Do you Really Know Unified Command?

Despite how much incident command system (ICS) instructors try to hammer this one home, there still remains some measure of confusion about what the concept of unified command really is. I regularly review documents or sit in meetings where unified command is improperly defined, applied, and discussed.  There are many who espouse that they use unified command instead of ICS.  Unified command is, in fact, an application of ICS, just like many other concepts within the system.  It is not a different system. When unified command is used, all other concepts within ICS remain the same.

From the National Incident Management System (2008) document, unified command is defined as follows: In incidents involving multiple jurisdictions, a single jurisdiction with multiagency involvement, or multiple jurisdictions with multiagency involvement, Unified Command allows agencies with different legal, geographic, and functional authorities and responsibilities to work together effectively without affecting individual agency authority, responsibility, or accountability.

Once we can gain an understanding of what unified command is, implementation of unified command is where the greatest misconceptions lie.  People often think that unified command is applied with a concept best described as ‘We use unified command, but the Fire Chief is in charge.’.  Nope.  That’s not it.  That’s simply an application of single command, with deputies coming from other agencies.  Unified command is truly unified.  The participants in unified command operate at the same level of authority.  Obviously standards of professionalism and legal authority should hold true, ensuring that none are issuing orders contrary to those of their counterparts, and often there is deference to the member of unified command who may have certain jurisdiction or subject matter expertise as it applies to a particular matter, but decisions and made and applied jointly.  The unified command, therefore, acts and speaks as a single entity.

Given the factors described above, as well as the need to properly synchronize incident management (see my recent article on this topic, here), unified command is absolutely something that should be prepared for.  Because of the nuances of its application, planning for unified command is helpful.  While the application of unified command is generally optional, some regulations and policies may require its use under certain circumstances. Be it required or not, plans establish a course of action for stakeholders to follow and can be strongly supported by procedures.  Plans should at least acknowledge that unified command may be an option for certain incidents, and may need to identify who makes the decision to implement unified command.  I’ve seen some plans require unified command for certain incidents, which I’m not crazy about.  Unified command, as mentioned, is just one more application of ICS.  Given the right circumstances, a single command may be the best option.  That said, if something isn’t included in a plan, even as an option, it may not even be considered during an incident.  Unified command should always at least be an option.

As an example of unified command application, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) commonly encourages and participates in unified command for many of their incidents, often pulling together, at a minimum, the USCG, a local or state government representative, and a representative of the responsible party (owner and/or operator).  They do this because it makes sense.  While the USCG has legal authority over navigable waterways and a response requirement within those waterways, incidents can also impact the shorelines, which are generally the responsibility of state and local governments.  State and local governments may also be providing a great deal of resources to assist in the incident.  International laws require that responsible parties do, in fact, take responsibility (usually financially) for incidents caused by or involving their vessels, which makes them a significant (although sometimes reluctant) stakeholder.

Further preparedness measures are needed for practitioners to become proficient in the application of unified command.  The inclusion of the option in plans alone isn’t enough.  It should be trained, so people understand what it is and how best to apply it.  The concept of unified command is incorporated into every level of the ICS national training curriculum.  Sadly, the common misconceptions associated with unified command tell me that we aren’t communicating well enough what unified command actually is.  Beyond training, the best opportunity to reinforce the application of unified command is exercises.  Exercises obviously offer an opportunity for a no-fault environment which allow for informal feedback and formal evaluation, which should both inform potential improvements. Unified command certainly should be practiced to be successful.  The reason it’s so successful with USCG applications is because their people train and exercise heavily in ICS concepts, including unified command.  They also enter a unified command environment with an eye toward coaching other participants who may not be so familiar with it and how it works.

There are a number of keys to success for unified command.  Chief among them are an understanding of what it is and what is expected and an ability to work as a team.  Working well as a team involves essential elements such as communication, coordination, and checking your ego at the door. Rarely is unified command successful when someone is trying to strong-arm the matter.  A successful unified command requires discussions to identify the priorities that each agency or jurisdiction has, and determining how to properly plan, shape, and synchronize the response efforts to ensure that each of these is handled appropriately.  Clearly, some measure of negotiation must regularly take place.

People often ask who should be part of the unified command.  The membership of unified command should remain fairly exclusive.  Representatives should only come from those agencies or jurisdictions that are significant stakeholders within the incident (i.e. they have responsibility or authority for major components of the response).   Just because an agency or jurisdiction is providing resources or support to an incident does not mean they should be part of the unified command.  Unified command functions best when it is small.  If your unified command effort is exceeding five or six people, you are entering the land of management by committee, and that should be avoided.  While some claim that there are a multitude of interests that should be represented in the management of an incident, I would suggest establishing a multi-agency coordination group, which is a policy-level body who can guide the incident command/unified command from that level.  The goal is to have only essential agencies working at the command level.

