UNIFIED COMMAND AND SHIFTING PRIORITIES

BY JOHN A. REARDON

For decades, we have been exposed to emergency management concepts with the bedrock being the incident command system (ICS). This term is familiar to the fire service, and most fire departments use this system to one degree or another. The early pioneers of the ICS need to be commended in their thinking in that as improvements are made to the system (i.e., rapid intervention teams), they neatly fit into the structure. It is truly modular and expandable. Over recent years, some agencies or organizations have changed the name from incident command system to incident management system (IMS), yet the basic structure, concepts, and principles have remained the same and relatively unchanged.

NIMS

Today, ICS has taken on greater universal importance in that President George W. Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5, Management of Domestic Incidents, directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and administer a National Incident Management System (NIMS).

NIMS has five components: Communications and Information Management, Preparedness, Joint Information System, NIMS Integration Center, and the Incident Command System.1 “The directive also requires federal departments and agencies to make adoption of the NIMS by state and local organizations a condition for federal preparedness assistance (through grants, contracts, and other activities).”2

Insomuch as there is a large effort in creating curriculum to address a multiagency audience, this opened the door for some not only to tweak but also to modify the existing ICS.3 Indeed, to address multiagency responses and different jurisdictional responsibilities, some adjustments have to be made because the ICS was developed by the fire service for the fire service and will now be used by other, nontraditional, response agencies.

INCIDENT PRIORITIES

The ICS taught for years incorporated identification and accomplishment of one of three priorities:

• life safety,

• incident stabilization, and

• property conservation.4,5

These three priorities work extremely well for the fire service but not for addressing the responsibilities of multiple agency response to a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incident.

Regardless of the type of incident or the discipline of an agency responding, the first two priorities remain constant, although tactical objectives may change depending on the incident at hand. The third priority will change for other agencies based on their responsibilities. Police agencies will not be overly concerned with overhaul and salvage (property conservation) operations as with evidence preservation and investigation.

Agency conflict may arise after stabilization if the parties involved do not respect and recognize the concerns of others or that a transfer of command may be necessary.

In a more honest time, it was common for the fire service to shovel all the debris outside during overhaul. As arson took on a more serious concern and in recognition that debris may now be evidence, the fire service adjusted its practices to preserve the site as a possible crime scene. This example illustrates how a third priority conflict can be resolved through recognition of and respect for another agency’s role.

The National Response Team (NRT) lists the following national response priorities:

• preserve the safety of human life,

• stabilize the situation to prevent the event from worsening, and

• use all necessary containment and removal tactics in a coordinated manner to ensure timely, effective response that minimizes adverse impacts to the environment.6

This is reasonable when considering that the fire service might have property and environmental concerns at an incident but that the federal government will have a greater concern for the environment as a whole and in any recovery efforts. National incident priorities do not radically differ from those of the fire service’s except that they are broader in scope.

NIMS is consistent with having three incident priorities, yet we have to realize that the third priority may change according to the responsibility charged to another responding agency. The third priority for law enforcement might be investigation; for the health department, it might be short- and long-term health effects. The third priority will have to be adjusted to whatever the other agency or agencies hold in responsibilities-but there are only three priorities.

UNIFIED COMMAND

NIMS has “universally incorporated” unified command (UC).7 The use of a unified command is nothing new. The fire service has been using it for hundreds of years. It simply involves having a representative from another agency (or representatives from other agencies) and the IC put their heads together to develop an incident action plan that addresses everyone’s needs. At a fatal fire, we find the fire department, police, medical personnel, medical examiner, and utility personnel huddled together developing tactical objectives for what should be done, and when.

Recognition of another agency’s role should result in an awareness that a command transfer may be indicated. At a plane crash, the fire department is initially in command; later, the medical examiner may have jurisdiction, followed by the police’s securing a potential crime scene, and, finally, with the National Transportation Safety Board’s assuming the investigative role. There are no clear lines for transfer in some instances, but a shift of responsibility and authority can be seen. The shift occurs in the third priority, after life safety and stabilization have been accomplished.

A UC will be effective only if all the representatives respect the roles of the others. It requires others to listen, express their concerns and needs, and work jointly to develop an action plan. Ego must be set aside.

Representatives in the UC must have a vested interest and bring with them resources they are willing to share. They must have the authority to order actions and supplies. Something the fire service has to remain mindful of is that we respond with an IC, whereas other agencies often send a representative who may have limited authority. Therefore, our organization generally builds down from the IC while other agencies build up their organization.

All parties involved have to keep the appropriate incident priority in mind. These goals set the stage for the emergence of a strategy from which tactical objectives are determined.

COMMUNICATIONS

With great emphasis on “interoperability,” we need to pause. My experience with everyone talking on a radio at the same time has shown it doesn’t work.8 Not everyone can talk at once. Nor can one listen to everything at once. And, the most effective communication is still face-to-face.

The value of a command post cannot be overstated. It is here that agency representatives gather. Face-to-face communication within the UC starts with each describing his interest and concern as others listen. It allows for questions and answers.

