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



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