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[] Introduction | Well Control Incident Management System | Blowout Control Alliances | Conclusions | Acknowledgements |

Part 12-Incident management and critical alliances: How developing these two disciplines allows an operator to more efficiently manage a blowout

John W. Wright , Blowout Advisor, John Wright Company, Boots & Coots, Houston, Texas
L. Flak, former Wright, Boots & Coots employee.

This concluding article of the 12-part series discusses reasons why operators need to establish some type of Well Control Incident Management System (WCIMS). A proposed system is presented, including five major subsystems. For operators who find these intimidating, a "minimum" program is suggested.

The section on blowout control alliances discusses the evolution of oilwell firefighting and how it has become extremely competitive while the number of incidents is less than it used to be. It is suggested that this situation is "diluting" the experience level within the oilwell fire fighting industry and is, thus, generating a need for alliances between operators, contractors and subcontractors-even between operators-where one company's problem could involve other operators. 



Today's oil and gas operator must be prepared to adequately manage a well control incident. Due to increased liability of health, safety and environmental (HSE) issues, procrastination is quickly becoming a non option. Though catastrophic blowouts happen less frequently, potential consequences for an unprepared operator are higher than ever.

Recent events have shown that even blowout incidents that happen to other operators can by causing implementation of restrictive and costly government regulations. If fatalities or oil spills occur, the whole industry may be indirectly affected by negative public exposure, closing of sensitive environmental areas to leasing and increased insurance premiums. Therefore, it is in the interest of the industry as a whole, that all operators maintain acceptable levels of preparedness and critical resources to effectively manage an incident.

Not even a major oil company can justify having equipment and full time experienced blowout control and associated personnel on staff. However, every operator expects to easily con tract such resources when a situation arises or to assist in developing contingency plans. Strategic alliances assure effective planning, and resources will be readily available as required. Strategic alliances establish relations with critical contractors, other local operators if necessary and local and federal governmental agencies with jurisdiction in the area.

A primary HSE objective for all operators is to provide a working methodology to safely and effectively manage, respond to and recover from a well control incident. The complexity of this methodology will vary with operation size and operator as well as risk and vulnerability associated with the area. A standardized "all risk" system of procedures and terminology should be used by all operators regard less of their size and operational complexity. Standards become especially critical when outside assistance and complex communication is required in a severe emergency. The fires of Kuwait closed a chapter in the oilwell firefighting business traditionally associated with a few pioneering individuals. 


Fig. 35. Complicated blowout control projects can be more effectively managed by alliances between operator, firefighter, blowout control advisor and critical support contractor.

The National Inter-Agency Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) were developed in the U.S. as a consequence of fires that consumed a large portion of Southern California in 1970.1 As a result of those fires, a need was identified to develop a system whereby diverse groups could work together toward a common goal under emergency conditions. This basic model has since been adopted by many industries to more effectively manage emergency incidents for all types of hazards ranging from oil spills to hostage situations. Fig. 34 (button) above is an example ICS organizational chart.

Proposed system. Based on NIMS and basic hazard control models, a management system is proposed that consists of five major subsystems which collectively provide a total system approach to well control incident management. These include:

  1. Hazard management. Identifies well control hazards and assesses risk and impact of the hazards. It identifies: 1) current controls to minimize hazards, 2) ability to respond to and mitigate an incident, 3) controls to minimize incident escalation, and 4) ability to recover from an incident. Based on this vulnerability assessment, additional controls are put in place to manage risk at an acceptable level.
  2. Incident management. Customizes ICS for the operator and area. It combines: facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organization to respond to a well control incident. To function properly, its users utilize eight underlying components of organization: common terminology, modular organization, integrated communications, unified command structure, consolidated action plans, manageable span of control, pre-designated incident facilities and comprehensive resource management. This system manages incident effects as well as source control and is designed for an all-risks response. Complexity of this modular system would depend on out come of the hazard/risk assessment and individual incident nature.
  3. Qualification management. Deals with: pre-qualification and training of critical personnel and con tractors; training on, for example, procedures and policies, well control, safety and emergency response, risk and hazard management; development and implementation of emergency drills; and certification of critical jobs. This subsystem is designed to assure that critical personnel and contractors are trained and qualified to perform assigned duties.
  4. Information management. Deals with identifying and having rapid access to critical information, that it is up-to-date and accurate and that QA/QC procedures are in-place for critical control and response operations. It assures that information gained in associated subsystems is available in a usable format.
  5. Technology management. Assures that proper procedures and critical equipment exist for responding to and mitigating the incident. This would include spill containment, fire fighting, surface intervention on land, surface intervention offshore, subsea intervention, drilling relief well(s), planning and executing kill operations and final P&A or well recovery. Procedures and equipment do not necessarily exist for all possible blowout control operations. This discovery would be made through hazard assessment and contingency plans.