Yet, communication routing does need addressing. At a recent disaster exercise, the sheriff’s department established a communication center with its communications vehicle. The fire department established a separate vehicle, with more room, as the command post. Unfortunately, a sheriff’s representative was not assigned to the command post, nor was a command post representative assigned to the communications vehicle. Both ended up talking to the emergency operations center, and that caused some degree of confusion. Horizontal communication was hurt because information was not being shared. Vertical information flow to the emergency operations center was two pronged and violated the idea of establishing a joint information effort.

In this very technological age, we might be becoming overly dependent on radio, computer, and telephone communication. These tools, of course, are valuable, but face-to-face communication offers more than words, allowing for more descriptive explanations and the nonverbal expressions we all read.

Aside from any technical difficulties is the fact that each agency has its own jargon. Even within the fire service, we have fire, EMS, and haz-mat jargon. The UC allows a person to express or explain exactly what is being heard and not heard.

Many of us have experienced radio communications in which it wasn’t what was being said but what was not being said. It is a “feel” that can be learned but not taught. A probationary firefighter at my station wondered how we knew that we had lost one of our own at a fire; it was not by what was said but from what wasn’t being said on the radio and from the tone of the dispatcher’s voice.

The command post housing a UC can be viewed as a tree: The trunk is the UC, and communications are channeled by the different agencies to the branches (operations). Information and intelligence can feed into the UC through the root system. Personnel there can interrupt the information they receive.

Another communication tool is the IC’s periodic meetings. An IC used a very effective technique as he went agency to agency soliciting comments and concerns. From this, tactical objectives were developed. As those objectives were accomplished, the system was repeated and new tactical objectives were determined.

ORGANIZATION

Looking at the typical ICS chart, you see lines from the IC to the functional areas of planning, logistics, finance/administration, and operations. Lines extend from these areas to branches, divisions, groups, and units. These lines represent not only organizations but also communications. Through NIMS, we should all realize that if we work within the ICS we would all have similar organizational structures that will blend or overlay those of others. This places the multiagency talents in the right spot and establishes horizontal as well as vertical communications.

It is critical that a responsible person, with authority, be part of the UC. Just as critical is that an operations officer be appointed. The representative in the command post cannot do both; he can be only in one place at a time.9

Similar organizational structures will overlay. An appropriate representative in the CP will be with other representatives. Operation officers will be together. Technical personnel will unite in a multidisciplined unit.

Within the organization, and as the tactical objectives are accomplished, the incident action plan will change. That change may bring a change in the IC, especially on reaching the third priority. Primary agencies may become secondary and now simply provide support.

UNIFIED COMMAND IS NOT A COMMITTEE

Some consider UC a committee. Although it is important for the UC to reach a consensus in action planning, one person must lead this “committee.” In most cases, it will be the person having the greatest jurisdictional responsibilities at that time. As responsibilities shift, the IC may change. “Depending on the nature of the incident, there will likely be a lead agency with primary authority or responsibility.”10

EFFECTIVE RESPONSE

An effective response to an emergency involves the use of the three “C’s”:

• communications,

• cooperation, and

• coordination.

An effective IC addresses all three throughout the incident and is sensitive to the other disciplines and agencies that might have a third incident priority different from his. Life safety has to be addressed first, followed by stabilization if for no other reason than to ensure response personnel safety, followed by a third priority that may be different from that of property and environmental conservation.

National incident priorities are not inconsistent with those of the fire service; they will differ according to roles and responsibilities. If all agencies follow the three incident priorities, the first two should not present any problem. However, conflict might arise with the third priority.

The value of a UC is that concerns, duties, and responsibilities can be expressed and explained during a good “roundtable” of representatives. At a major incident, we need to listen to others and respect their roles.

Although the use of an ICS is nothing new to the fire service, we need to understand that other agencies are now just being introduced to it. We need to recognize that other agencies do not use it on a regular or routine basis. This recognition includes, as noted above, that we respond with an IC and build our organization down, but other agencies will probably build their organization up, initially sending a representative with limited authority.

Major incidents require a more disciplined and organizational approach; this is best accomplished when all use a similar organizational structure (ICS). Other organizations now, because of HSPD-5, will be introduced to the ICS and, hopefully, will train and practice in its use so they can more effectively meld into the on-scene organization established, most likely by the fire service.

As history has shown, volunteers and unauthorized personnel responding on their own must be corralled and properly placed, if needed, within the organizational structure. This includes off-duty personnel knowledgeable in their jobs and duties with a desire to do the right thing but who will be unaccounted for if not properly fit into the organizational structure.

The common use of the ICS places people with equal expertise with the proper counterparts and establishes horizontal and vertical communications: Command personnel meet with command personnel, operations with operations, and technicians with technicians.

The concept of a multiagency response does have a human element, and ego has to be set aside. We need to listen to others while expressing our concerns so we might all work to resolve the problem based on the incident priorities. Communication is key, followed by cooperation, and then coordination of efforts.

The ICS does not need redefining or restructuring, only refinement through recognition that the third priority will change for different agencies and that the IC may change as priorities and jurisdictional authority shift.

Endnotes

JOHN A. REARDON retired from the Detroit (MI) Fire Department as a lieutenant and was recently chief of the Tri-City (MI) Fire Department serving Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor, and Sylvan Lake. He presently provides fire, hazardous materials, and incident management training and consulting.

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