The COVID-19 Incident Management Team is helping company prepare to bring employees safely back to their pre-pandemic worksites
Nearly 15 months after the COVID-19 pandemic led California to issue a stay-at-home order, Aera’s parking lots will soon be filling up again.
Aera is set to begin bringing office employees back to their pre-pandemic workspaces June 12. The plan to return after most school districts have released students for summer allows employees still juggling childcare or other family-issues the flexibility they need to be both parent and employee.
Remaining remote-work employees will be returning to their Aera workspaces mid-August with flexibility to manage ongoing family commitments brought on by the unique pandemic-related challenges.
Aera Offices are resuming activities at the company’s operations in Kern, Ventura, Monterey and Fresno counties after statewide COVID risk levels moved into the yellow tier in recent weeks.
The re-unification, which will include building modifications and protections to protect the health and safety of employees, is being welcomed by many.
“We’re hearing that people are really looking forward to being able to see each other and interact more directly again,” said Whitney Grande, Aera’s vice president of Environment, Health and Safety. “For some, the option to safely return to the office environment allows for improved mental health, productivity or collaboration.”
Aera’s Incident Management Team at work
Employees’ return after months of working at home stems from the efforts of Aera’s COVID-related Incident Management Team (IMT) and subsequent success in meeting pandemic-related challenges among “essential workers” in the oilfields.
Those efforts have been underway since March 2020, when Aera transitioned 700 of its 1,100 employees to remote work almost overnight. More than 400 field-based workers, however, remained at their job sites. They were essential to handle Aera’s “critical infrastructure” oilfield operations at Belridge, Midway-Sunset, San Ardo, Ventura and Coalinga.
This was the first time Aera put an Incident Management Team into action to respond to a pandemic.
These boots-on-the-ground employees and contractors were forced to adjust quickly to new health and safety protocols, such as wearing face coverings, social distancing, regular hand-sanitizing and daily health screenings.
Aera’s safety protocols, which continue to evolve in accordance with federal, state and local guidelines, were developed by Aera’s COVID IMT, which launched March 13 of last year – a week before California declared its stay-at-home order. At the same time, Aera’s Crisis Management Team, composed of the company’s leadership team, zeroed in on how to ensure the IMT had what it needed to succeed.
Modeled after the National Incident Management System used by the federal and state governments, Aera’s IMT employs a formation of overall commander, section chiefs and teams to achieve its objectives.
Over the years, Aera IMTs have practiced for potential emergencies such as oil spills, wildfires and other critical situations. But this was the first time Aera put an IMT into action to respond to a pandemic.
Aera designated two employees with strong leadership experience to serve as incident commanders (ICs) for the COVID plan: Luke Chambers, a process supervisor, and John O’Connor, operations manager for the Belridge field.
Together, they led 60 people from all key aspects of Aera to provide an effective, coordinated pandemic response. Their efforts focused on PEAR+BC objectives: people, environment, assets, reputation and business continuity.
The power of the team
Grande applauded Chambers and O’Connor for their leadership as COVID ICs.
“Both of them are very strong leaders and have good situational awareness,” Grande said. “They understand the end game and what’s core to Aera’s values. They have had to assess a multitude of inputs and discern what is and isn’t important.
“Also, their ability to effectively communicate throughout the response and across the enterprise has been key to their success,” he added.
Responding to the crises hasn’t been easy. Part of incident management team duties involves monitoring COVID-related regulations and looking ahead to developments that could impact Aera and its operations. That’s repeatedly called for quick action through the extraordinary months since March 2020.
“There were times a county ordinance came out on a Friday – and we were compliance-ready by Monday,” Chambers said. “That speaks to the power of the IMT team.”
The efforts of hundreds of employees and suppliers to adapt to new challenges while keeping oil and gas flowing safely is a point of pride for Grande and Aera’s IMT.
“Our front-line workers have been showing up every day, and they have hit it out of the park,” said Grande.
“Our front-line workers have been showing up every day, and they have hit it out of the park.”
Similarly, Aera’s 700-plus employees who have been working remotely “continue to support the organization in ways that enable success for everyone,” he said. “It’s truly been a job well done by all Aera employees and our supplier partners.”
Aera’s commitment to providing exceptional care for people and the environment drove its COVID efforts and decisions.
“We take our role in the community seriously on many things, and the pandemic is no different,” Grande said. “We believe what we do helps the larger community safely navigate these unparalleled times.”
For his part, Chambers sees a success story in Aera’s IMT and companywide efforts to meet the coronavirus head on.
“I’m amazed how effective this team has been,” he said. “This whole experience showcases the strength, talent and ability of Aera’s employees to rise to the occasion. It’s been challenging but great because it’s shown what’s possible when we come together.”