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Purdue Graduate assisting Coast Guard during Gulf Oil Spill Response


LT Karl Garman (right) meets with Secretary Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security at the Unified Area Command in New Orleans.

Lieutenant Karl E. Garman is a Coast Guard Reservist, currently on active duty recall for the Deepwater Horizon response in the Gulf of Mexico region. Originally from the Chicagoland area, he earned two degrees at Purdue – a Ph.D. in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences in 2009 and a M.S. in Aerospace Engineering in 2003. While at Purdue, he was a research pilot for the Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research (ALAR) in the Shepson Tropospheric Chemistry Group, and was president of Purdue Graduate Student Government (PGSG) from 2003-04.

Dr. Garman earned his officer’s commission in the Coast Guard Reserve while a graduate student at Purdue. He is currently employed as a Flight Test Engineer at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. On June 28, 2010, Lieutenant Garman found time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his military assignment in the Gulf:

What has been your role with the Coast Guard during the Deepwater Horizon response?

I’m currently assigned to the Unified Area Command (UAC) in New Orleans. The UAC includes the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (a two-star Admiral) who reports directly to Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander in Washington, DC.

My specific role can be best described as “Information Logistics”, which involves the flow of information from the field, through the UAC, and up to Washington.It also goes the other way, specifically since members from the executive and legislative branches go through the National Incident Command (NIC) in Washington, DC to get answers from the field.

Can you describe a ‘typical day’ in the Gulf region?

This is a very dynamic situation, so no working period is ever the same as the last. My unit is constantly collecting numbers from our Incident Command Posts (ICPs) in the field.These metrics are included in the daily report to the National Incident Center (NIC) in Washington, DC. We collect specific information from various field sources throughout the night, coalesce them, verify them, and we then submit the aggregate report to the NIC by 5am. From there it goes to the Department of Homeland Security headquarters, then up to the White House.

The numbers which we collect and report encompass the entire span of this response effort. We report on the progress of drilling the relief wells, number of controlled burns, oil dispersant usage, feet of containment/sorbent/burn booms which are deployed/staged, oiled shoreline/wildlife reports, etc. Plus, there is often a “hot topic" frequently triggered by executive or legislative branch questions and flowed to us through the NIC.

What is the science/engineering you are applying to the problem and how did your Purdue education prepare you for this assignment?

I have the good fortune of a very broad background, which spanned analytic and operational paradigms (e.g., research and piloting). I utilize this broad-based set of knowledge and experiences to quickly multitask. If I receive a very technical Request For Information (RFI), I’m able to quickly ascertain the nature of the problem, identify the agency to which I need to go, and then get that information. The multidisciplinary and multitasking experiences I had are the biggest help in my current role.

Several aspects of my Purdue experience have helped prepare me for this. One has to keep a broad and interdisciplinary perspective. For example, I may be closing-out a set of questions regarding oiled shoreline reports, and then I’ll get another request on the “Jones Act”… so I suddenly need to consult the legal experts at UAC to answer the question about the Jones Act.

Also, attention to detail is extremely important. Not only do we need to report the necessary information, but we have to do it under very firm time pressure. We also have to press-in at times to verify information with different stakeholders, and issue responses in ways which directly answer the question from the leadership and/or elected leaders.

My piloting and Graduate Student Government experiences from Purdue come in handy as well.We have to often make high quality decisions, quickly. We need to expeditiously gather all of the necessary information to find a solution to a particular problem, but we then have to execute – by taking the initiative, making a command decision, and following-through with it.

Since you worked in Purdue’s Chemistry Department for 4 years, is there any part of your current work on the Deepwater Horizon response which you can relate to Chemistry?

I became aware of a very interesting chemical application this past week. We received a high-level question on the methods used to determine the amount of subsea oil dispersants being applied, and I went to the UAC Technical Specialists to find the answer. The answer was very chemical/meteorological in nature, but also included issues of occupational health for the drilling workers above the leaking well.

Escaping oil rises to the ocean’s surface, where its lighter components evaporate and raise the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) concentrations in the air above the ocean's surface. Unfortunately, the ocean surface (above the well) is also where we have several thousand workers on multiple vessels making 24/7 efforts to collect oil, flare the natural gas, and drill the relief wells. The workers would have to don respirators or cease work if the VOC concentration becomes too high.

Thus, subsea dispersants (think of it like a kind of detergent) are applied at the oil leak points in an optimal oil:dispersant ratio, and the leaking oil then is in a less concentrated form – decreasing the probability of an unsafe VOC concentration at the worksite above. Also, high winds at the worksite will blow off the VOCs, and the amount of subsea dispersants can be reduced. The converse is true if the surface winds are light, as a high concentration of VOCs would reside in the local area.

As an eyewitness in the Gulf, can you describe the scope of this spill?

The spill affects much more than just a geographic area of water and shoreline. It affects all of the entities with a responsibility or interest in that area.Being at the UAC allows one to see and appreciate the very expansive span of the response effort.

I can lend a practical example by giving a little background on how the response adjusts to the scope. In the last several decades, collaborations of emergency response agencies have developed and refined the “National Incident Management System” (NIMS). NIMS is structured so that it spans across disciplines and jurisdictions, is scalable to the size and nature of the incident, and is a very collaboration-friendly environment. We are applying NIMS during this response. Right now we have resources at the UAC which span a huge range of disciplines.

For example, we have a unit of technical specialists working on “Source Control” (i.e., the oil well), a unit of Liaisons who work with non-federal jurisdictions (Parishes and Counties, etc.), a Critical Resources unit, an Environmental unit (EPA, NOAA, etc.), and many more. When I receive an information request from Washington, I go directly to the individuals from whom I need the data. That couldn’t happen in any other environment.

Do you have any thoughts or insight on progress being made?

“Unity of Effort” is what I see on a day-to-day basis. All of the efforts are either to (a) stop the source of the oil, or (b) minimize the impact of the oil. Everyone here is briefed at a twice-daily (6am and 6pm) all-hands briefing to share information and status. The atmosphere is much more collaborative than one expects.

Source: Steve Scherer, Chemistry Communications
Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard