As the consequences unfold of the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the flow of information has become as critical as the movement of the oil slick. One firm’s web-based information management system is having some success in crisis communication for those affected and is gaining wider play among infrastructure managers as an employee-management and business-continuity tool.

U.S. Coast Guard was the first client of the PIER system.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard was the first client of the PIER system.

Even with skepticism about the value and veracity of spill-related updates from platform owner BP and from some government sources, the Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) system allowed the U.S. Coast Guard and the oil company to very quickly launch, a website hosted by founder PIER Systems Inc., a Bellingham, Wash., crisis communications firm. The site, managed through the spill’s joint response team, has areas open to the public and media to obtain the latest news, videos, audio and photography, with other areas only for internal use, says PIER founder Gerald Baron.

The Coast Guard was PIER’s first major client, and the firm also has built relationships with private companies such as BP and Shell Oil and myriad government agencies across the U.S., he says. The Deepwater site has handled more than 20 million visitors.

Gerald Baron
The site recorded 20 million visitors searching for information about the Gulf of Mexico spill.
— Crisis website founder Gerald Baron

Neil Chapman, head of refining and marketing communications for BP, says PIER allows multiple agencies to quickly communicate in one location, resolve crises sooner and obtain approvals for remedial approaches. “[Agencies] can understand what we are proposing and give the OK quickly,” he says. “It is the bedrock of the online communication.”

Ironically, it was an oil-related explosion a decade earlier that gave rise to PIER because of the difficulty of managing and disseminating fast-changing information, says Baron, referring to the 1999 Olympic pipeline blast in Bellingham. He says the event allowed him to see how the best tools for communication were left unused on desks and that the incident command team wasn’t able to work together quickly to release information.

“We needed something that was accessible for everyone wherever they were,” Baron says. The company has expanded since then to serve clients during catastrophic crises, including Hurricanes Katrina and Ike. It was acquired by O’Brien’s Response Management Inc., Brea, Calif., last December. Baron remains executive vice president for communication.

The Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power uses the tool to monitor its infrastructure, a common approach for PIER customers, which are 65% in the public sector. If a Los Angeles water main breaks, the system alerts key employees to “speed resources out,” says Joe Ramallo, department spokesman. He says PIER is used day-to-day to manage information but also was tapped recently when a forest fire threatened to shut down a major transmission line.

In Houston, PIER helped the local transit agency during a major station expansion project. By constructing a database, staff were able to distribute directed information to specific parties, handle stakeholder questions and track the environmental impact process.

Bill Boyd, Bellingham’s fire chief, says that information response was “a mess” in 2000. Now the process is streamlined and robust, with enough bandwidth to handle traffic spikes and a method for all city departments to disseminate information. “We sell it as a crisis communication system,” he says. “On a normal basis, we are using only a small percentage of that bandwidth.” Once the traffic dies down, a PIER emergency site often remains active or is archived, as Baron advises. He says keeping the information available can also help with Freedom of Information Act requests.