Mass. firefighters get crash course on oil spill response

The drill required Saugus and Revere firefighters to tow a pair of booms into a particular position to contain an oil spill further up the river and redirect it to the shore

By Charlie McKenna
Daily Item, Lynn, Mass.

SAUGUS, Mass. — Saugus and Revere firefighters got a crash course in how to respond to an oil spill during a drill conducted on the Saugus River in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Coast Guard Thursday morning.

The drill required groups of firefighters to tow a pair of booms, essentially floating blockades, into a particular position to contain an oil spill further up the river and redirect it to the shore. Two groups of three firefighters were on the smaller boats towing the booms, while larger groups assisted in the deployment of the boats and called out instructions from the shore. Revere Fire Capt. Kevin O'Hara served as the incident commander for the mock spill, radioing and occasionally yelling instructions down to the firefighters on the water.

Saugus Fire Chief Michael Newbury said the drill sought to familiarize firefighters with the procedures necessary to respond to a spill, and was funded with money received from the state. Newbury explained that the drill is conducted through the town's emergency management department, as opposed to the Fire Department.

Nuka Research, an environmental-consulting firm contracted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), was responsible for overseeing the drill itself and ensuring everything went according to plan out on the river.

Nuka Research Senior Project Manager Mike Popovich said the MassDEP program that sponsors the drills has been ongoing since 2009, and groups of coastal communities undergo the drills every three to four years. The Saugus drill Thursday was the 94th field exercise conducted by Nuka Research and MassDEP, Popovich said.

"Really, fundamentally, the whole point here is to just allow the first responders to become more familiar with the use of this equipment and what it takes to deploy boom-and-anchor systems and set up different types of booming configurations in the event of a spill, so they're better prepared to respond if they need to," he said.

The training is "somewhat standard" across communities and years, though changes and improvements are made, Popovich said.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Brit McKibben said the Coast Guard's role in a spill response would not be actually containing the spill on the water, instead working with MassDEP to conduct an investigation into potential pollution threats. If that investigation determined there is an environmental threat, the Coast Guard and MassDEP would work to get contractors to the site to clean up the spill and "get whatever is in the water out of the water."

Revere Assistant Fire Chief James Cullen, the department's chief of operations, said the "very tactical, real-world" nature of the drill provides valuable experience.

"We practice on the water because we'll be out on the water," he said.

After the roughly half-hour drill was completed, Nuka Research offered a debrief to the firefighters in attendance.

Popovich said he thought the drill "went very well," adding that the group coordinated and communicated well in attempting to contain the spill. While the group had difficulty with the "inadequate" horsepower of the smaller tow boats, Popovich said the experience of actually towing and setting the boom was key.


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