Due diligence. What is reasonably expected of an operator in the normal or logical course of events with respect to being prepared to respond to a well control incident? Unless governed by local or federal regulations, preparedness degree is largely left to the individual operator. This works fine until a blowout control effort results in fatalities, severe injury or major pollution. The degree of preparedness may then be contested in a court; or a regulatory agency may automatically assume the local industry as a whole is not sufficiently prepared and introduce compliance regulations on the rest.(2) If all operators were to voluntarily follow the basic steps outlined in the pro posed WCIMS, or similar system, catastrophic incidents and compliance regulations could be minimized.

A minimum system. At first glance, expansion of the five subsystems in the proposed WCIMS appears as if it could overwhelm many operators. Complete expansion, however, is generally only justified when working in very high risk areas, such as an H2S or high-pressure gas field near populated areas, or extremely sensitive environmental areas. Therefore, if an operator is starting from scratch, or wishes to assess its current preparedness level against a proposed system, the following describes a minimum guideline.

Hazard management. An operator must have a reasonable idea of basic blowout hazards associated with a given field or planned drilling activity, and likely consequences, where it operates. This hazard assessment is generally going to be subjective as industry statistics on blowout incidents are generally unreliable due to small sample size and the large number of independent variables associated with each. The assessment should be documented, with reasons to back up the opinion. Based on this initial judgment, an operator will decide whether additional detailed hazard assessment and control evaluation is warranted beyond acceptable standard operating/design practices. If justified, hazard analysis expansion should be continued until cost effectiveness based on total field investment and potential liability begins to diminish.

Incident management. Based on the amount of risk associated with the operating area, an Incident Management System should be devised and documented. This should include details on how the operator is going to ramp-up from normal operations to a blowout response, depending on severity level. Usually no more than three levels of response are justified. For example, a kick might be classified as a Level 1 incident, a suspected under ground cross flow Level 2 and an uncontrolled surface or underground blowout as Level 3. A Level 3 incident may escalate as a Level 1 ramp-up or may happen suddenly. Detailed procedures should be documented for implementing the ramp-up for each level, for example: who calls whom?; who is in charge of what?; what is each person's responsibilities?; what field supervisory personnel should/should not do during each level?; what equipment and outside personnel should be mobilized and so forth?

The ICS is the recommended structure on which to build this system as it is designed to expand and contract from a single Incident Commander to handle a small problem, to a large, multi-disciplined organization to handle a large-scale disaster. At a mini mum, it should include time frame for the initiating incident, escalation to blowout and response team(s) placement. Systems for higher-risk areas should expand the time frame through source control planning/execution and final blowout recovery.

Qualification management. Each person in the ICS should have basic training and job descriptions. Critical contractors, such as oilwell firefighting companies and blowout advisors, should be pre-qualified. For example, some personnel may have considerable experience in capping Kuwait wells but no experience in capping a well while burning, drilling a relief well, subsea intervention, or planning and executing a complicated kill operation. Call-off contracts should be placed with at least two oilwell firefighters, as one company may not have the required personnel avail able when called. Critical support con tractors should know what their job responsibility is and where they fit into the operator's ICS structure. Failure to do this prior to the incident will cause individuals in the project to work out their own "pecking order" within the structure, hindering effective teamwork.

