Incident Management – Beyond ICS

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

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ™

The NIMS Refresh, aka NIMS 3.0

This morning my inbox was inundated with notices from FEMA and from colleagues about the release of the ‘refreshed’ NIMS, which has finally occurred at almost exactly 18 months after the draft of this document was released.  You can find the new document here. 

As I’m reading through the updated document, there are a few things catching my eye:

  • The term ‘center management system’ has apparently been scrapped, thankfully. First of all, there should not be a separate system for managing emergency operations centers (EOCs) and similar facilities.  I’ve seen the greatest success come from an organization model that mirrors ICS.  Second, the acronym CMS is most commonly related to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, particularly in regard to the CMS rules for healthcare facility preparedness.  (Want to know more about this?  See my article here)
  • Multi-Agency Coordination as a concept is briefly defined and referenced often without being described enough. It’s such an essential concept of incident management, yet it’s being paid very little heed. There is material on a MAC Group, which, while an implementer of multi-agency coordination at a policy level, is not the only multi-agency coordination that takes places within incident management.
  • The final version still uses the term ‘EOC Director’.  This is a term that is fundamentally incorrect when held to ICS doctrine.  Those in charge of facilities in ICS are called managers.  An EOC, even a virtual one, functions as a facility.  Similarly, the EOC analogs to the command staff, should be referred to as ‘management staff’ in an EOC, not command staff.
  • In the draft there were nearly two pages of references to federal EOC-like facilities. It was unnecessary and irrelevant to the document.  Thankfully those references and descriptions were removed.
  • One of my favorite graphics continues to be used! Figure 10 on page 48 is, to me, one of the most meaningful graphics in all of emergency management.  It pays heed to all critical elements in a response and shows the flow of requests and assistance.
  • I’m a big fan of the Essential Elements of Information (EEI) concept included in the Incident Information section of the document. This should serve as a foundation to all situation assessment and size up documents in all public safety disciplines, moving forward.
  • The appendices offer some additional information, but are largely redundant of the core document.

Overall, NIMS 3.0 is a good document to move forward with.  While there are some elements that I don’t necessarily agree with, none of them are damaging to our field of practice.  While NIMS remains our core doctrine for response, what is missing from this document that we saw heavily included in earlier versions was the concept of integrating NIMS into other aspects of emergency management.  Primarily, it is something that must be prepared for.  It simply isn’t enough to include a one-liner in your emergency plans saying that you are using NIMS.  The elements of NIMS, and not just ICS, but things like EOC management, multi-agency coordination, resource management, and joint information management, need to be fully engrained in your plans.  Plans serve as the foundation for preparedness, so what is in our plans must be trained on and exercised in a continuous cycle.  I would have liked to have seen some very apparent reference to the National Preparedness Goal in this document.  Otherwise, it appears to many that these doctrine are unrelated.

Now that the center management system is gone and they were less heavy handed with EOC management concepts, I wonder what that means for training related to EOC management.  The current FEMA curriculum on EOC management is simply horrible (thus why I’ve created EOC management courses for various jurisdictions).

What are your thoughts on the NIMS refresh?  What did they do well?  What did they miss? Was it too safe with too few changes?  Were there other changes needed to improve our coordination of incident management?

As always, thanks for reading!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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

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