Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Kimber Bannan


Interview with LT JG Kimber Bannan

An interview by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following full transcript is from a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of Russell D. Hoffman and his guest and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

March 29th, 1996

Russell Hoffman ("Host"), High Tech Today
LT JG Kimber Bannan("KB"), United States Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team

Host: ...And you're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman, and my guest today is involved with the 'HAZMAT' operations in America. She's a member of the US Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team. Her name is LT JG Bannan, and she's going to be talking about what the--how the government responds to potential disasters around the country, I guess. First of all, I'd like to welcome you to the show.

KB: Thank you Russell.

Host: We were talking before the show about how many strike teams the Coast Guard has, so why don't we go over that, and then we'll talk more specifically about what exactly you do. What kind of calls you get.

KB: Sure. The Coast Guard has been mandated by the federal government to have three strike teams and one coordination center as part of a national strike force. Each strike team is located in different areas. The Pacific strike team is just north of San Francisco at Hamilton Air Force Base. There is a Gulf strike team in Mobile, Alabama and an Atlantic strike team in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

The coordination center is located in North Carolina at Elizabeth City, and they kind of help coordinate between the three teams, because often times, we work with the other teams.

We cover, at our team, the fourteen western states and the Pacific Trust territories, so we can find ourselves from Guam to Alaska, and inland to Denver and Arizona, so we have a pretty wide area that we cover.

Host: Now, what sort of emergencies--what are some of the more typical emergencies that you go out on?

KB: Well, recently I just returned from Idaho, and we had a large job in the Pacific Northwest, in the Portland area, because of the recent flooding. And the floods had released a lot of miscellaneous drums, and tanks and containers, and so we were brought out by the Coast Guard and the EPA to help collect the drums before the waters receded and they ended up in somebody's back yard, which of course they could do a lot more damage there.

In addition to that kind of humanitarian efforts, we do things like typhoon Omar in the Pacific Northwest, and Pacific Islands, the major oil spills, our team was of course up on the one you hear about most, the Exxon Valdez. Pipeline ruptures. Container ships, which is a big can of worms to a lot of people, because you'll have a container ship with lots of different products on it, and if there's a problem with the ship itself, out at sea, they don't want to bring it into port, so we'll go out and assess the situation, as far as the hazardous materials go. Fish processing vessels, who have suffered fires, and their ammonia refrigeration system has been impinged, so there's big ammonia releases.

The captain of the port obviously doesn't want a vessel like that to come in, so we'll go out to sea and try to correct the problem before the vessel comes in for repairs.

Host: So, normally you would use helicopters to get around?

KB: Often. If we're going to a different part--in order to get to the part of the country where we're going to we generally will fly commercial air. If we have a lot of equipment to bring, then we will fly a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, to a military airport or a commercial airport. To get things out to remote areas, for short distances we'll use different helicopters. Either we've used the Coast Guard helicopters to do a lot of work out at sea with other ships, but we've also used the Air National Guard, and the Army, and other sources, commercial sources for helicopters for doing overflights of spills, and that's always real handy to have a resource like that available.

Host: So, basically a lot of different organizations are willing to contribute equipment to you when you need it?

KB: Yes. Often times, we'll have a Responsible Party, and they will have certain resources that they can provide for the cleanup. In addition, if you also have a multi-agency task force--for lack of a better word--we use the same kind of Incident Command System that the National Forest Fire Fighters would use. It's set up so that you can have several different agencies in command, but they still speak with one voice, so that the organization of the response usually goes a lot smoother than without that! (Laughs.)

Host: In terms of oil spills, which I think, that's mainly what most people think of, when they think of HazMat having to go out and do something in an emergency. Is that something you would normally bring a lot of equipment to? How do you usually handle something like that?

KB: Well, the Coast Guard tries not to interfere with enterprise. If a contractor has the ability and the means to get equipment that is adequate to the site, to use, we certainly try not to take away from the industry being able to do its own job.

We do have some very specialized equipment that's not available anywhere else. We have what's called the OWOCRS, which is the Open Water Oil Retainment and Recovery System, and the Coast Guard is the only organization in the world--the United States Coast Guard--that has such a system.

