Magazine Feature / People

University College instructor brings Gulf oil spill into the classroom

Walt Burns

University College instructor Walt Burns has been working at the Gulf oil spill for most of the summer.

When Walt Burns arrived in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the oil spill response in May, he was tasked with establishing security and communication for several thousand people coming in and out of St. Bernard Parish’s command base in the middle of the Mississippi River bayou — a base with no Internet access, cell phone service or buildings.

From his tent that quickly rose to 100-degree temperatures, he used portable satellite dishes and microwave systems to provide connectivity while dodging daily rainstorms and lightning shutdowns.

It was a fitting challenge for the University of Denver adjunct faculty instructor who teaches courses in broadband and wireless networks at University College.

“I think I get a little bit of real-world experience to bring back this way,” he says.

Even though BP recently capped the leaking well, Burns is still in the Gulf, responding to the spill 15 hours a day, seven days a week. When he gets five or 10 minutes to spare, he’s interacting with the students he’s currently teaching in an online, introductory telecommunications course.

“It’s not about me,” he says of the class. “But every now and then I throw something in the discussion groups that provides a little extra insight or perspective on the difference between standard telecommunication and things you have to do in an emergency.”

Burns had his first experience in emergency technical response after Hurricane Katrina. He worked for a year and a half helping New Orleans build its information technology and communications infrastructure.

“A group of us formed a company called Response Force 1,” he says. “When this situation occurred, we just sort of got the band back together, so to speak.”

Their team consists of about 55 people, 45 of whom are local hires.

“Imagine a portable office environment with PCs and printers and being able to take photos for badges, creating a credentialing database to keep track of various personnel and command staff down to the folks that provide us food, sanitation, and the fisherman and various people going out on boats every day.”

One project he’s working on now is installing GPS transponders to track major vessels.

“There are hundreds of vessels out there that are either doing actual cleanup work or they are deploying oil boom,” Burns says. “Local fishermen go out in the smaller boats and either deliver supplies or they go out with these specially equipped cell phones to do surveillance and take photos and track locations, where the oil is and the environmental impact. All that information is collected and brought back and analyzed. So a lot of fairly new cutting edge technology is being used to fight this thing.”

His team also is providing satellite communications to several residential barges he calls “flotels” that will house up to 270 workers near barrier islands that have become contaminated. The boat trip to these areas can take two to three hours, so the barges will allow workers to remain on scene for a 14-day rotation.

Meanwhile, the tents they’ve been working from are now equipped with DSL broadband and Wi-Fi and are being joined by new structures, including a helicopter pad and firehouse. Roads and bridges are being improved to handle the traffic of workers coming and going each day. Their base camp has become a small city where tens of thousands of feet of oil boom, absorbent material and skimmers are maintained, staged and deployed.

“All in all, my work here is exciting, unique, motivating and exhausting,” Burns says. “There is a strong sense of urgency and commitment by the local workers as well as everyone in camp to saving the threatened wetlands and way of life here … I’d like to be able to get back to teaching classes by fall, but there’s so much oil in the Gulf that it may take months or even years to complete the clean-up.”

Thomas Tierney, academic director for University College’s Information and Communications Technology program, looks forward to having Burns back at University College and understands the work he’s doing will inform his teaching. Burns is a master teacher who has been teaching in the telecommunications program at University College since 1991. When the new Information and Communications Technology program was developed, Tierney looked to Walt to design and shape the program.

“One of the reasons Walt is held in such high regard by our students is that he brings challenging technical content to life by relating the principles to practical application,” Tierney says. “Knowing Walt, I am certain that his students during the coming year will directly learn from the unique technical challenges that he has encountered during his work in the Gulf.”


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