The Incident Command System

Since the school shootings of the 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island, the California mudslides, Western wildfires other tragic events, most people are aware of the importance of mitigation and emergency preparedness, especially those of us who are responsible for the safety and security of our park and recreation users.

Setting the Stage

I’m assuming that the reader has gone through some of the first steps of Emergency Response Plan (ERP) development such as forming an emergency planning team made up of key staff and local first responders, conducting an assessment of local hazards and mitigating as many of these as possible, establishing multiple off-site evacuation areas and collecting the supplies needed to conduct an effective response.

I have seen many ERPs fail when they were put into action, either during an actual event or through drills and exercises. Plans that may look good on paper and seem to cover any foreseeable event many times are found wanting when needed the most. Either they are too bulky to be of use in the chaos of an emergency, or personnel are unaware of the roles they are expected to perform.

Through the use of a system of management called The Incident Command System (ICS) personnel can alleviate some of these problems and better coordinate their actions with the first responders and the community at large.

I wish to make it clear that this is a quick overview of ICS. For more information you should ask local emergency management, fire or police personnel for training opportunities and guidance.

Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers many no-cost independent study courses in the field of emergency management, including basic ICS, at

Very simply, all emergencies and disasters have common themes that run through them. It doesn’t matter if a tornado, wildfire, earthquake, mudslide or an armed intruder impacts you — though some of the initial response actions may differ — your overall concerns and possible impacts are the same.

With any of these scenarios you may have deaths, injuries, damage to your structures, problems accounting for and taking care of users and staff, difficulties communicating within and outside of your facility, or perhaps the need to abandon the facility or area altogether for a safer location.

Any one or all of these may confront a director within a matter of minutes or over the course of hours. In either case, factual information must be collected and analyzed, responders must be notified, users must be cared for and the media and relatives are going to want information.

Commanding the System

The Incident Command System was born out of the wildfires in the western United States. These fires can envelope large areas of land that necessitate the use of fire crews and equipment from many jurisdictions.

Some of the problems that confront firefighters are: Who’s in command and responsible for direction and control? What’s the overall plan? What equipment is needed and where do we find it? How do we feed and care for the fire crews? And, of course, how much does all this cost? These and other problems have largely been mitigated by the adoption of ICS.

The eight primary elements of ICS are:

Common Terminology: When organizations and agencies have different meanings for terms, it can lead to confusion. For example, most response agencies have done away with “ten codes” and recommend plain English to avoid confusion.

Modular Organization: ICS organizational structure is from the top down. At the very least, every event will have the Command function established. As the event’s needs dictate, additional functional areas may be assigned.

Integrated Communications: Effective two-way communications is critical. Under ICS a common communications plan is used.

A Unified Command Structure: Unified command is a sharing of overall incident management during a multi-agency incident.

Consolidated Actions Plans: Either written or verbal, every event needs an action plan. Action plans should cover all goals, objectives and support activities needed.

A Manageable Span of Control: The bottom line is to delegate. No one should direct any more that seven people, three to five being easier to control, and no one should report to more than one person.

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Related posts:

  1. The Incident Command System
  2. Where To Start
  3. A Plan For Action
  4. Perfect Your Loss-Prevention Program
  5. Just In Case
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