We’re taking a look at the back of the bridge on the Enterprise-D and the brave young men / women / others who perform semi-critical duties and throw their bodies between exploding work stations and the senior staff. Let’s talk about Starfleet’s most consistent performers: the Environmental Systems Officers.
Fun fact: that first season of ST: TNG, there was a Propulsion Systems station along the back wall. Like a lot of first season stuff, we must assume here that they were still working out some kinks as to how to operate a Galaxy class ship, by far the largest and most complicated vessel in the history of the fleet. The senior staff of the Enterprise-D was still taking shape, with some kind of ambiguous chain of command in Engineering involving multiple “chief engineers,” none of whom really made it into Picard’s inner circle. Picard had an eye for talent, leading him to award a temporary commission to veteran non-com Miles O'Brien. Picard also flagged a couple of LT(JG)s early on and made sure they got plenty of bridge time and away missions so they’d be ready to move up when some positions opened up.
For Geordi, that meant a hitch in Command red as the flight control officer while Picard waited for a chance to get rid of the dead weight in Engineering. Starfleet Command forced those guys on Picard — probably Chief Engineers MacDougal, Argyle, and Logan were heavily involved in the design and construction of the Galaxy class ships and were therefore good enough for the initial shakedown cruise, but none of them stepped up and showed some leadership under pressure, and they all thought having the Binars take a look at the computers was a good idea . . .
Worf, on the other hand, was kind of a floater / utility man along the lines of Mr. Leslie on ST:TOS. Some non-canon sources call him a “Relief Bridge Officer,” and he just hung around the back wall, filled in whenever someone vacated a chair up front, and went on a lot of away missions. I’m guessing Worf was the one who made the helpful suggestion that Propulsion Systems could be handled at the Engineering station or the Conn, but that they really to make sure the inertial dampeners didn’t shut down at a bad time. Thus, the Environmental Systems station.
The ST: TNG Technical Manual advises that the Environmental Systems station is programmed to monitor status and performance for atmosphere, temperature, gravity, inertial damping, and shielding subsystems, plus critical consumables such as oxygen and water and various recycling and reprocessing systems. The Technical Manual points out that this stuff is highly automated, which is why the station is frequently unmanned, but during Yellow and Red Alert situations, the Environmental Systems Officer can act as a deputy Ops Manager, monitoring these critical systems. This is what I mean about consistent performance: it may not be as flashy as stopping a warp core explosion or modulating shield harmonics, but the ESO is there to keep the gravity on and radiation levels acceptable even when all hell is breaking loose, and he’s all that stands between 1000 crewmen and the vast vacuum of space.
So the real question is whether the “Environmental Systems Officer” just mean whoever is standing closest to that station when the Captain has a question about waste extraction, or whether manning that station as needed is part of a broader set of duties. If the latter, there are several good candidates.
First, we have previously discussed the Chief Services Officer, a.k.a. Ensign Rusty: Starfleet Janitor, who handles a variety of essential yet boring jobs such as custodial and quartermaster work. There’s considerable overlap between Rusty’s job and the Environmental Systems station, especially as to the recycling/reprocessing systems, so he’s a good candidate to drop the space mop and pitch in as needed on the bridge. I wouldn’t put him on the bridge full time on Alpha Shift — you just don’t need someone trying to coordinate janitorial services while the Borg are attacking — but if Rusty is normally working Gamma Shift (makes sense --- fewer people underfoot), no reason why he shouldn’t be on the bridge at Environmental Systems.
Second, Geordi La Forge desperately needs to learn how to delegate. Pick a good solid Ensign who knows his way around an artificial gravity generator, move him up to LT(JG), and call him Assistant Chief Engineer (Environmental Systems). He doesn’t just monitor these systems, he leads a team that maintains, repairs, and replaces them as needed.
Third and most promisingly, the Technical Manual tells us that the Environmental Systems Officer is responsible “for execution of survival scenarios such as evacuation to environmental shelter areas.” I have a theory about a never seen yet critical position called the Emergency Operations Officer, and we'll talk about him in the next installment.