Baldwin County, Ala., fire chiefs fired a letter to BP and federal officials claiming that their departments were rebuffed in their efforts to help protect beaches and waterways from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The chiefs complained that a non-existent unified command stifled the county's 36 volunteer fire departments' ability to stave off shore-based oil slicks, said Gib Hixon, president of the Baldwin County Fire Chiefs Association. Hixon said such oil pollution would critically impact the county's river estuary system, which is a breeding ground for fish, shrimp, crabs, pelicans and ospreys.
"It is a beautiful area," said Hixon, who also is chief of the Fish River-Marlow Volunteer Fire Department.
Hixon said fire chiefs offered BP equipment and knowledge and, in return, asked for the chemical make-up of leaking materials "so we could train our people to safely handle it, but we got no response whatsoever." County chiefs became frustrated at the lack of unified command and the disregard for local resources, including boats and crews who have knowledge of the area's waterways.
"You can't plan on how to boom off an area from an office 50 miles away looking at a map," he said. "It just won't work."
As soon as the spill became public knowledge, Jamie Hinton, volunteer chief of the Magnolia Springs (Ala.) Fire Department, said he contacted unified command based on NIMS — which provides for unified, area and then local command structures — and didn't receive a response, only threats that any action taken without strict permission of unified command would lead to criminal consequences.
"No one was speaking to us," Hinton said. "Without permission, I felt as if I had violated a federal order by going ahead with our plan as we were."
So now fire departments are taking matters into their own hands and are developing boom systems and barge-based barriers to protect shores from oil pollution. Hinton decided to build a network of barges sunk into the sea so booms effectively could soak up oil that threatened a 6,000-acre estuary.
"The estuary is a habitat where the smaller fish, like shrimp, grow before they head out into the Gulf of Mexico and then later land on America's plates," Hinton said.
Hinton held a meeting at the firehouse and used locals' knowledge of the area, including the ocean current and the average wave action, to determine needed resources. They knew the typical 3-foot wave action would wash the oil over the 8-inch booms, so they created a network of barges as break walls — leaving the water behind them in front of the booms "like glass," he said. The booms then were able to do their jobs — soak up the oil.
"We put barges in line to break that action up to where the booms could affectively do their job behind the barges," Hinton said.
As well, barges will be used to block the underwater plume, Hinton said. By sinking them into the water about 4 feet, the plume would be forced from underwater up to the surface to where it could be managed. The approach was based solely on local knowledge, he emphasized.
"We took ideas from those who know the area, who know the water, who know the environment and that's how we settled on the barge idea," Hinton said. "Now, the barge idea has caught on and people are doing it up and down the coast."
Innovation based on local knowledge proves his argument, Hixon said. When the spill happened, BP and unified command should have taped local knowledge to develop tailored approaches based on an area's topography. In addition, fire crews could have provided hazmat response and fire stations could have been used for staging areas.
"We feel this emergency is in our district and we want to be involved in all phases of this clean up," he said.
Since the letter was sent, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has helped the association set up meetings with BP officials, which has opened up communication channels, Hixon said. But he's still disappointed. He's found that the company has been in a state of chaos "but they seemed to be getting it together," he commented.
Hixon's greatest fear is that the spill will affect the area's long-term quality of life.
"We are water people. We fish. We swim. We deep sea fish and enjoy our beaches. All of this is being threaten," he said. "This pipe is open and flowing and it has not stopped. This stuff is being pumped into the Gulf every day and it's coming towards our coasts."