Through many of my writings on the Incident Command System (ICS), the training shortfalls we have with ICS, and the fallacy of most local governments relying on incident management teams, I have a different take that I’ve been thinking through. The concept is similar to that of an Incident Management ‘Short’ Team, but pared down to be even more realistic and focused on support rather than assuming positions. The training requirements, I expect, would be more palatable to many modestly sized local governments, and even more attainable for regional cooperatives. For lack of any better terminology, I’m calling this the Incident Support Quick Response Team (ISQRT… because there always needs to be an acronym).
I’ll note that while some teams call themselves Incident Support Teams, they really are functionally Incident Management Teams, simply softening the nomenclature for political purposes. What I propose for the ISQRT lies much more firmly in the role of support.
To give some context, when we look at the requirements for a Type 1 & 2 Wildfire Short Team, they list a team comprised of 20-26 individuals. A short team is intended to get boots on the ground and begin managing the incident until a full team can arrive in force. This is certainly appropriate for a Type 1 or 2 incident, which most local jurisdictions certainly aren’t able to manage on their own, though these types of incidents also typically have implications extending beyond just one jurisdiction. The same reference shows a Type 3 IMT for out-of-area deployments; with this list showing a team of 9-12 personnel. An in-area deployment team is generally even larger, as more subordinate positions are filled. Also note that all these numbers are overhead staff for only one operational period. Bottom line, it’s still far too big of a lift for most local jurisdictions I’ve worked with, even modestly sized cities, who don’t have the capability or capacity to support an IMT.
The consideration of the ISQRT follows a specific line of thinking, and that is that perhaps the most significant thing most local jurisdictions really need help in regard to formal incident management are the processes associated with it. Come hell or, literally, high water, jurisdictions will have an incident commander and probably an operations section chief and safety officer. They may even have a public information officer. The concepts of the Planning Process and proactive incident management, despite dismal efforts of our current ICS training programs, simply become foreign to those who rarely, if ever, use them. If we don’t use it, we lose it. Responders are largely used to addressing the needs of an incident here and now, when they face it, with only a modicum of (usually routine) tactical planning being performed. These are the hallmarks of Type 5 and 4 incidents. But as I’ve referenced so many times, the differences between a Type 4 and Type 3 incident are considerable, with a Type 3 having layers of complexity that most responders rarely, if ever, experience.
With that understood, the core of the ISQRT needs to be support of the Planning Process. I think we can agree that, even if not by true ICS definitions of qualification, most jurisdictions have reasonably experienced go-to people to fill the roles of Incident Command, Operations Section Chief, and Safety Officer. Local jurisdictions also have their own finance people.
Now wait… I can already hear some of the complaints. Yes, I fully agree that most of the people we see in these positions certainly don’t have IMT training, nor do they have abundant experience beyond their jurisdiction. Yet I offer that they still get through most Type 5 and 4 incidents just fine. An ISQRT may help them fully get through a Type 3 incident, or at the very least help them begin a cycle of proactive incident management much sooner than an IMT can mobilize and arrive. I’ll also offer that the emergency response chief officers of most jurisdictions simply won’t stand for a delegation of authority of Incident Commander to anyone else; most people who will fill the position of Operations Section Chief have a reasonable handle on tactics, though I acknowledge that it’s not as comprehensive as we would like; and essentially the same statement can be made for Safety Officers. While local jurisdictions have their own finance people, I’ll accept that most aren’t experienced with working under pressures of an incident or familiar with things like FEMA reimbursement. These are realistic shortcomings that we can’t ignore, so how can we address these shortcomings? Good preparedness practices is the answer; such as emergency operations plans that provide solid guidance and are implementation-ready; scenario-based training programs, such as an improved ICS training curriculum; and exercises to test plans and keep people familiar with the roles and responsibilities.
Getting back to the ISQRT. Keep in mind that my philosophy here is not to fill ICS positions, rather it is to support incident management processes and activities. So what could an ISQRT look like?
- First, an Incident Management Advisor. This is someone who can support the Incident Commander directly, as well as evaluate the incident management effort as a whole to identify needs and provide advice to the IC, as well as other command staff, who typically don’t have experience with larger incidents.
- Next, an Incident Planning Specialist. With the foundation of proactive incident management being the Planning Process, the Incident Planning Specialist will help promote and foster that process, ideally mentoring a Planning Section Chief assigned by the local jurisdiction, but capable of assuming the position should the jurisdiction need and desire it.
- Joining them would be a Planning Assistant, to support essential Planning Section responsibilities of situational awareness and resource tracking. This, again, is ideally an advisor, who can help guide local personnel, but who can directly assume these responsibilities if requested.
- I’m also suggesting an Operations and Logistics Planner. A big part of proactive incident management is defining future operations, identifying resource needs for those operations, adjudicating those needs with what we have, and sourcing the balance. The Operations and Logistics Planner is someone to help guide that process, working with the local Operations Section Chief (who is likely VERY focused on ‘now’ and very little on what’s next) and supporting a logistics structure that may or may not exist.
That’s a total of four personnel per operational period. That’s much more palatable for most jurisdictions and regions than building and maintaining even a Type 3 IMT. Certainly there could be arguments for additional personnel to expand support in a variety of capacities. I’ll maintain first that the ISQRT concept is something I’ve only recently ‘formalized’ in my head so I’m sure it could use some refinement; and second that we should always be flexible when it comes to incident management, so having other options and capabilities can certainly be helpful, so long as the underlying premise of the ISQRT remains.
What would it take to build ISQRTs? First, deliberate effort rather than something ad-hoc. Jurisdictions and/or regions would need to identify the most experienced/capable/willing personnel for the ISQRT. In terms of formal training, certainly a lot of the existing IMT training goes a long way, with perhaps a capstone course developed to specifically address the form and function of the ISQRT. This reduces the burden of training and maintaining the personnel needed for a full IMT, while still ensuring that the ISQRT still has a full handle on the standards and best practices associated with incident management. If local/regional ISQRTs are supported by states or another formal program, they can keep their direct skills sharp by taking rotating assignments on incidents which may be out of their area; or at the very least participating in regular exercises.
Before you think the ISQRT is an outlandish thing, consider that many states may already be doing something similar to this, either through an informal program, or allowing jurisdictions to order overhead positions as single resources (i.e. a Planning Section Chief). In my own experience of supporting preparedness and response for a wide variety of jurisdictions, the activities I identified are those which typically need the most support. I’ve even served in similar capacities, being tasked as an IMT member, but in practice actually working more in an advisory role supporting local personnel.
For my conclusion, I still support the concept of incident management teams, and for some large jurisdictions or even more capable regions, these are a realistic goal. But for most jurisdictions they simply aren’t. The concept of the ISQRT provides the support needed early in a larger incident to get in a cycle of proactive incident management. The ISQRT isn’t a replacement for an IMT, but can provide solid support much more quickly than an IMT for most jurisdictions. I also see the ISQRT as being flexible enough to support an Incident Command Post, an EOC, or a departmental operations center.
What are your thoughts on this concept? Do you see potential for application? What obstacles exist?
© 2020 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP