Predictability, or “Call your Designated Responder Early and Often”

January 23, 2024

Copyright Björn Wylezich/AdobeStock
Copyright Björn Wylezich/AdobeStock

Predictability is the aim of every human, company, or society.

Humanity simply strives to increase its level of predictability whether as a person, or as a group of people. When humans attain a certain level of predictability, their hope for the future goes up and their level of anxiety goes down.

Oddly, conservatives and progressives both strive for predictability, they just do it in different ways. A conservative will say: If nothing changes, then my predictability for the future will go up. Meanwhile, a progressive will say: If I carefully change things that are not predictable, my level of predictability goes up.

Progressives and conservatives also know why the other is wrong. A conservative will say: “Once things change, predictability will go down”, and a progressive will say: “If we do not change things that are not predictable, predictability will go down”.

In effect, predictability and decision making are closely tied together. One can make better decisions when the future can be predicted more accurately.

Predictability can be improved in many ways. Science is pretty good at predicting certain things. Engineering also does a decent job at predicting certain things. Societies actually exist to increase predictability, whether it relates to managing disasters or with social programs such as social security.

OPA 90 was actually created to increase predictability. The entire structure allows stakeholders to proceed with a level of predictability in a situation where predictability can appear to be sorely absent.

When predictability increases, it becomes easier to make decisions and that will help to gain control of a disaster.

OPA90 has been successful in that regard, but due to its measurable success, its predictability is actually going down.

This is a strange conundrum that occurs occasionally. It is equivalent to the much-repeated argument that since we did not continue to fly to the moon, we lost the skills to fly to the moon, and today have to recreate or reinvent solutions that existed 50 years ago. In 1970 we could predict confidently that we could fly to the moon, but in 2024 that prediction is much more tenuous.

Since there are few large oil spills today, we have entered a similar conundrum. We do not really know if we can manage a large oil spill today, there are exercises, but exercises are not the real thing.

A real oil spill is unpredicted and unpredictable, and while we hope everybody will show up in time we do not really know if this will occur. Moreover, since we have not had a significant number of serious oil spills recently, shipowners and operators now start to imagine that a small oil spill will not turn into a big oil spill. However, this ignores an underlying reality. Small disasters that are not rigorously managed can turn into big disasters.

If this were to occur, the salvors and response contractors will be called in after the small disaster turned into a large disaster. From their point of view this may not be a bad deal, because big disasters make more money than small disasters, but, from an overall disaster management point of view, this approach is, well, disastrous.

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: A vessel has a soft grounding. It is expected the vessel can be refloated on the next high tide without external assistance. At the next high tide, the vessel is being refloated under direction of the Captain and use of her own engines and ancillary equipment, but during the refloating the vessel passes over an abandoned anchor and tears out the bottom. Fuel oil spills and the vessel is flooding and settles down. The Owner now has to call the QI and the designated Salvage and Marine Firefighting contractor (salvor). They cannot immediately be on site and now the USCG becomes uncomfortable. The spill continues and eventually the salvors and spill contractor secure the vessel and cargo and pick up the mess. In the post mortem analysis everybody is embarrassed since the response was less effective than desired.
  • Scenario 2: A vessel has a soft grounding. It is expected the vessel can be refloated on the next high tide. The Owner calls the contact numbers for the designated spill contractor and the designated salvor. One answers immediately and the other takes a bit of time to contact but joins the discussion before the next high tide. At the next high tide, the vessel is being refloated, but during the refloating the vessel is dragged over an abandoned anchor and tears out the bottom. Fuel oil spills and the vessel is flooding and settles down. The designated spill contractor has already talked to the local spill contractor who is aware that there may be a call out and the salvor has already contacted their local resources for the same reason. When it became apparent they were needed, they were ready to roll and during the salvage operation and clean up operation everybody, the ship owner, the salvor, the spill response contractor, and the USCG looked good.
  • Scenario 3: A vessel has a soft grounding. It is expected the vessel can be refloated on the next high tide. The Owner calls the contact number for the designated spill contractor and the designated salvor. One answers immediately and the other takes a bit of time to contact but joins the discussion before the next high tide. At the next high tide, the vessel is refloated, and no spill occurs. The vessel has no damage and continues its voyage. The salvage and spill contractors stand down, but everybody has become a little smarter. The vessel owner and its personnel know how to contact the spill contractor and the designated salvor and how to instruct them. The contractors get to exercise their first level response and make fixes as needed. The USCG knows that in a real disaster the initial system response will kick off reliably and Scenario 1 is less likely to occur in the future.

In other words: Increased predictability has been achieved. I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that all the response personnel and equipment needs to be loaded up and sent to the casualty. What I am suggesting is that dropping a nickel on your designated responders early does not have to cost a lot, and in the long run saves money and makes everybody look good.



For each column I write, MREN has agreed to make a small donation to an organization of my choice. For this column I nominate the Cornell Lab of Ornithology  ... I like my birds clean.

Logistics News

Consortium Forms North Pacific Green Corridor

Consortium Forms North Pacific Green Corridor

Maritime Risk Symposium 2024 – Great Power Competition and Gray Zone Engagement

Maritime Risk Symposium 2024 – Great Power Competition and Gray Zone Engagement

New Agreement Targets Nordic Hydrogen Projects

New Agreement Targets Nordic Hydrogen Projects

IMO's Facilitation Committee Revised MASS Roadmap

IMO's Facilitation Committee Revised MASS Roadmap

Subscribe for Maritime Logistics Professional E‑News