The Incident Command System (ICS) provides an important foundation to incident management. ICS grounds us in standards, providing structure and processes which help mitigate against the fact that all incidents themselves are unique. While ICS may not be perfect, and I have been and continue to be highly critical of ICS training, the Incident Command System has proven to be effective – when properly implemented. One of our biggest stumbling blocks with the implementation of ICS is the human factor – something else I’ve written about on a few occasions. The other obstacle to effective incident management is relying too heavily on ICS. ICS is not the solution to incident management – it’s a tool. For incident management to be truly effective, we need to think beyond ICS.
So aside from ICS, what do incident managers need to know and do to be more effective? (Note that I’m not using the term ‘incident commander’ here, as incident management, fundamentally, is a team sport. I’m using the term ‘incident managers’ as a collective term for all personnel involved in the higher echelons of incident management).
First, good incident managers should have proven leadership and management skills. I’m not going to go at this one in length… there are no fewer than a gazillion books written on leadership and management and the importance of effectively leading organizations. Just like any other organization, someone in a position of incident management who can’t properly lead is not only going to fail themselves, but also the organization.
Second, good incident managers need to have a grasp of emergency management. Not just an application of public safety, such as the fire service or law enforcement, or whatever field they happen to be performing response in (i.e. public health, transportation, etc.). They should have a solid awareness of what each major participant in emergency management does and the major processes of emergency management.
Next, incident managers should understand the fundamentals of project management. This one is really important. The tactics we execute in our response to an incident are really a series of projects. Not that a Gantt chart needs to be developed for each incident (although I’ve actually done this for prolonged incidents – and it is seriously insightful), but an understanding of tactical timeframes, progress toward completion, and what activities can be done simultaneously versus those that should be done in sequence can be a huge help. It’s a great visual tool that can be easily developed with the help of ICS 204s. Progress toward completion (i.e. how much of a tactic have we accomplished as part of the whole) helps us to measure effectiveness, gauge how long we continue to need certain resources, and will answer the questions ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘are we there yet?’. In larger incidents (NIMS Type 3 and larger) this is incredibly important. What’s the progress on evacuation? How much longer until all the boom is deployed? How much debris has been cleared? Etc. These aren’t just pain the ass questions asked by elected officials and the media… these are questions you should be asking as well.
Continuing on with project management (that’s how important I think it is), I’ll make a few more notes here. First of all, field observers are really important to monitoring progress. Don’t rely on the tacticians to do this. First of all, the tacticians are too busy. They need to be focused on getting things done. Also, they may be too close to the situation to give an objective assessment (or in the case of the use of contractors, it’s simply good contract management). Digging into your ICS knowledge, recall that field observers are an actual position (although one not used often) within the Planning Section assigned to the Situation Unit. Their job is to monitor and report on tactical progress and other situational information. Also consider that if you see issues with a slower than expected progress toward completion, that means that either your initial estimates were wrong or something is slowing down the operation. This may justify a root cause analysis to determine why things are not progressing as they should be. Perhaps there was more to accomplish than anticipated, or the wrong resources are being applied?
Next, the highest members of incident management (i.e. incident command, unified command, EOC manager, etc.) need to have some separation from the rest of the incident management staff, agency representatives, and tactical operations. They can’t be ‘in the pit’, ‘on the floor’, ‘in the trenches’, or whatever other lingo you might use in your command post, EOC, or field operations – at least not as their usual place to be. Yes, some measure of ‘management by walking around’ is good, but I’ve been in plenty of command posts, EOCs, and departmental operations centers that have command right in the mix of everything. These places get noisy and there are a lot of distractions. You can’t hold a productive meeting in this environment, much less concentrate. People are also inclined to go directly to command with issues and problems… issues and problems that are likely best solved by someone else. Even in the field, an IC shouldn’t be too close to the tactics on a large incident. Pull back and think about incident management, not tactics.
That’s the list that I have for now. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, so I plan on adding to it in the future. I also expect to be doing some presentations in the near future as well. What thoughts do you have on this? What can we do to improve on incident management?
© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP
3 thoughts on “Incident Management – Beyond ICS”
Good article. Well thought out, presented and a good read.
While it may seem trivial, it is often the little things that make the biggest impact and I think you’ve hit on it with most of the thrust of your article. We like to call ourselves and our profession Emergency Management, so why do we insist on continuing to call it Incident “Command”?
Yes, there are many connotations of management in general, but as you allude, the manager who cannot lead is doomed to fail. The manager, as we all know, will order us to “go!”, but the leader, beckoning us to join him/her, will shout “Let’s go!”. So, we need to re-define “management” to reduce the impact of “command” in it and increase the impact of “leadership”.
Some might say I’m dealing in semantics. I’m hardly the “tree hugger” type, but I do believe in collaborative approaches to just about anything, especially emergencies. No one entity or agency can go it alone. So I fully support “softening”, if you will, the language. In Canada, Incident Command has long since been replaced by Incident Management and if approached in the first place from the perspective of collaboration and working together, we can only achieve positive results.
Damien Coakeley, M.A. (D.E.M.)
Thanks for the note. I agree that sometimes success can be found in simply changing perspective. Incident management is a very human thing and filled with a lot of perspective!