It's a very large barrier--it's, um, a 612 foot long boom, and in the very center of it it's got several skimmers that, as the boom moves through the water, being towed by two different vessels, it collects oil off the top of the water from the apex, from the pocket, and then brings it to a barge, or some kind of transportable storage device, so that you can collect the oil, and get it out of the water at the same time.

We have several different kinds of pumps, for offloading ships that are in trouble. At the Marsh J. Berman spill in San Juan a few years back, we basically were able to pump off the majority of the cargo prior to the sinking of the barge, so that a lot of the oil didn't go to the bottom with the barge.

That's a capability--where you can get there generally quicker, and move up resources and personnel there, and get to the job a lot quicker than a majority of other industries out there.

Host: So if you get there soon enough you can pump the stuff off, but if you have to use the skimmer, I think--I've always wondered: Is that oil reusable at that point or do they somehow throw it away?

KB: Often times, oil that's been in the water is not, because a lot of the machines that are used to collect it out of the water emulsify the oil. In other words it puts--mixes--a lot of water into the oil.

Also, if it's been out there for a long time, the weather--weathering process--of the oil tends to render it pretty unusable. Sometimes they can run it through centrifuges and filter presses and get out water and debris, and burn it--reuse it.

Not generally for as high of a BTU--a use level that they would have been able to, but--it's pretty rare, if you've got a bunch of oil in the water, that you're going to reuse it. So it generally has to be disposed of.

On smaller quantities they can reinject in into a production well, or they can recede it back into a pipeline and mix it with what's there, therefore the solution--the dilution of it kind of helps it.

So, often once it's been in the water, and it's weathered, they won't reuse it. They will--it will have to be disposed of. It's waste oil.

Host: But generally, diffusion is not the best solution to pollution!

KB: No, no! (Laughs) In fact in the United States we're very reluctant to use any kind of dispersant application. It requires the Regional Response Team's approval. The Regional Response Team is made up of several different organizations--the Coast Guard, the EPA, NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, several other organizations that get involved, generally the state--and in order to disperse an oil spill, it takes a lot of work, and if you don't do it in the first few hours of the spill it's really not very effective, because the dispersant relies on good quality oil, and once the oil's been out there for very long it's not really dispersable as it would be if you can get it right away.

Host: Uh Hh. Okay, you're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russ Hoffman, and my guest, LT JG Bannan of the US Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team...[break]...

...and we're back with High Tech Today, and my guest, Kimber Bannan, from the US Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team. She goes out and takes care of oil spills, fires with hazardous waste, floods--you name it, she's going to be there. And why not talk a little bit about what kind of equipment you use. What are some of the more exciting developments that have come along since you got into the business, and so forth?

KB: Okay, Russell. I've been on the strike team now for three years, and I've seen technology go quite a distance since I've been here. We're, recently, getting ready to take delivery of some very large Mobile Incident Command Posts. And basically, a lot of times what we end up filling the role is, command and control at a larger incident. And this allows us to have basic office space anywhere.

It's two large tractor-trailer type trailers that connect together, and they're full of computers and communications equipment, repeaters to get over mountainsides with radios, UHF, VHF radios--they're really great, and you walk in and it looks like you're on a space station or something, because they're full of different kinds of electronics packages, they have meeting rooms, and it's something that is really, very valuable at a site.

We have some smaller ones that aren't as high tech, or aren't as nice, but this one's going to be very good. It's also being made by already-existing materials and equipment that's in Government Surplus, so we're getting a much better product at a quarter of the cost it would of had, to make them new, so that's kind of refreshing to see.

Host: Um Hm!

KB: In addition, some of the equipment that we work with, we have a lot of multi-gas sensors. Oftentimes you're going into an environment that you're not really sure what's there. So we have a lot of different sensors that can give us realtime readings on things like: hydrogen sulfide readings, if there's any chlorine gas, as well as oxygen, and explosive levels of atmospheres. We won't go into an area, that has an explosive atmosphere. There's not a suit in the world that's going to keep you from blowing up! (Laughs)

We do have suits that will help protect us from any kind of vapor hazard, if we're going into a--we had a chlorine spill in [Alaska] that we wore "level A" personal protective clothing, which is fully encapsulated suit. If you've ever seen the movie OUTBREAK--

Host: You bet!

