How much help are BP help lines?

IN reporter Ryne Ziemba called the 1-800 hot lines that British Petroleum has listed in its website for people seeking information and help regarding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

To report oiled or injured wildlife, call 1-866-557-1401
Answered by contractor Volunteer Specialty – licensed to clean up wildlife, have to be state or federally licensed.

Volunteer information: (866) 448-5816
Other volunteers (probably most of the public) are being encouraged to do administrative work; record-keeping, etc. or pre spill clean-up.

For general assistance and to submit alternative response technology, services or products, call +1 281 366 5511
Sends the information to the engineering department. 24-48 hrs. Phone answered by subcontactor. The lady didn’t know what company she worked for, only that they were being contracted out by BP. She said it was just a room of about 100 people with computers.

To discuss spill related damage, call 1-800-440-0858
Take down information. Loss of wages, approximately how much. Location, best number. Ask for social security. Call within 7-10 days.

Investor Relations, call +1 281 366 3123
Two Investor Rel specialist administrators and her. Record dates for dividend rates, lost stocks certificates, how to transfer. Wouldn’t be the first time someone called and asked should I sell my shares.
BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward makes $4.7 million a year. According to their 2003-2007 earning statements, his company’s revenue is $292 billion dollars. It is currently the 4th largest multinational corporation on the planet. However, with BP’s seemingly endless supply of money, and the April 29th announcement by President Obama that his administration will see to it that BP pays the bill for this cleanup; there is a heavy reliance on volunteers by the multinational energy company.

When you think of volunteering for an environmental disaster like this, many people have heroic visions of cleaning off an injured baby seabird with a toothbrush and whisking it away to a very concerned team of veterinarians. However, when I recently called all of BP’s help lines, I found a couple of very interesting things. Most notably, when I called the BP coordinated volunteer line that BP is suggesting that unqualified volunteers sign up to do…administrative work!

This, I’m sure, might strike you as a bit puzzling. Anyone who lives on the Gulf Coast, or has visited here since the April 20th oil-rig disaster has probably noticed that there are many dedicated and enthusiastic locals who want to do anything that they can to save local wildlife and/or habitats. Naturally, the oil itself and chemical dispersal agents are extremely hazardous and should only be handled by those who have had HAZMAT training and proper equipment.

Why then, would the 4th largest company, a corporation that surely has enough money to pay people to do administrative work, be trying to use the local labor force to work for them for free? I attempted to contact Liz Castro, a BP representative who is working in the area, but she did not contact me back with comment on BP’s new all-profit, free labor-force.

A little less shockingly, I spoke with a very nice woman at the Ideas Alternative Response and Technology line. I asked the woman that I spoke with about what she does with ideas that are told to her over the phone. She said that she puts ideas in a computer and they are supposed to be sent along to the engineering department which is not in their building. She also said that no phone numbers for BP employees are ever given out. Whew! It’s good that someone’s personal interests are being looked out for.

One thing that was very striking about this woman that I talked to at the Ideas Alternative Response and Technology line, is that she had no idea who she worked for. She said that whatever company it was, they were contracted out by BP to process these calls. There was also a brief mention of there being many security guards outside of the building that she was working at. I’m not sure what exactly she was talking about. Her accent made me wonder if it was an outsourced call center where the workers are inside, being guarded from leaving or something like that. This is just a hunch, though. Maybe they just really like to protect those computers inside.

She then seemed to realize that she had made a mistake mentioning the security outside and quickly started reading pre-written statements about how BP was doing everything it could to help the situation.

The woman I spoke with at the line for those who wish to make claims to BP for damages (property, lost wages, etc.) was fairly helpful. However, she didn’t seem to know a lot about the claims process itself. It did seem slightly suspicious when she told me that they ask for a claimant’s social security number. When I asked the operator why they require this information, she said she had know idea why they ask for it. She told me that claimants would be contacted back in 7-10 days, however, she was not in the department responsible for those callbacks.

One thing that is apparent with BP’s handling of claims, ideas, and volunteer requests, is that the bureaucratic structure for processing calls through the contracted call centers most likely leaves a big gap for asymmetrical communication. Many people have written comments on the internet or screamed at public forums about how they are pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to actually get in contact with someone from BP.

Having such an indirect structure, where people leave messages to someone who is not even in the area, with the final outcome that it is up to BP whether they call you back or not, is definitely frustrating. While most of the employees of the call centers are extremely friendly, they are often not well informed and seem to be strawmen and women, set up to take the frustrations of the outraged public.

This sort of process could prove to be faulty and very frustrating if and when this disaster begins to have a bigger on-shore impact. With an unbalanced power dynamic, where it is unsure whether local ideas, comments, and complaints are even listened to by those at BP- many people could end up feeling like the fate of their local ecosystems and communities are not in their hands anymore.