Information management. An operator should be able to immediately gather whatever information is required to implement ramp-up for blowout response. This includes an emergency response plan with documents located at field locations and offices, as well as with all responsible managers in the ICS structure. Any additional information that blowout control teams may need based on incident type should be capable of being compiled within 8-24 hours of the emergency. If this is not currently possible, action should be taken to assure that required information is compiled and updated.

Technology management. For source control, the operator should confer with its chosen firefighter con tractor and blowout engineering advisor. This decision would be made based on initial hazard assessment. Situations that should trigger further evaluation include: deep HPHT wells; geothermal wells; subsea wells in deep water; unique platform designs; unique tree, wellhead or BOP designs; remote locations; environmentally sensitive areas; wells near population centers or H2S wells; high flowrate gas wells, multiple-well congested plat forms; and other unique or unusual situations. Following this format, an operator with a relatively low-risk well or field could assemble a minimum SCIMS in a relatively short time and on a tight budget. 


Changing operating company philosophies in the last few years resulted in more long-term alliances being formed between drilling contractors, service companies and vendors, to reduce costs and increase efficiency. This trend is logically expanding to blowout control. The first call-off contracts designed specifically for blowout control services were developed during pre-planning operations prior to the Kuwait fires in late 1990. These contracts covered fire fighters as well as critical support services. Speed and efficiency at which the wells were controlled demonstrates pre-planning effectiveness and close working relationship developed between various oilwell firefighting companies, support contractors and operators.

Since blowout control operations are relatively rare events, formation of an alliance between operator, fire fighter and critical support contractors makes good strategic sense-a contingency plan on the shelf is not enough! An operator with a catastrophic blowout needs to develop and test procedures, acquire confidence and build a team with the critical con tractors, Fig. 35.

Oilwell firefighters. Blowouts and fires have followed our industry from its earliest days. H. S. Patton and M. M. Kinley are credited as being the first dedicated oilwell firefighters; their careers started in the 1920s-30s. The next generation included Red Adair, Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews, all starting initially with Kinley and later forming their own companies. It was with that generation that the firefighting aspects of their job description became secondary to controlling the blowout flow.

For many years, only one or two companies could be supported by the available blowout demand. While this did not allow for tremendous competition, an operator knew the people working on their well had a broad experience base. At the time of this writing, some 10 privately held companies exist worldwide, plus additional national teams, all competing for less work than existed when there were only two companies. Most of these companies came into existence during and after the Kuwait fires of 1991.

Too many firms sharing too little work means not only immediate problems for the firefighting companies, but potentially for the industry in general. The net effect is a dilution of experience base in all individual companies. Coupled with increased consequences, this makes operators more vulnerable than ever to a catastrophic blowout. Market forces will eventually correct this problem, but that will also change forever the business traditionally associated with a few pioneering individuals. Surviving companies will have to be more diversified "one stop shops" offering full general contracting services with strong engineering component resources. This will include, for example: traditional fire fighting/blowout control services, snubbing, hot tapping, valve drilling, freezing, cold cutting, relief well planning and supervision, kill planning and supervision, development of WCIMS, training, field inspections, audits, engineering support, etc.

The full service oilwell firefighting company will be the hub alliance with the operator for blowout control. In some cases, it will be more efficient for support services to be sub contracted by the firefighter than for the operator to juggle various con tractors during an emergency. In other situations with larger operators who already have contracts with major service companies, the fire fighter will primarily play the part of expert advisor. All operators should pre-qualify the oilwell firefighting companies they plan to use in an incident, set up call-off contracts, and jointly evaluate their current vulnerability level, area by area.

Blowout engineering advisors. In 1990, major international operators began using blowout engineering advisors to help advise their personnel on blowout contingency plans as well as actual blowouts. Their strategy was to help develop engineering expertise in the blowout-control industry to sup port oilwell firefighters and service companies, and to better prepare their internal management to handle a blowout control operation. This has led to development of engineering divisions or engineering alliances with most of the firefighting companies. This is a historical change from the traditional hands-on approach used by past firefighters. This development is probably more significant than any new technology in the innovation and refinement of blowout control, response and management.

