PHOTOS: Naples fire officials get behind-the-scenes look at BP operations in Pensacola

Pensacola Fire Marshall David Allen, left, uses a satellite map to show oil spill containment efforts to Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny, center, at a decontamination site for oil cleanup equipment in Pensacola on Wednesday, July 7, 2010. Officials from the Naples Fire Department traveled to the Florida Pan Handle on Tuesday to spend several days observing oil spill cleanup efforts so that they may streamline their own efforts to contain any oil contamination should the spill reach Collier County.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Pensacola Fire Marshall David Allen, left, uses a satellite map to show oil spill containment efforts to Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny, center, at a decontamination site for oil cleanup equipment in Pensacola on Wednesday, July 7, 2010. Officials from the Naples Fire Department traveled to the Florida Pan Handle on Tuesday to spend several days observing oil spill cleanup efforts so that they may streamline their own efforts to contain any oil contamination should the spill reach Collier County.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Journalists Aaron Hale and Tristan Spinski are in the Panhandle shadowing two Naples fire department employees as they check out the response to the oil spill washing ashore. Watch for their reports all of this week in the Daily News and at naplesnews.com

Stephen McInerny, City of Naples Fire Chief

Stephen McInerny, City of Naples Fire Chief

— After a long day of touring oil cleanup operations in Pensacola, two Naples fire officials decided to enjoy the local nightlife.

They stayed up until the early hours today, observing nighttime cleanup operations off Pensacola.

Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny and Pete DiMaria, a battalion chief with the Naples fire department, are touring some northwest Florida beaches, mining for information that could be useful for the city of Naples if oil were to threaten the lower Gulf Coast.

Crews work around the clock searching and removing tar balls that wash ashore.

By 11 p.m. an army of beach workers, many clad in helmets equipped with LED lights stormed the beaches in search of oil. Droves of frontloaders and ATVs followed.

The drone of the machines nearly drowned out the sound of the waves.

"Imagine the shock factor if all this showed up in Naples," said DiMaria.

Posted Wednesday

Seek and ye shall find.

The Naples fire officials touring oil-affected areas near Pensacola this week got a little of what they came for Wednesday _ a candid, behind-the-scenes look at how the disaster is being handled and lessons that can be brought home to Southwest Florida.

Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny and Pete DiMaria, a battalion chief with the Naples fire department, are touring some northwest Florida beaches, mining for information that could be useful for the city of Naples if oil were to threaten the lower Gulf Coast.

After talking with representatives from BP and officials from the Pensacola fire department and the Escambia County Public Safety department, McInerny said he came away with conflicting reports about the role local governments are playing in the cleanup process.

He said he learned that BP is running a massive operation with “no expense spared,” but that local officials are having to still play a role in the process in order to represent local interests.

Wednesday morning, McInerny and DiMaria toured an oil response base camp used in part to supply and decontaminate equipment used in oil cleaning efforts. The site was toured by Gov. Charlie Crist just hours before Naples fire officials arrived.

The site houses dozens of tractors and trucks, thousands of feet of clean and contaminated boom, gigantic jugs of cleaning containers that left a citrus aroma in the breeze, and about 3,000 people in hard hats and construction vests working through BP.

“This is quite an operation,” DiMaria said several times throughout the tour.

“I’m impressed,” said McInerny, explaining that he came to Pensacola with the impression that BP was dragging its feet.

“Maybe there have been mistakes,” he said, “but they’re trying to get it right now.”

After each discussion with an official or representative on this tour, McInerny and DiMaria talk about how what they just learned might be useful knowledge if oil came to Naples.

After their first tour Wednesday, McInerny said local officials might be able to leave the heavy lifting to BP and their environmental contractors. He envisioned how Naples officials might be playing a smaller role in offering support.

He changed his mind, though, after meeting Mike Weaver, Emergency Management Service chief for Escambia County, which serves Pensacola and Pensacola Beach.

Weaver, a tall man, wore glasses, a striped polo and an exhausted look on his face.

When McInerny introduced himself and DiMaria, he told Weaver he wanted information to prepare Naples for the threat of oil.

Weaver solemnly said: “I hope you guys don’t get any of this.”

Since tar balls first showed up on Pensacola Beach about six weeks ago, Weaver said, his job and those of his staff members have become significantly more difficult.

Initially, he said, experts didn’t believe his county would have to worry about the oil spill.

