Government’s Emergency Phone Number
At 6:14 a.m. on July 16, the National Response Center (NRC), a small federal agency, received an emergency call: A tugboat guiding a barge up the St. Lawrence River near Alexandria Bay, N.Y., had lost its steering, and the barge had run aground. The incident tore a hole in the barge cargo hold and spilled 1,100 gallons of liquid calcium chloride into the water. The barge was carrying about 179,000 gallons of the chemical solution — used to control snow, ice, and dust; to formulate ready-mix concrete; and to promote other industrial processes.
The NRC immediately notified appropriate federal departments and agencies and assigned a federal on-scene coordinator — in this case, the U.S. Coast Guard base in Buffalo.
Within a day, Coast Guard divers had sealed the hold and stopped the release, which by then totaled 12,000 gallons. The action prevented significant environmental damage. Within two days, the barge was removed and cleanup operations got under way.
Serious as it sounds, July 16 was more or less a routine day in the life of the NRC, which will receive more than 130,000 calls during 2004 and file reports on as many as 36,000 events — about 100 per day. Most of the reports will involve oil and gas spills, although an increasing number report potential terrorist activity.
Not all of the calls to the NRC prove useful. Not long ago, for example, a man called to report that his wife was engaged in terrorist activities. The NRC referred the report to the FBI, which investigated and discovered that the man had grown so angry with his wife during an argument that he decided to report her as a terrorist. The FBI is prosecuting the husband for filing a false report.
The NRC was established in 1974 in response to mandates of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Congress assigned the Coast Guard to host the organization since, at that time, the Coast Guard was the only federal agency with a pollution and oil spill response program. Originally designated as the prime federal contact for oil and chemical spills, the NRC’s role has expanded to include radiological and biological discharges into the environment anywhere in the U.S. and its territories. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the NRC’s role expanded again, as the agency took on the assignment of coordinating communications related to reports of possible terrorist activities.
According to U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Yancee L. McLemore, senior watch officer with the NRC, the agency serves as the federal government’s designated point of contact for incidents requiring a federal response. Calls come into the center, located in Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. Callers report oil and chemical spills, transportation incidents and suspicious activities that may relate to terrorism.
Many of the calls come from the public, thanks to the NRC phone number (1-800-424-8802) being listed on the first page of virtually every telephone book in the country. The NRC is required to preserve the anonymity of callers.
When a call arrives in the NRC call center open 24 hours a day, one of 17 trained staff members interviews the caller and determines what federal and state agencies, if any, must be notified. In some cases, the NRC initiates a national emergency response by assembling a National Response Team or NRT. “The NRC is the communications center for the NRT,” McLemore says.
NRT team members include 10 cabinet-level departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation and Treasury. Other members are the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the General Services Administration (GSA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
According to McLemore, terrorism reporting has begun to absorb more and more of the NRC’s time. “In July, we opened a new hotline related to terrorism,” he says. “It is called America’s Waterway Watch. It has increased our workload ten-fold. For example, a tip from a south Florida caller, referred to the FBI, led to the arrest of three terrorists.”