Guard in the ICS; another is the leader of the Vessel Support Unit, which is responsible for maintaining and repairing response vessels after a disaster, and for coordinating transportation between or among shore resources.
Incident Management Assist Teams
The highest level of incident management expertise within the service is its Incident Management Assist Teams (IMATs), comprised of active-duty, Reserve, civilian, or Auxiliary volunteers schooled in the ICS. The IMATs are, technically, housed within the two Coast Guard areas (the Atlantic Area fields two IMATS, a “blue” and a “gold” team), though members go wherever they’re most needed to augment personnel within the response organization. Because the ICS works by essentially throwing the organization chart of every participating agency out the window and establishing a new command hierarchy, Shelley said the IMATs are not typically deployed as teams. “We come in and complement,” he said. “We’ve found out that instead of always wanting a team, everybody, even during Katrina, wants particular positions filled – a planning or operations section chief, or division group supervisors, or a safety officer, or a liaison officer. They order a la carte rather than say, ‘I need a team.’”
Katrina, Shelley said, offered stark contrasts between activities that were or were not governed by the ICS. “I was at the Joint Field Office [JFO] in Mississippi,” he said, “and that JFO was run along ICS guidelines. Everybody knew, coming from all these federal agencies, what their job was coming in, and we went from 198 people at the State Emergencies Operations Center to 800 people in the JFO in two days. The thing was up and running. They were paving 52 acres of property a day, setting up over 250 FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] trailers a day. That means putting the roads down, blocking up the trailers, installing the lines that bring the water in and the waste out, the electricity – and having those things feasible in a day.”
Depending on where an incident occurs, the deployment of IMAT members can create unusual command situations. When a tsunami struck the coast of the remote U.S. territory of American Samoa in the fall of 2009, Shelley said, the ICS command center was established at the Coast Guard’s sector command in Honolulu – about 2,500 miles away. Some IMAT members served at the ICS command, while others deployed to the field, sleeping in tents in the jungles of American Samoa. “We needed different skillsets there – the tactical people in American Samoa, and the strategic people in Honolulu,” Shelley said. Tactical IMAT members led harbor and other infrastructure recovery efforts; determined the best means of financing recovery operations; helped with logistical decision-making; relayed information to Honolulu about equipment and supply needs; and ensured that people – including some Coast Guard families – were supplied with adequate water and shelter.
After Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast in 2008, IMAT members rotated into shifts after spending the day or night sleeping in the hallway of the ICS command post – a gymnasium 30 miles west of Houston, Texas.
The deployment of IMAT members is not always due to a disaster, explained Cmdr. Tim Scheel, leader of the Atlantic Area’s “blue” team – it’s often pre-emptive to place incident management experts at the scene and help plan for contingencies. IMAT members are scheduled for deployment to Honolulu in November 2011, when President Barack Obama was slated to address the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “Also, IMAT members have been deployed to the Democratic and Republican conventions, major sporting events such as Super Bowls, and other National Special Security Events [NSSE], and I am sure we’ll have people at the conventions in the coming election year,” Scheel said.
“We recognize this is demanding technical work that can’t be done solely by volunteers anymore,” said Shelley. The president’s FY 2012 budget request includes funding to establish a Coast Guard National Incident Management Assistance Team – a central repository of incident management expertise that could, as well as being deployed in times of need, export its skills and knowledge.
“Since 2001, when the IMAT concept was established,” said Shelley, “we’ve been trying to kind of put ourselves out of business by making sure each sector has that expertise on staff. It looks as if that may happen soon, and I think it’s going to be quite exciting.”
This article was first published, under a different title, in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.