KB: --Those "biosuits" they wore. We'll wear those, and work with heavy tools, and drums, and you have a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus in there--it's really kind of neat! The suits are made out of Teflon, so they're pretty impervious to just about anything, except of course a fire or explosion, which, personally, I don't want to be in there anyway! (laughs)

Host: Okay!

KB: So, we have a lot of capabilities like that, that we can, kind of, go into an unknown atmosphere, and have to deal with that.

We've also go some radioactive detectors that will detect alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. We have a site, in the midwest, that's a, was a radioactive, um, kind of a broker. He would bring in radioactive waste and broker it out, and take care of it, and that site's been going on for several months now. We're there monitoring contractor efforts for the EPA, and kind of being their liaison, between the contractor and themselves, and that's working out quite nice.

Some of the newest equipment we've gotten has been, we have a stainless steel chemical load, that has stainless steel piping, and a stainless steel pump, called a CCM 150, that will pump 150 GPM's, and it can be used in a multitude of different chemicals. It was recently--that pumping load was recently used on the [case] in Savannah, Georgia where several large chemical tanks exploded and they had to be pumped off.

Two hundred fifty local residents were evacuated from the immediate area. The job was of course in a very warm season in Savannah, Georgia, it was hot, we had people working in those fully encapsulated suits, pumping liquid out of these tanks that were still smoldering, and--it's that kind of thing that really makes you thankful that you're getting up every day and you're really doing something that's making a difference, but it also gives you some nightmares occasionally too!

Host: Yeah, the phrase "It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it" finally means something, here!

KB: Right!

Host: What's it like when, I guess, that bell goes off or the light starts blinking. What sort of thoughts go through your mind as you get ready to roll?

KB: Sometimes we have a little bit of a firehouse mentality, where bells and whistles go off, and everybody's running out, and everybody's trying to get something done, and sometimes I joke about it, and think, maybe we should be playing circus music as this is all going on.

But I have literally come to work on a Friday morning and not gone home for four weeks! It becomes--you become real good friends with your neighbors--you know, please check my mail... you keep a bag packed at work all the time, with everything you could need to be in Alaska or Guam. I have three different bags, one for summer, one for winter, and one I take no matter what.

So, it's--you're always on the edge, I mean, we're always waiting for "the big one". And, nobody can really ever define the big one, but everybody's always ready for it--hence the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, Always Ready. That's really what we try to embrace, and try to do. A lot like a small boat station that does search and rescue. When that call comes in, you've got to be ready to go.

So, normally, if we get a phone call from, Anchorage. From the marine safety office at Anchorage, and they need us up there. We'll send two people on commercial air right away. They will be out the door within fifteen minutes and headed to the airport to go.

Then, in another couple of hours we'll have a load up to Sacramento to fly, on a Coast Guard C-130, up to Anchorage. And generally, we can get equipment within twelve hours, to just about any place, with the exception of some of the outlying islands in the Pacific. So, we try get things out there pretty quick. Which is a benefit.

Logistics when you get there is sometimes hard. Finding a tractor trailer that will pull your load, and taking care of the personnel that you have, is rough. Oftentimes, you get there and for the first three or four days, you're working eighteen hour days, generally seven days a week, and...I did a pipeline rupture, in the San Jacinto River in Houston, about a year and half ago, where we were working 18 hour days for the first week and a half, and then it cut back. So, it's kind of intense work.

Host: It certainly sounds it. You're listening to High Tech Today...[break]...

...We're talking about emergency responses to deadly and dangerous situations, and situations that can lead to a lot of pollution. Why not tell us a little bit about how big the force is, and what your offices are like, and your home base.

KB: Sure. Each team has approximately 36 to 40 people. Our team out here in California has 40 people total. We're located at a now-closed Air Force base, and our buildings take up two airplane hangers, and there's a small administrative space in between the two large airplane hangers. In fact, the movie THE RIGHT STUFF, part of it was filmed in our hangers, so that gives you an idea of the immense space that we fill up with our gear.

