Incident Command the Washington Way

by Mark Cotter

I sat through a National Incident Management System (NIMS) training program recently, and my head is still spinning. Like every other fire service organization in this country, our department needs to prove that we are on-board with this plan, and we have gone to great lengths to ensure that everyone learns how to talk the talk and walk the walk. Now, I have a college degree, so I’ve sat through a few classes before; I have been around the emergency services world long enough to see a lot of organizational charts and plans, and even helped to draw up a few. Our NIMS instructor was a veteran firefighter who was able to distill the confusion of slides and definitions down to their most basic levels, but I still left the class having little true understanding of what this new plan was all about.

Bigger and better were two of its concepts that stuck with me, but the why and how did not. I have since read and re-read the material provided, and finally have come to a rudimentary understanding of NIMS. In the idealized emergency management world envisioned by this new mandatory plan, the Incident Command System (ICS), a tested, proven, all-hazard response organization method, has been expanded to create an even more comprehensive, but still mostly theoretical, all-hazard response universe. It never ceases to amaze me how attempts at needed standardization (usually a good idea) are so easily corrupted by a desire for expansion (bigger is not always better), and the result is even more complexity (our current direction).

We in the fire service who are familiar with the ICS and have, hopefully, already integrated its principles into our regular operations, are better able than some agencies (like the poor cops) to at least understand what has now become the core of the Command and Management component of NIMS. Other attributes of this bigger plan are an interest in fostering interoperability and standardization across jurisdictions and agencies, and a focus on preparation and resource management, each of which are admittedly goals that are best approached at a federal or at least multiagency level. The potential for this new government program to act as a conduit for bringing needed resources to bear on improving emergency preparedness is also a plus, even though funding (or, more specifically, the threat of losing it) is currently only used to enforce the program’s mandatory adoption.

Unfortunately, like many government programs, NIMS creates layers of bureaucracy that will confuse and confound most emergency services workers and require a contingent of bureaucrats to make it operate. It expands on an already potentially complex schema (ICS) that is, in everyday practice in most communities, rarely implemented, and even more rarely necessary. Furthermore, as a collection of mostly untested components, the ability of such a contraption as NIMS to perform as designed is questionable.

A great deal of the awkwardness of NIMS’s Command and Management features come from its attempt to accommodate multiple agencies and jurisdictions in a collaborative sense. Its creation of Multiagency Coordination Systems, a means of bringing together a collection of representatives from affected and involved jurisdictions and agencies; and corralling every Public Information Officer (PIO) into one of several Joint Information Centers (JICs), as part of a Joint Information System (JIS), are two examples of this theme. Although cooperation is certainly a good thing, the apparent intent is to address the real political issues inherent in any large-scale incidents (and many small-scale ones). The result is “management by committee.” Basically, ICS got a D.C. makeover.

Another inherent flaw of NIMS as an incident management tool is that it builds upon only the most esoteric components of the ICS, the parts of ICS that are used the least for day-to-day emergency management activities. Multiple layers of decision making, liaison activities, and remote operating centers form the bulk of this government-sponsored disaster plan. That would be fine if NIMS were merely relegated to the bookshelf and only taken down and dusted off for periodic training and the occasional multijurisdictional disaster requiring its implementation, but experience with the ICS has shown that the opposite might occur.

Fighting Fire with Paper

A potential negative effect of placing too much emphasis on the organizational aspects is that we might allow the confusing jargon and vague concepts of this “new” emergency incident management to impede our ability to do our jobs effectively, and ultimately place more obstacles in our path to efficiency. Even the good ol’ ICS can be daunting in its complexity and become a distraction as attempts are made to address its various facets. Now with NIMS, there is an opportunity to introduce even more confusion.

The principles of the ICS are certainly sound: Manageable span of control, accountability, common terminology, and so forth. These principles should be embraced, especially since they embody the core of good incident management practices. Also, the ICS has proven its utility in forming the framework for organizing the response to large incidents and events, whether planned or unplanned. Still, given that the ICS was developed for wildland fire control, a typically a wide-ranging, prolonged, “campaign” type of operation that resembles most other emergency activities only by the presence of uncontrolled combustion, any thought of usng it for “everyday” emergency management should be dismissed outright.

At most incidents, it is the premature designation of multiple branches and layers of the ICS supervision matrix–sectors, groups, operations, and so forth–that leads to unnecessary complexity. Some examples are the use of the “division” designation when there is only one company operating in an area, sometimes changing unit titles to match their operating location (Truck 1 becomes “Roof” when it is on that level, and resumes its usual identity when its crew is on the ground; engine crews, or even individual firefighters, can have two or three different radio handles as they ascend and descend stairs in a structure); and operations command being established at a single alarm fire, leaving the Incident Commander (IC), in effect, to function as a consultant.

