Coast Guard leads intergovernmental disaster response drill

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PORTLAND, Maine- The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Marcus Hanna work to deploy a vessel of opportunity skimming system from the deck of the ship as part of Spill of National Significance Drill, March 24, 2010. The oil spill exercise takes place every three years throughout the country and provides an opportunity for emergency responders to practice a joint response to a major spill. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith)
PORTLAND, Maine – The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Marcus Hanna work to deploy a vessel of opportunity skimming system from the deck of the ship as part of Spill of National Significance Drill, March 24, 2010. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith)

What would happen if an oil spill on the scale of Exxon Valdez happened off the coast of New England?

That is one of the many questions being answered this week during SONS 2010. The Spill of National Significance exercise represents the best opportunity for more than 50 state, local and federal government agencies representing the United States and Canada to train side-by-side in preparation for the unthinkable.

A Spill of National Significance is defined as “a spill that due to its severity, location, actual, or potential impact on the public health and welfare or the environment, or the necessary response effort, is so complex that it requires extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge.” (Read more frequently asked questions about the SONS 2010 exercise here.)

The disaster response drill is being conducted to increase national preparedness and test the nation’s ability to respond to such an emergency at all levels of the government. Response agencies in six locations across New England and the Mid-Atlantic are engaged in SONS 2010.

PORTLAND, Maine- Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich (RIGHT) looks on as Steven Bricker (CENTER) from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency demonstrates a computer program that will be used during the Spill of National Significance Drill, March 23, 2010. This SONS exercise will simulate a rare, catastrophic oil spill which occurs in the Gulf of Maine and requires a coordinated national response. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith)
PORTLAND, Maine- Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich (RIGHT) looks on as Steven Bricker (CENTER) from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency demonstrates a computer program that will be used during the Spill of National Significance Drill, March 23, 2010. This SONS exercise will simulate a rare, catastrophic oil spill which occurs in the Gulf of Maine and requires a coordinated national response. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Etta Smith)

The “real world” response involves more than a dozen ships testing their ability to deploy and operate the latest oil recovery technology in adverse weather conditions. Mother Nature cooperated by provided heavy seas and high winds as well as a little snow and sleet for this part of the exercise on Wednesday.

On the command side of the exercise, SONS presents a rare opportunity to simulate activation of the National Incident Management System which brings dozens of high level public and private sector officials together to ensure the public safety.

SONS exercises are conducted every three years across the United States and began back in 1997. When the exercise concludes this evening, the real work begins as exercise evaluators and controllers will begin the process of turning their observations into an after action report which will inform future response policy decisions.

Click here to read more about SONS 2010, including a list of all of the national and international agencies involved. You can also click here for a first hand account of the exercise by Portland, Maine’s WMTW.

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