“People said, ‘Didn’t you know, they are going to cap things off,’” Weaver recalled.

Then the tar balls came. Small at first.

A week ago, EMS Supervisor Leon Salter said tar patties were as big as his desk.

“It made me sick to look at,” he said.

Pensacola hasn’t seen as much oil lately, Weaver said, thanks to winds and currents pushing the oil spill west.

But Escambia County staff members still have been working ‘round-the-clock to play watchdog and provide backup for BP efforts.

Before the spill, the county public safety staff was equipped with experts on hurricane response. Now many are becoming makeshift experts on oil response.

The county has contracted its own workers to place oil containment boom off Pensacola Pass and contracted environmental experts to analyze the progress of the spill’s impact. County helicopters monitor the spill from the sky.

BP is actually using Escambia County EMS as its contractor for emergency units staffed at oil cleanup sites. EMS must be available to aid cleanup workers in the event of accidents – but mostly they treat for exhaustion and dehydration.

But after weeks of extra shifts and overtime hours, the agreement is taking a toll on his staff.

“You see the fatigue in our folks. It’s just like a hurricane,” he said.

Salter called the spill “the slowest-moving hurricane I’ve ever seen.”

During the tour of the county’s emergency operations center, McInerny snapped photos and asked plenty of questions. He was particularly interested in the county’s use of a V-shaped boom placement above Pensacola Pass. An opening allowed boats and oil to pass through, but a skimmer was waiting on the other end to pick up any sheen or residue.

McInerny said he left Weaver’s tour with the feeling that the city of Naples and Collier County should be prepared for daily involvement with cleanup efforts if oil comes to Naples. He noted the use of boom would be helpful information for his fire district and others in the county.

He also said Collier County should be aware of the possibility of sending units to monitor the health of workers.

Thursday, the Naples firefighters plan to examine cleanup efforts near Mobile, Ala., before returning to Collier County at the end of the week.

They are hoping for more insight into what’s working for cleanup efforts and the best way to have “a place at the table” with the chain of command if oil comes home.

“It seems that at every turn, we’re coming across some new problem here,” DiMaria said. “BP may be trying their best, but this is so big.”

Earlier

Naples fire officials continued their tour of oil-affected areas on Wednesday with a behind-the-scenes look at BP operations in Pensacola.

Escorted by BP representatives and Pensacola fire officials, Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny and Pete DiMaria, a battalion chief with Naples fire department, examined a decontaminating site for equipment used to clean up beaches and inlets in the Pensacola area.

The site housed dozens of tractors and trucks, thousands of feet of clean and contaminated boom, gigantic jugs of cleaning containers that left a citrus aroma in the breeze, and about 3,000 people working through BP.

“This is quite an operation,” DiMaria said several times throughout the tour.

DiMaria and McInerny are on a three-day fact finding mission to learn how Naples can be prepared if the Gulf oil spill reaches Southwest Florida shores.

McInerny said from his experience Wednesday morning, he has come away with the impression that BP is throwing massive amounts of resources toward protecting and cleaning Pensacola’s water.

“I’m impressed,” he said, explaining that he came to Pensacola with the impression that BP was dragging its feet.

“Maybe there have been mistakes,” he said, “but they’re trying to get it right now.”

He said that was comforting news if tar balls starting washing up in Naples.

McInerny admitted that he came to Pensacola with the fear that the Naples fire department may have to step in and assist with clean-up efforts if oil reached the city.

But after meeting with Pensacola Fire Marshal David Allen, who reported that his biggest problem with the oil spill was turnover with BP representatives, McInerny said he is now focusing his efforts this week on making contact with BP officials and contractors.

“So we can have a seat at the table,” he said, if the oil comes to Naples.

Allen said the Pensacola fire department’s role with the oil spill is monitoring the safety of BP’s efforts within the city. With massive sites like the one being examined today built in a matter of days, Allen said it’s hard to work with the company to make sure it is meeting code standards.

“When they move in, they move in all the way,” Allen said about the scope of BPs efforts in Pensacola. “And that’s OK as long as they’re cleaning up.”

SPECIAL REPORT: More coverage of Naples fire officials' visit to the Panhandle

PHOTOS: Naples fire officials arrive in Panhandle to check response to BP Gulf oil spill

Naples sending firefighters to oil-stricken regions to prepare for worst

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