The Human Aspect of ICS and Overcoming Transitional Incidents

Most often when we consider the Incident Command System (ICS), we think of boxes in an organization chart, forms to be completed, and specific processes to be followed.  True, these are, in essence, aspects of ICS, but they alone will not pave the way to success.  What we must remember is that ICS is conducted by people.

Typically the most difficult aspect of a complex incident is the transition from what we normally do and how we normally respond to elevating our response to a more appropriate level given the scope of the incident.  The groundwork for this transition lies in our initial response, which many experienced responders know can set the tone for the entire operation.  This initial response is based largely on the decisions we make with the information we have.  While there are policies, plans, procedures, play books, checklists, and myriad training that help to inform us, it all comes down to the human factor.  People make decisions based upon the stimuli they are presented with and their own experiences.

Chief Cynthia Renaud in her paper The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos discusses approaches to initial response as an oft forgotten aspect of how we teach ICS.  While we know that responders conduct initial responses all the time, there is a significant difference in scope between a routine incident and a complex incident.  This difference in scope requires a different and more open mindset.  While our size up actions may generally be the same, we need to think bigger and this kind of thinking is difficult to train.

The implementation of the ‘bigger’ (i.e. beyond what is routinely used) aspects of ICS is also a challenging mindset for responders.  These aspects of ICS, such as the initial delegation of other organizational aspects and the need for a written Incident Action Plan, do not come easily when they are not practiced.  The fact of the matter is that the implementation of ICS requires a conscious, deliberate decision accompanied by people with knowledge and skilled intent to guide its expansion suitable to the incident at hand.  It also requires a bigger picture mindset recognizing the need to expand the management of the response proportionate to the complexity of the incident and the resources required to address it.  When is it needed?  How do we do it?

One problem is that most of the people we count on to manage these initial responses are trained to manage tactics, not large incidents.  They excel at managing a handful of resources in a rapid deployment and resolving an incident quickly.  This is exactly what they are needed for and they do it well.  Chief Renaud indicates a need to train these first level supervisors to recognize complex incidents for what they are and give them the tools (and authority) to implement broader measures, including an expanded implementation of ICS.

I’m a firm believer in ICS, but I know that people have to drive it.  It’s not something we can put on autopilot and expect it to bring us to our destination.  It has to be consciously and deliberately implemented.  When people criticize ICS, I often find that their criticism is due to false expectations and inappropriate implementation.  With that, I firmly believe we need to do a better job at training to address these issues and help responders better understand the system and demystify its use.

How do we make our training better for the average (non Incident Management Team) responder?  How do we help bridge this gap between the routine and the complex?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC 

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