Another disturbing and misguided trend in incident management has ICs devoting time and attention to busily plugging responding companies into an organizational schema instead of actually watching what is happening. Completing forms has become synonymous with supervision. Unfortunately, when the officer in charge devotes his or her efforts toward a piece of paper or grease board, instead of observing actual team activities and results, the ICS may be performed well, but the incident is not being managed well. And, in the initial critical moments of any emergency, that is a very dangerous thing.

Admittedly, these ICS problems result not from its design, but from its misapplication and over-application in ways and situations for which it was not intended. Regardless, many in the fire service are losing their ability to teach and practice the art of incident management due to the distractions brought about by their compulsion to initiate what are, at least in this writer’s opinion, unnecessary ICS practices. All too often, a multitude of positions and designations are brought to life at incidents that do not warrant their use, with the associated need to care and feed such a bloated committee. The use of a checklist is acceptable when it goes beyond the routine, or at least after initial actions are set in motion. Requiring a board or sheet at every fire is an invitation to tunnel vision, and disaster.

Reviving the Dying Art of Fireground/Incident Command

All of this organization and preparation, vital as it is, does little or nothing to change the day-to-day functions of emergency workers. We still serve as members of engine companies, ambulance crews, or special operations teams. We still need to know and practice such things as forcible entry, fire flow calculations, and, yes, even the ICS; we continue to work hard and help people and get dirty. None of that will change with NIMS. It may organize our activities at large incidents differently and (we can only pray) better, but the basic work is and will be essentially unchanged.

For now, we who toil at the bottom of the organizational chart should be concentrating on how to perform our tasks better. We need to work on our approach to our typical incidents until we are at our most efficient level, and the unusual incidents as if they, too, were typical. The only way to reach this state of readiness is through planning, preparation, and training on a local level. Our emergency management system certainly needs a lot of work to make it possible to coordinate large responses, but that effort won’t help if we don’t know what to do when we get there.

ICs would have a lot easier time of it, and there would be less confusion if they would put down the clipboards for all but the most complicated of incidents, such as multiple alarm fires, prolonged operations with rotating and mutual aid crews, and multiple casualty incidents. At the vast majority of emergency incidents, even complex ones, the recommended span of control will not be exceeded when company integrity is maintained. If numerous layers of supervision are created at an incident, it is too easy for ICs–and everybody else–to become overwhelmed by the command process, threatening the success of the operation.

Developing standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs or SOGs) that address initial and ongoing company assignments at all of the types of incidents a department might typically manage (e.g., investigation of fire alarm, offensive fire attack, hazardous material spill, and so forth), and including some that are atypical (e.g., building collapse, aircraft crash, area evacuation) will go a long way toward reaching the ideal of preparation. Then flexible application of these SOPs/SOGs at a wide variety of incidents can be developed through repeated practice, whether hands-on or tabletop, routine or worst-case-scenario. The goal is for companies to know and be able to perform all of their potential assignments, and for the IC to be able to pick and choose those which are needed to manage each particular incident.

Rather than blindly and inefficiently redesigning our processes for routine operations to fit particular ICS components, it would seem prudent to instead assign ICS to the status it deserves–a specialized SOP for unusually large events. Urban fire departments might be able to mount a six-alarm fire attack easily using only their standard dispatching and move-up procedures, while a suburban fire department would likely require the organizing strength of the ICS to summon and manage even half of those resources from surrounding communities. The criteria for implementing the ICS should, therefore, be based upon local needs and abilities.

The ICS, and especially its steroid-enhanced NIMS cousin, must be viewed as a tool for effective incident management when the needs of an incident exceed the resources routinely available to a particular department or jurisdiction. Like our other tools, ICS/NIMS will not extinguish fires, stop bleeding, or identify spilled materials by itself. It must be implemented properly and in the proper setting, to be effective. Form (in this case, how we organize ourselves) should follow function (how best to do our jobs), not the other way around. Indeed, some current applications of the ICS can be great examples of “the other way around.”

The fire and emergency services’ organizational diagram is growing larger and more tangled, but we who do the actual work will likely never notice its effects or discern its many twists and turns. Unless and until we aspire to higher ranks and functions, most of us will need only the most basic understanding of NIMS. Add to this the fact that it is a work in progress, and comprehension becomes a moving target, anyway.

The ideal of creating a national method of organizing complicated, multiagency, and multijurisdictional incident management is laudable. Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 showed us the limitations of our current abilities, and an earthquake, terrorist attack, or other calamity could demonstrate that again tomorrow. We all know that we can and must do better, but the reality is that we have a long, long way to go.

Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. You can reach him at fromthejumpseat@comcast.net.

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