No one wants to experience a disaster. But, disasters happen every day. Most people plan ahead of time, to limit the impact the disaster has on them. A few go above and beyond, and willingly respond to the disaster. These people give their time and skills to assist the victims with rescue and recovery.
A successful response aids the victims, while keeping the safety of the responders at the forefront. None of this is possible without an organizational structure in place. This structure is the Incident Command System (ICS).
Versatile, yet effective
First developed by the Forestry Service in the 1970s, ICS is now part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and utilized on nearly every response across the country. The basic premise of ICS is span of control. Each person knows who is above them, and who is below them in the chain of command. The beauty of ICS is that it is scalable; it allows for expansion and contraction as the response changes.
Most incidents start small. ICS expands to meet the need for additional resources. In the recovery stages, ICS contracts as resources are demobilized. Incidents are broken into operational periods, usually 24 hours at a time. This allows for quick responses to changes in the incident.
Think of the ICS structure as a pyramid. At the top is the Incident Commander (IC). This is the person who makes the final decisions, with the input of the Command and General Staff. These positions are the Planning Chief (Plans), the Operations Chief (Ops), the Logistics Chief (Logs) and the Finance/Administrative Chief. Rounding out the General Staff are the Public Information Officer (PIO), the Safety Officer, and the Liaison Officer. Each of these positions can have a deputy if needed, including the IC. Each section is divided into branches, which are often broken down into divisions or groups if needed. In small responses, one person can hold more than one position, such as the Ops Chief also serving as the Plans Chief or the IC.
The Planning Section uses available information to formulate a tactical response to the incident. Information from the previous day’s activities, expected needs for the next operational period, and available resources are considered. Within the Plans Section are the Document Unit and the Resources Unit.
The Ops Section is responsible for carrying out the plan for the response. The actual “boots on the ground” are strike teams or task forces, depending on the makeup of each. Strike teams are composed of similar resources, such as a team of fire fighters. A task force is made up of varying resources as the incident requires, such as a team of two paramedics and a deputy sheriff for security.
The Logs Section procures resources as the Plans Chief requests them. Nothing is too big or too small to be ordered. Resources can range from heavy equipment and buildings to bottles of water and the personnel needed for the response. Occasionally, the Logs Chief must be creative in meeting the needs of the response. Substitutions may be made, and alternative sources must be explored if specific items are in short supply.
The Finance/Administrative Section holds the checkbook for the incident. The Chief is responsible for keeping track of spending, paying invoices, and procuring funding to continue the response. Finance also tracks man-hours for reporting later.
The Safety Officer spends time in the field with the responders to address safety concerns. Safety of responders is paramount to the incident. The Safety Officer can immediately halt any activity that is determined to be unsafe. This becomes important in natural disasters with constantly changing weather conditions or unsafe debris fields.
The PIO handles all press releases, community outreach, and incoming questions or concerns from the media or the community. The Liaison Officer acts as a point of contact between the incident and stakeholders. The local or state governments, industries, and other cooperating agencies deal directly with the Liaison Officer.
ICS for everyday planning
ICS can be used for any type of response, not just for emergencies. Think about that next time you are planning a big family event. Assign an IC, staff each Section, and let ICS work for you. You will notice reductions in stress as each person knows their expected role.
In the next segment, we will discuss the inner workings of the ICP and how each Section interacts with the others to carry out a successful response.