As I continue the crusade of improving ICS training, we will need to ensure that the concept of unified command gets some special attention to ensure better understanding of what it is and how it works.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts and practices on how you prepare for and implement unified command within your jurisdiction or organization.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness



The Debacle of Flint, Michigan

I’ve written in the past about how awesome the Dukes of Hazards emergency management podcast is.  Seriously, if you haven’t checked it out, go do it now!

The latest episode (19) of Andrew and Mitch’s podcast features an outstanding interview with Brad Skillman from Florida State University who details the issues and timeline with the Flint, Michigan water crisis.  While I had been aware of the general issues, I hadn’t realized the endemic system of failures at all levels of government that fueled this incident, victimizing all residents, business, and industry in Flint.

Go listen.

– TR

Base Camp Connect – Field-Deployable Interoperability Solution

Hello readers!  I wanted to make everyone aware of an incredible product out there for communications interoperability – Base Camp Connect.  This is a mobile, field-deployable interoperability platform that can bridge voice, data, and radio in minutes.  Right on their home page, they link to a YouTube video demo of their system, which shows many of its capabilities.

Along the top of their webpage, you will also find a number of tabs, including a blog.  Base Camp Connect has brought on some talented bloggers, and me, to write on topics including communications, incident management, and others.  The posts I write for Base Camp Connect are exclusive content only found on their website and LinkedIn page.

Check out their website and the YouTube videos, follow them on LinkedIn, and read through some blog posts.  In fair disclosure, while Base Camp Connect does not pay me to promote their product, they do pay me to write content for them.  I really do think they have a great product, though – so check it out.


Incident Management Synchronization

I wrote most recently on Building a System of Response, focusing on the preparedness perspective of bringing stakeholders together to better anticipate each other’s priorities and objectives through collaborative planning, training, and exercising.  Incident synchronization is the step beyond having a system of response.  It’s the implementation where we make the system work.  Effective incident synchronization, however, is not as simple as building a good system of response.  There are a number of factors at play.

Incident Timeline

Every incident has its own timeline.  There are parts of this timeline that we can control, and parts that we can only respond to.  Most incidents occur with little or no notice, which already puts us in the passenger seat, regardless of our level of preparedness.  There is a period of time where we must play catch-up.  This initial response MUST be an early focus of incident management synchronization.  The success of our initial response will set a tone for the rest of the incident.

Looking at the incident timeline as a whole, we find that most incidents we deal with have a focus on response, with little need for intensive recovery activity.  Major incidents may have a response of a few hours or days, with recovery lasting months or even years.  The impacts of the incident largely determine the overall timeline.  The activities within the timeline, however, are determined by us.

Incident Priorities

Our response and recovery actions have certain timelines associated with them.  In response, our timelines are largely dictated by the three priorities of:

  1. Life Safety
  2. Incident Stabilization
  3. Property Conservation

These priorities should be addressed in order – that is, our life safety activities tend to go before incident stabilization and property conservation, although we do often have some overlap of activities associated with these priorities, especially where it can make sense to prevent further life safety issues.  These priorities, particularly life safety, are reflected in our initial response.

Depending on the nature and impacts of the incident, other priorities may be introduced by various stakeholders as we go into an extended response.  The extended response brings about a measure of bureaucracy, as responders enter non-emergency activities and non-traditional responders arrive to take part in matters related to their areas of responsibility.  These non-emergency activities and areas of responsibility may be associated with laws and regulation, plans, organizational charter, executive direction, or simply managing expectations. Of all of these, plans, particularly interagency plans, stand the best chance of respecting a system of response, aiding in a synchronization of incident management.  This extended response is often associated with incidents of Type 3 or larger.  Effective incident management synchronization during the extended response is critical. 

The Transition to Recovery

While politicians like to make declarations about the end of response and the beginning of recovery, these lines are rarely, if ever, so solid and defined.  On even the simplest of incidents – a motor vehicle accident – the incident commander will call for a tow truck early in the response activity.  In the microcosm of the small-scale Type 5 incident, this is a recovery activity.  Clearly then, when extending these concepts to a larger incident, we also initiate a number of short and long-term recovery activities within our response phase.

Recovery tends to bring in a number of agencies and organizations with little concern about response, but rather with a focus on getting people, organizations, and infrastructure back to where they were pre-incident, if not better.  We look at capabilities such as infrastructure systems, economic recovery, health and social services, housing, and natural and cultural resources.  We are addressing human needs, continuity of operations, restoration of infrastructure, social stabilization, and environmental remediation.  Clearly there are a variety of organizations and priorities at play.  While many of these activities, for a time, will run parallel to response, there are intersections, and recovery will continue well past the response phase.  Incident management synchronization must account for the integration of and transition to recovery. 

