Abstract Studies on multi-group multi-criteria decision-making problems for oil spill contingency management are in their infancy. This paper presents a second-order fuzzy comprehensive evaluation (FCE) model to resolve decision-making problems in the area of contingency management after environmental disasters such as oil spills. To assess the performance of different oil combat strategies, second-order FCE allows for the utilization of lexical information, the consideration of ecological and socio-economic criteria and the involvement of a variety of stakeholders. On the other hand, the new approach can be validated by using internal and external checks, which refer to sensitivity tests regarding its internal setups and comparisons with other methods, respectively. Through a case study, the Pallas oil spill in the German Bight in 1998, it is demonstrated that this approach can help decision makers who search for an optimal strategy in multi-thread contingency problems and has a wider application potential in the field of integrated coastal zone management.