ICS – Assistant Section Chiefs

Somehow this one snuck past me, but luckily I have some friends and colleagues who brought it to my attention and talked it through with me. The latest ICS curricula (not consistently, however) identifies that Section Chiefs can have Assistants. It’s been a long-standing practice for General Staff to have Deputies rather than Assistants. So where did this come from?

Page 82 of the NIMS document, as pointed out to me by someone at EMI, provides some language that seems to be the root of this. Here are the definitions provided:

Deputies are used at section and branch levels of the incident organization. A deputy, whether at the command, section, or branch level, is qualified to assume the position.

Assistants are used on Command Staffs and to support section chiefs. Unlike deputies, assistants have a level of technical capability, qualification, and responsibility subordinate to the primary positions and need not be fully qualified to assume the position.

None of those I spoke with are aware of the actual source of this change or why it was changed. Of course, I initially balked at it because it wasn’t the ICS I ‘grew up with’. Given some thought, however, it provides some organizational opportunities and certainly doesn’t violate any of the primary tenets of ICS.

There are absolutely some occasions in the past when, as a Planning Section Chief, I could have used this option. Planning Section Chiefs end up in a lot of meetings, and while I always felt comfortable with leaving the personnel staffing the section to their own tasks, it’s good to have another leader there in the absence of the Section Chief, both for the benefit of the section staff as well as the rest of the organization. However, if there was no one technically qualified to be a Deputy Section Chief but still capable of leading the staff and serving as an interim point person for the section, we would be (and have been) stuck in an organizational nuance. By definition, they couldn’t be assigned as a Deputy, but we didn’t have another option. This is a great opportunity to assign an Assistant. This is somewhat like an ‘executive officer’ type of position, whereas they have authority but can’t necessarily fill the shoes of the principal position.

To add to the myriad options for the Intelligence function, I also see the potential in the use of an Assistant, either in Planning or Operations, to be a viable option. This is someone qualified to lead the task, but not necessarily the Section they are organized within. I similarly see possibilities for addressing other defined needs within the incident organization. Sometimes we take some liberties, again for example in the Planning Section, to create Units that are non-standard, perhaps for tasks such as ‘Continuity Planning’, or ‘Operational Planning Support’ – of course being non-standard, you may have some different titles for them. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, as we aren’t violating any of the primary rules of ICS, nor are we creating positions that actually belong elsewhere (as I often see). Planning is planning, and there may be necessity to have personnel specifically tasked with functions like these. Instead of creating a Unit, which could still be done, you could assign the task to an Assistant. Consider something like debris management. There is a significant planning component to debris management, separate from the operations of debris management. This could be tasked specifically to an Assistant Section Chief to handle.

Another consideration, and somewhat tied to my first example of a de facto leader/point of contact for a section in the absence of the Section Chief, is that an Assistant Section Chief seems to carry more authority than a Unit Leader. That level of authority may need some doctrinal definition, but I think is also largely dependent upon the task they are given and the desires of the Section Chief assigning them – though this can make for inconsistencies across the incident organization. Having someone with a measure of authority, depending on the needs of the task, can be extremely helpful, particularly with the bureaucracies that incident management organizations can sometimes evolve into.

It’s important for us to recognize the need for doctrine to evolve based on common sense approaches to addressing identified needs. That means that the ICS we ‘grew up with’ can and should change if needed. As NIMS/ICS (and other standards) continues to evolve, we need to have discussions on these needs and potential solutions. Every change, however, has consequences, or at least additional considerations. I don’t feel this change should have been made without further exploration of the topic and answering questions such as the level of authority they may have, qualification standards, and support staff assigned to them (let’s be honest – things like this were never well defined for Assistant Command Staff positions either).  I also see a lot of value in doctrine offering best practice examples of use. Once doctrinal changes are made, curriculum changes certainly need to follow. In just examining the ICS 300 and ICS 400 course materials, the inclusion of Assistant Section Chiefs is simply not consistent or adequate.

Where do you find yourself on this topic? For or against Assistant Section Chiefs? What potential uses do you see? What potential problems do you see? How can we address these and ensure good implementation?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

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