As stated in Part 1 of this series, blowout control management and engineering has always relied on a few experienced individuals. These individuals worked for operating companies and gained experience in an era where blowouts were more common. All of these men have retired, or will shortly, leaving an experience gap. Combined with the diluted experience base within the firefighting companies, this leaves a gap that will eventually be bridged by blowout engineering advisors.

The future role of blowout engineering advisors will be mutifaceted. Of course they must be available to respond to a blowout crisis and assist an operator or firefighting team on control options and kill procedures, but the more important role will be filled in preplanning, documenting procedures, adapting technology and developing new techniques. This will require joint efforts between operators, service companies and fire fighters.

Emphasis on HSE will eventually put blowout control on every operator's list of hazards to manage. Blowout advisors will assist in identifying blowout hazards in existing fields and future drilling projects. Once identified, hazards must be assessed as to risk of occurrence, consequence and ultimate impact. Depending on the impact, specific contingency plans may be justified to help reduce risk to acceptable levels and identify short falls in equipment, techniques and emergency management procedures. Additionally, the advisor will perform audits on emergency response plans, inspect platforms and rigs, assist in conducting simulated emergency response drills for blowout control and eventually become involved in design of facilities before they are built.

Support contractors. Depending on type and location of the control operation, various support contractors will be required. These might include con tractors for: drilling, pumping, drilling fluids, drilling/fishing tools, directional drilling and MWD, wireline logging, safety and toxic gas detection, civil works and heavy lift, airlift, crane barges, support vessels, diving and specialty blowout control equipment. Services that may be required include: choke manifolds and diverters, capping stacks, abrasive and explosive jet cutters, demolition explosives, cold cutters, snubbing units, coiled tubing units, production separators, inflatable packers, perforating guns, specialty kill fluids and electromagnetic ranging equipment.

The type of operations (drilling, production, workovers, other), operating area (land, offshore, remote), and size and organization of the operator (major, large or small independent, emergency management centralized or decentralized) will dictate which contractors are considered critical. If a firefighting company is under call-off contract for a particular area, most specialty blowout control equipment can be subcontracted or coordinated through that company. The remaining major service contractors will generally be readily available in a developed operating area. If the area is remote, the operator will probably have con tracts in place for most required services.

The operator's WCIMS should clearly indicate which services are critical for an area and whether direct con tracts should be in place and which should be subcontracted through the firefighter.

Other operators, government agencies. As previously mentioned, it is in the best interest of all operators to minimize blowout effects in their area whether it is their well or not. Alliances between operators to share non-confidential information, critical equipment and supplies during a blowout or on contingency should be evaluated in certain high-risk, remote, or sensitive operating areas.

Incident management plans should address the role of any government agencies with jurisdiction in the area. These should be spelled out in the ICS and confirmed with representatives of such agencies. In some cases, where severe pollution is occurring or possible, or population centers could be affected, these agencies have authority to stop actions, even take over operations and proceed as they see fit-the operator, of course, maintaining all financial liability. 



This article concludes the 12-part series on blowout control, response, intervention and management. The purpose of the series was to help operators better understand and manage well control incidents today and into the future. The industry has changed, blowout control engineering and management experience has been redistributed, and conclusion of the fires of Kuwait closed a chapter on traditional oilwell firefighting companies' modes of operation. These changes, along with increased HSE liability makes it imperative for operators to develop WCIMS and create critical alliances. 


The principal authors of this series want to thank the many co-authors and their companies for their excellent input and assistance. 

Literature Cited

1. Anon., "Incident command system," Fire Protection Publications, Oklahoma State University, October 1983.
2. Cullen, Honorable Lord, The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster HMSO, London, November 1991.

The authors

John W. Wright is president of John Wright Company, an engineering firm providing blowout intervention and control services; relief well planning, services; and general contracting for well aban donment or re-entry. He joined Schlumberger Offshore Services in 1979 and later managed Eastman-Christensen relief-well teams from 1986 to 1989 before forming his own company. He has authored numerous papers on relief-well, precision directional drilling and ranging. Mr. Wright has a BS in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University.