For some first responders, readiness means that everyone has completed all applicable training and certifications. For others, readiness is a team that is fully equipped with the tools and resources needed to fulfill their duties. From initial response to large scale incident management, the estimable readiness of personnel and equipment is always at the forefront of the commander’s mind.
Regardless of a department’s defined readiness goals, the Incident Command System (ICS) is an invaluable—and increasingly mandated—tool used to manage all aspects of departmental readiness and incident response.
The ICS has evolved over time
Most first responders are probably familiar with the ICS. Initially conceived in 1972 following several catastrophic fires in California, the idea of incident command centered on the coordination of different first responder disciplines. Each entity had their own internal chain of command, leading to confusion when multiple agencies assembled during an emergency. Falling under a single command structure quickly and efficiently is a key provision for an interdepartmental incident response plan.
Prior to the ICS, the Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE) recognized that lack of communication between fire departments—including differences in training and terminology—often hindered the effectiveness of firefighting efforts while working the same wildfire. To overcome the communication deficiencies, the group created the precursor to ICS, known as the Field Command Operations System (FCOS). The success of FCOS led to its adoption by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its eventual inclusion as part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
NIMS refined the communication goals of FCOS, paving the way for ICS implementation at the local level. Once FEMA had perfected the communication and command structure pieces of the NIMS framework, they turned their focus to managing shared resources, developing cross-training programs, and standardizing terminology across the first responder disciplines. ICS was then scaled to include the standardization of facilities, equipment, communication tools, and other resources.
With ICS, the command structure supports a unified flow of information to ensure all aspects of an event are being considered and covered with necessary response. Additionally, the ICS command structure may expand and contract, as needed, when an incident grows beyond jurisdiction and requires more manpower or resources.
After 9/11, ICS and NIMS became required training for all first responders. In 2005, HSPD-5 made adoption of NIMS a requirement for any first responder agency attempting to qualify for federal preparedness funding.
The Henrico County ICS set the example
Among the first localities to successfully implement an ICS was Henrico County, Virginia. The process of building the ICS began in 2005 and was officially launched to coincide with the 2013 NASCAR race at Richmond International Speedway. Eight years of planning leading up to the rollout were challenging, as different departments put their internal cultural leanings aside, trained together, and developed what would become the overarching command and operational structures of their ICS.
Key to this integration was understanding that fire departments, police departments, and other responder units have differing areas of expertise related to incident response. Still, it was a daunting task to put away egos and let another response unit manage an event that fell under their unique scope of expertise, a journey that required years of cross-training, integration, and practice. The ICS even influenced the hiring decisions of the Henrico County Police Department as they purposefully sought out officers and supervisors who had a prior understanding of ICS basics, or at least were willing to embrace and champion the fledgling system.
Over time, the ICS evolved and was accepted as individual departments began to realize and respect the expertise offered by their counterparts. The success of the Henrico County ICS is heralded as one of the finest examples of ICS implementation. Their processes have been replicated time and again by other localities developing their incident response systems.
The ICS is built around strong guiding principles
The ICS is built around a set of guiding principles that define the system. Aside from the unified command structure and standardization efforts, the ICS must be scalable to meet the complexity, breadth, and unique challenges of the incident at hand. The ICS is meant to be implemented as needed, and easily revoked once a catastrophic situation is under control.
The ICS must also provide logistical and administrative support to operational staff. In this manner, the system will adequately direct resources to the places they are most needed and inform commanders on which field units must be rested and replenished. Due to the strict—and often shrinking—budgets allocated to first responder entities, the ICS must prove cost effective to deploy. This can be accomplished by implementing critical components of the ICS that effectively reduce or altogether eliminate duplication of efforts. By aggregating all personnel, training, and resources under one command umbrella, the ICS allows first responders to meet every crisis with confidence.
Implementation, though, has its challenges. Coordinating supply lines and restructuring chains of command between departments can be especially daunting. Software solutions are available to make the transition less disruptive to operations. Despite the initial challenges, however, the use of the ICS has significantly increased the effectiveness of incident response. Disparate responding units function as a team focused on one goal, with clearly defined roles and areas of expertise. With federal funding hinging on ICS adoption, and the significant benefits of the ICS, the time has never been more right for first responders working in the same geographic areas to develop their ICS.