There's forty people. Most, the majority of them are enlisted members in the Coast Guard. Bos'n mates, machinery technicians, electricians, there's administrative type rates, marine science technicians--I know I'll forget somebody and they'll be angry with me! But, we have a wide variety of people here. There is--we do a lot of liaison or marketing, our planning officer has been here for three years now and he is really--his big initiative is a lot of training.

When a member reports aboard the strike team, we send them immediately to forty-hour HazMat school, which is an OSHA requirement to work on any kind of SuperFund or hazardous materials site. So, they go away for a week, and then we send them to Oil Spill Control School. And, we're currently using Texas A&M Oil Spill Control School, but there's a bunch of other ones out there. So they'll go for forty hours of oil spill training as well.

And that's basically the minimum, before we'll let them go out and, you know, conquer the world with their new-found skills. In addition, we do a lot of administrative type training--command and control. Advanced Marine Fire Fighting, we've sent several people to that. There's a great school that deals with train wrecks. It's Tank Car School, and they go and they learn about large train wrecks and how to deal with the railroad person and the different railroad companies, and how to handle two miles of train, that's compressed into a hundred feet. How to attack that kind of situation.

There's treatment technology courses, where you go and you learn all different kinds of ways to remediate soils and water treatment. You can come here and get an awful lot of training. Some of the guys have been through truck driver training, gotten their commercial truck drivers license. EMT school. It really helps somebody to get set up, to do a lot of things they wouldn't be able to do otherwise, in the Coast Guard. So, it's kind of a desirable place to be, from that aspect.

Host: It sound incredibly exciting. What got you into the business. What made you decide that you wanted to do this?

KB: Well, I got out of college, I went to Officer Candidate School, I did not go to the Academy. I got out of college and I worked for a number of different things, and thought I needed a little bit more direction (laughs).

So I joined the Coast Guard, and I went to school for seventeen weeks in Yorktown, Virginia, to Officer Candidate School, and, I wanted to do something that I felt would give me the opportunity to travel, give me the opportunity to learn something new, and where I could serve the Coast Guard the best. My degree's in Marine Biology, but we have people here who have Forestry degrees, who don't have degrees at all, degrees in [other] sciences. Once I found out about the strike team, found out what kind of opportunities it allowed me, and I just kind of got it in my mind that that's where I was going to go.

And it's really paid out, I've been all over the world. Last winter I went to Okinawa for two weeks, and provided training to the Air Force in hazardous materials work. I went to South Korea and provided the same training to the Air Force there. I've been to Sai Pan and Alaska, it's a wonderful opportunity to travel, too. Some of the thrill-seeking extreme sports type rush, to be able to do it.

A lot of people who get into the Coast Guard and do this kind of thing are fire fighters. They've been on firefighting teams or they have been at search and rescue teams where the alarm goes off at three o'clock in the morning and they run out, and it's very much a thrill-seeking kind of a job, but it's also something you have to be very careful and cautious with at the same time. So it's very exciting, but you don't want to rush into it.

Host: So...if you wanted to get into the business, and you were in High School, say, right now, what kinds of courses, what kind of direction would you want to go in? What would you recommend, who would you hope to see in the upcoming classes in the next few years?

KB: I'd like to see somebody who is very physically fit! We work out a minimum of three times a week here for two hours each time. Oftentimes, rather than taking a lunch break we'll go and jog as a team, or get involved in a lot of extracurricular type sports activities, we'll play softball on the weekends. You have to be in good shape. And that's not to say you have to be a power lifter or a marathon runner, but it's very very very important to the job that you're in good shape. That you're financially secure, especially if you have a family, or want to start a family. Because you could leave like I said, and leave your spouse at home with the rest of your problems, if you're not careful.

You have to be able to speak to the public. They're going to want--you're going to get a camera and a microphone stuck into you, and have to talk to them.

Host: Okay! And speaking of cameras and microphones, we're out of time. It certainly has been very interesting to hear about what you do. Thank you for coming on the show.

KB: Thank you very much.

Host: My guest today has been Kimber Bannan, LT JG And she's with the US Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team, and I guess when she retires, she's going to do something simple and easy--like race car driving!

KB: (Laughs) There you go!

Host: Thanks very much. You've been listening to High Tech Today...Bye Bye!

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