Incident Command for Natural Disasters: A Natural Fit

In February 2003, President George W. Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 5 (HSPD-5), which directed the establishment of a National Incident Management System (NIMS). That directive mandated, among other things, the adaptation and adoption of an Incident Command System (ICS) as a core component of the NIMS. As many emergency response personnel already know, the ICS itself was originally developed for wildland firefighting.

Also, as has been well documented in recent years, some decision makers and responders in the emergency management community have resisted the mandate to use a system, originally developed to fight wildland fires, to manage supposedly higher-level events such as actual or potential terrorist incidents. This opposition apparently was based on the unproven premise that the differences in incident circumstances necessitated different management systems.

Although these and other arguments have subsided to some extent, there is still a continued reluctance to accept ICS as an appropriate and effective tool for managing all types of emergencies, including natural disasters. This skepticism is unfortunate because the most significant aspect of the NIMS-ICS approach is the all-hazards applicability of the concepts and processes that comprise the core of the system.

“Managing” a Disaster

Typically, the critics of ICS confuse strategic and tactical decision-making for different types of incidents (or hazards) with the fundamental purpose of ICS. But the ICS, by its very nature, is intended to provide a management template for any type of situation. Through the identification and establishment of standard functional responsibilities, which are often identified by specific positions in the ICS command structure, the system provides what might be considered a “fill in the blanks” management organization chart. This deliberately generic approach enables response personnel to identify what functions should be staffed to execute the tasks and duties needed to manage the resources available to confront almost any type of situation. In essence, the standard ICS organization chart addresses the fundamental management components – either through position staffing or by providing a list of the elements or activities necessary to affect sound management of the response efforts – in much the same way as managing any other type of situation.

The ICS intentionally does not mandate specific strategies, tactics, or incident objectives. It is, however, based on three consistent and mutually reinforcing priorities: (a) life safety; (b) incident stabilization; and (c) property preservation. These priorities provide the starting point for all decision-making relative to any type of situation imaginable – specifically including planned or non-emergency events.

As management and operational personnel are taught in basic ICS training, decisions and subsequent actions for any situation can be derived by remembering, and using, a simple acronym – POST (Priorities-Objectives-Strategies-Tactics/Tasks) – that captures the fundamental process flow by which the actions (tactics) needed for any given situation are ultimately determined. By following this systematic approach, incident managers can develop the overall approach needed to determine the actions necessary for each and every situation likely to be encountered. In addition, those actions (tactics or tasks) will help identify the necessary resources. Conversely, the lack of resources might dictate changes to objectives, strategies, or tactics because the resources currently available are either insufficient in size or simply not adequate to carry out the actions needed.

It is important to note that, in many situations, particularly naturally occurring disasters, response resources cannot “manage” what is occurring. This is especially true during the onset and impact phases of a natural disaster. The old adage that “You can’t fool with Mother Nature” merits thoughtful consideration. For example, there is no way to reverse or divert the course of a hurricane or to redirect a tornado.

However, recognizing that humans cannot alter the direction or impact areas of most natural disasters, it is critical that response resources soundly and effectively minimize casualties among responders and civilians, and also contain or control damage – to whatever extent is possible. In fact, the ICS is a logical and well-planned system for managing the broad spectrum of human and material resources that, in turn, manage the effects of the incident. More important, though, is the simple fact that the ICS provides a systematic approach for managing the resources needed to undertake the timely and effective recovery and restoration operations required in the wake of almost any major incident.

Minimizing Casualties & Other Damage

As is also taught in fundamental ICS training, there are five constant elements in ICS that constitute the management structure: command; planning; logistics; finance and administration; and operations. These same elements are often found in the management of any organization – government agencies, private companies, and even social clubs. Therefore, a persuasive case can be made that ICS is, indeed, applicable for any type of situation. Following is a brief summary of the various functions and responsibilities usually “assigned” to each of the five elements mentioned above.

Command – often titled “management” in nonemergency situations – is the element or function ultimately responsible for reviewing and approving recommendations and actions proposed or planned. Command typically establishes the objectives for the incident response. Requests for resources and authorization for expenditures are among the primary responsibilities of the command, or management, function. In a limited or discipline-based incident such as a fire, or even for organizational activities in normal operations, command is commonly executed by a single person. In more complex and widespread incidents, a “unified command” may be established to ensure that the responsibilities, authorities, and resources of many different agencies and organizations are effectively represented in the decision-making process.

Planning is the element or function responsible for monitoring and assessing the situation, identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and even potential threats to effective incident activities, as well as preparing alternative recommendations for action. The planning function is also responsible for documenting all significant actions taken (and likely to be repeated or avoided in the future).

Logistics is the function most essential to resource management. In addition to the responsibility for making sure that adequate resources (as determined by command and operations) are acquired in a timely manner, the logistics function is also responsible for, among other things: ensuring that those resources go where they are needed; providing appropriate medical support (for the human resources) and accommodations when applicable; and feeding those resources. The logistics function is also usually responsible for establishing the protocols and methodology needed for maintaining communications.

Cost: As any modern organization can attest, “everything comes with a cost.” The finance and administration function is responsible for overseeing the proper (and legally appropriate) expenditure of the organization’s funds. This function tracks costs, identifies potential savings, administers salary payments for workers – as well as rental or service charges for equipment resources – and administers compensation for claims that may arise from actions taken during operations.

Operations, which is typically the most visible aspect of incident management, is the function that is directly responsible for the supervision of all resources directly involved in the execution of activities relative to the situation, including actual response, recovery, and restoration. Because effective supervision is critical to ensuring safe operations, a manageable span of control must be established. In simple terms, the more working resources there are that engage in activities, the greater the number of supervisors that will be needed. Consequently, the operations function will frequently entail the largest quantity of resources as well as the greatest number of supervisors.

Supporting Disaster Operations

Three other functions or positions may be necessary as extensions of the command function during long-term or complex activities: safety, public information, and liaison. When staffed, these positions directly support major responsibilities of the incident commander by relieving him or her of direct personal oversight of each to ensure safe operations, provide essential public information, and maintain coordination with supporting resources not directly involved in operational assignments. Here it should be noted, though, that these command functions – although carried out by other individuals in larger and more complex incidents – remain the responsibility of the incident commander.

In summary, the ICS as stipulated in HSPD-5 is an organizational management tool that provides a standardized template for managing virtually any type of incident or event. Almost every organization uses a similar template for routine activities. In fact, some realistic corollaries have been drawn between ICS and how the typical household is “managed.” Hence, a valid argument can be made that ICS is a logical extension of routine management that is readily applicable to cope with natural disaster emergencies as well.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



No tags to display


Translate »