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Monday, May 4, 2009

The Incident Command System--The Basics

I recently participated in a table-top exercise based on the 2008 flooding in Havasu Canyon, a tributary of Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, where the Native American village of Supai and the blue-green waters are located. In August of last year, our team along with numerous other agencies, responded to help evacuate more than 400 campers and village residents out of the path of the flood. Luckily, there was no loss of human life--no serious injuries at all, actually--and things went well, I thought. But there's certainly room for improvement in a number of areas, and that's what the table-top exercise was meant to help accomplish, at least as a start.

The exercise was based on the Incident Command System, which most of us learn about as new SAR recruits. But it's one thing to learn about it on paper and from an instructor in a class room and quite another to see it in action and also to practice it in a low-stress scenario like the table-top exercise.

Here, I'm just going to review the basic Incident Command setup--the different functions within the ICS framework and brief descriptions of each functional element. During some missions, only a few of the organizational elements may be required, while other major incidents may necessitate that the organization be expanded. The ICS framework allows for that expansion, but there are five major functions which are needed on any incident regardless of its size.

Those five major functions are:
  • Incident Command
  • Operations
  • Planning
  • Logistics
  • Finance & Administration

On many, if not most missions, multiple functions may be performed or at least overseen by a single person. In other cases, the responsibilities will be broken down to section chiefs and a number of deputies and "subordinates."

Here's a summary of each major function:

Incident Command: The Incident Commander is ultimately responsible for the overall management of the situation, including tasks like determining the incident objectives, establishing a command post, establishing an appropriate organization and authorizing an "incident action plan," to name just a few.

Depending on the scope of the mission, the Incident Commander may have a deputy and other officers to assist with things like: managing and disseminating public information (Information Officer); acting as a liaison between the various agencies that my be involved (Liaison Officer); and developing and recommending measures for assuring personnel safety and assess hazards (Safety Officer).

Operations: The "chief" of the operations section is responsible for supervising the execution of the Incident Action Plan (IAP) and requesting any additional resources necessary to carry it out, as well as maintaining a unit log and making any changes in the IAP that are needed during the operational period.
Subordinate positions to the operations chief can include a strike team leader, a staging area manager, an air ops director and a helibase manager, to name some of many.

Planning: The one in charge of this section will need to collect, evaluate and disseminate information related to the incident. There are four units within the Planning section that can be activated if necessary, including a resources unit (to oversee the check-in of all resources, a master list of resources, and the current status and location of resources), a situation unit (for collecting and analyzing incident data, providing maps and photographs, etc.), a documentation unit (to oversee forms and reports, make copies as needed, and provide incident documentation) and a demobilization unit (for the "wrapping up" of particularly complex incidents).

Logistics: This section is responsible for all incident support needs, such as medical supplies, food and drinks, facilities, communications, fuel and other supplies. The chief of this section and any subordinate units that are established will need to anticipate these needs and request additional resources if necessary.

Finance & Administration: This section is responsible for managing all of the financial aspects of a mission. Tasks may involve things like recording personnel time, providing cost analysis, managing vendor contracts and equipment rental, to name just a few.

Obviously, most missions don't necessitate such an extensive or detailed structure, and the Incident Command System in its entire, expanded form is difficult to envision--personally speaking--until it's seen in action. Even as a "low level" volunteer, though, I think it's a good idea to have a general understanding of what's going on at the upper levels of incident management right down to our own specific tasks and how we fit in to the ICS. Even the most basic responsibilities, which may seem mundane compared to the overall situation at hand, are vital to its operation. And that's a good thing to know.

For more information on the ICS, I'd start with

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