Accomplishing Incident Management Synchronization

Good preparedness leads to good implementation.  If we have built an effective system of response (and recovery), this lays an essential foundation for our success in incident management synchronization.  A big factor of our plans being effective is if they can actually be implemented.  Some good reading on operational emergency plans here.  Frameworks and conceptual plans offer a good start, but an effective plan should walk you through key activities.  We also need to recognize that our system of response is actually a system of systems.

Implementation of plans and synchronization of incident management is strongly supported by an incident management system, such as the Incident Command System (ICS).  ICS supports short term and long term incidents.  ICS embraces a planning process, which is summarized visually by the Planning P.  The planning process provides a system for developing incident action plans for the next operational period.  When performed properly, the planning process should be informed by all stakeholders, integrating their priorities, objectives, and activities into one consolidated plan.  Their objectives are vetted by the incident commander (or unified command, if used), which helps to ensure coordination, synchronization, and support throughout the timeline of the incident.

planning P for Planning

Despite this standard of incident management, there are still some organizations and individuals that work in disaster recovery that view ICS and concepts such as the planning process as too response-oriented and refuse to use it.  Looking back on the need to integrate recovery activities with response early in the incident, I find this myopic perspective simply foolish and a significant contributor to the disconnect between response and recovery.  I certainly acknowledge that ICS is foundationally very response-oriented, but just as it was adapted from wild-fire response, ICS can (and has been) adapted into recovery, with the foundational principles of incident management continuing to hold true.

Outside of ICS, incident management synchronization will only be successful with good communication among and between all stakeholders.  Effective communication fosters all measure of effective incident management.  Hopefully preparedness measures helped ensure that the organizations and perhaps the personnel involved were familiar with each other, but if not, communication can help overcome that gap.

To further reinforce the connection and need for synchronicity between response and recovery, I reflect again upon preparedness measures.  Short-term recovery activities should be anticipated and planned for alongside and integrated with response.  The full transition to long-term recovery should also be planned, acknowledging that the transition must be phased.  Further, key staff must be trained in these plans and the plans should be exercised at every opportunity.

As always, thanks for reading.  I’m interested in your perspectives, thoughts, and experiences with incident management synchronization.

© Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness



Building a System of Response

On even relatively simple incidents, multiple agencies respond, each with their own priorities, objectives, and authorities.  Even on these small and fairly routine incidents, agencies will complain about one another, typically from a lack of understanding of their role and priorities at an incident scene.  On-scene conflict between police and fire departments is almost cliché, but if you’ve been in this business for a while, you’ve certainly seen it occur.

The number of agencies and interests often expands with great leaps and bounds as the size, duration, and complexity of an incident grows.  While we have incident management systems (such as the incident command system or ICS) which help us to organize and manage the multitude of resources and interests involved during an incident, it’s critical that we have a better understanding and accountability of these agencies and interests before a complex incident occurs.  How can this best be done?

Management Level

Establishing this mutual understanding and accountability is the foundation of a system of response.  From the broadest levels, this is established in the National Response Framework, which is a national-level document describing how the US Federal government organizes to response to large incidents, but also identifies, in general terms, the roles and responsibilities of state, local, tribal, private, nonprofit, faith-based, and community stakeholders; along with how they interrelate during a response.  In the US, states have their own emergency operations plans, which further narrow this perspective within their state, addressing their own unique hazards, resources, laws, and ways of operating.  County and local governments, individual agencies, organizations, and others can and often times do have their own plans with a continually refined focus.

It is through the creation and ongoing maintenance of these planning documents where our system of response is first built.  Dialogue and understanding among the stakeholders are essential.  We must learn who are partners are in emergency response (and mitigation, recovery, prevention, and protection, for that matter) and what their interests and objectives are.  Sometimes those partners are asked to participate, other times they simply arrive on scene, leaving local responders and the person in charge feeling insecure and frustrated.  In your planning efforts, try to anticipate who might be involved in a critical incident so you can better anticipate those needs.

Responder Level

To further this understanding, especially with those who may find themselves working directly with responders of other agencies, it is important to train and exercise together.  Joint training and exercises give responders an opportunity to navigate course and exercise objectives together, leveraging their own knowledge, experience, and capabilities along with those of others; increasing the value of the learning experience as well as their aptitude for joint operations.

Many training courses are well suited for mixed audiences – from the management and planning level to the tactical level.  Incident command system courses, which all responders should take to an appropriate level, are also ideal for this, especially since they should encourage discussion about operational priorities, objectives, and strategies.  Additionally, courses that are heavy in scenario-based training can greatly maximize this synergy, since they are a combination of training and structured exercises.  Courses that use simulation tables are excellent for cross-discipline integration.

Joint training and exercises might not always be practical, especially for those new to their field of practice.  Acknowledging that, consider including information on the other disciplines within the basic or academy-level training that is conducted.  A brief amount of time spent on the legal authorities, priorities, and operational objectives of partner disciplines can be valuable to creating understanding on a complex incident.

Keep it Going

As with all preparedness efforts, ‘one and done’ is not a mantra you want to follow.  To be effective, contemporary, and impactful; you have to build a legacy program.  As the program continues, strive to constantly improve.  Don’t only keep plans up to date, but create procedures on integration that lead to an effective system of response.  Use training to support these plans and procedures and use exercises as both an opportunity for practice as well as an opportunity to identify strengths and areas for improvement within the plans and procedures.  Joint exercises will help identify areas that need to be addressed, such as interoperable communications, conflicting protocols, and competing priorities.  It’s better to identify and address these matters now than during a critical incident.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC Your Partner in Preparedness

Using Departmental Operations Centers for Incident Management Success

Increasingly, government agencies and departments are identifying the benefits of establishing and activating departmental operations centers (DOCs) to help manage their responses to incidents.  At the Vermont Vigilant Guard 2016 exercise, which concluded last week, I had some opportunity to discuss the benefits of DOCs, particularly with an agency who used theirs for the first time in this exercise.

For most agencies, a DOC can relieve agency representatives in an EOC from also having to manage and track their agency’s response activity.  In an EOC, an agency representative is largely a conduit for communication and they provide knowledge of their agency and their agency’s capabilities as they contribute to the greater discussions within the EOC.  According to NIMS/ICS, an agency representative should have some decision-making capability for their agency, although political and practical realities often dictate otherwise.  The overall scope of activity for an agency representative in an EOC largely precludes them from also managing the details of their agency’s response, particularly if that response is even moderately complex.

A DOC is the ideal location from which an agency can oversee and coordinate their own response to an incident.  They can deploy and track resources, address internal logistics matters, and coordinate external logistics matters back through their agency representative at the EOC.  DOCs are also an excellent application for large agencies, which may have a variety of technical functions organized throughout, such as a health department or transportation department.  Pulling together representatives from each organizational element within the agency to collectively troubleshoot, problem solve, and share resources, is excellent use of a DOC.  In a way, this application of a DOC could be considered similar to a multi-agency coordination center (MACC).

Does a DOC need to mirror NIMS/ICS (or the new Center Management System) standards?  While there is no set standard for organizing and managing a DOC, there are a lot of applications of ICS that can certainly be applied.  If you look at the main activities of your DOC, you will see where opportunities for integration of ICS principles exist.  Consider that a DOC should have and maintain good situational awareness.  While much of this can be provided by the EOC, the EOC may (should) be looking for some specific information from your agency.  A situation unit within your DOC would certainly be helpful.  Likewise, DOCs often address tactical or near-tactical application, by deploying and directing resources from throughout their agency.  Having a resource unit within your DOC will help tremendously in the tracking of these resources.  Depending on the size and scope, it may be prudent for your DOC to establish an incident action plan (IAP) of its own.

Logistics, mentioned earlier, may be another need within a DOC.  Certainly an element of finance is important for the approval of procurements and tracking of costs within the agency related to the incident.  If resources are being deployed, someone should be in charge of operations.  Lastly, any organization needs to maintain someone in charge.  A DOC Manager would be the ideal generic term for this position.

What are the draw backs of establishing a DOC?  First of all, it’s an additional layer of incident management.  While possibly necessary based on factors discussed earlier, adding layers of incident management can make incident management more complex, especially if roles of each layer and function are not well defined.  The best way to address this is pre-planning!  Staffing can also be a significant concern.  Many agencies may be too small to warrant, much less have staff available, for a DOC.  If such is the case, just as in other applications of ICS, you should be able to collapse down to a manageable size.

An often seen pitfall of DOCs is that they can quickly devolve into a management by committee type of structure; particularly with larger agencies where senior staff, who are used to regular meetings with each other, are now representing their functional interests within the DOC.  I’ve seen this result in what is essentially one endless meeting, interrupted by phone calls and emails which introduce new problems and perpetuate more discussion.  Strong leadership is absolutely required to ensure that a group such as this stays focused and on task, resolving issues on a timely basis.

Overall, the use of Departmental Operations Centers is a smart practice.  Work internally to plan their use, scoping out when and how it will be applied, where it will be located, the organization to be used, and how it is integrated into the overall incident management effort.  Once plans are developed and appropriate training is performed, exercise the plan to identify areas for improvement, turning those into corrective actions, and implementing them for continued success.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness