The Incident Command System: Applying Emergency Response Best Practice to Your Disaster

The Incident Command System: Applying Emergency Response Best Practice to Your Disaster

David W. Carmicheal (Pennsylvania State Archives, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8624-3.ch002
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The Incident Command System (ICS) was created in 1970 to provide a standardized protocol for managing incidents that threaten life and/or property. Although the ICS grew out of a disaster that involved 20,000 responders, and was envisioned as a way to coordinate response for major disasters, it was designed to be scalable. As a result, the ICS can scale down. This chapter describes how ICS can be a valuable tool for responding to incidents even within the confines of a single repository. During a disaster, librarians and archivists who understand ICS are better prepared to initiate their internal response, interact with emergency responders, and manage any extended recovery phase that may follow the disaster.
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The purpose of this chapter is to

  • Introduce the Incident Command System (ICS) to librarians and archivists;

  • Explain how the ICS scales to address even small-scale disasters;

  • Highlight some key ICS principles that archivists and librarians can adopt to more effectively handle incidents in their own repositories;

  • Demonstrate how the ICS management structure can be used to make disaster response more efficient and cost-effective by

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      Adopting the ICS common terminology;

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      Creating a modular, scalable organization structure to address disasters; ;

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      Learning how to manage span of control;

    • o

      Creating Incident Action Plans;

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      Understanding the meaning and importance of unified command;

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      Organizing dedicate incident facilities; and,

  • Describe ways in which librarians and archivists can learn and practice ICS.


Background: Creating The Incident Command System

In 1970, California wildfires destroyed more than one half million acres and overwhelmed the 20,000 men and women who eventually arrived to battle the flames. In the face of hurricane force winds and scorching heat, the attempt to coordinate the work of responders from 500 separate departments and agencies became almost as large a battle: each responding agency arrived with its own leadership, each had its own plan for attacking the crisis, each created its own base of operations and transmitted commands using its own radio frequencies and jargon. Priorities shifted wildly and confusion reigned. In the aftermath, Congress ordered the California Forestry Department to create a system to prevent such chaos in future (Rowley, 2010). The result was the Incident Command System (ICS).

The Incident Command System, as explained in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) official training materials, “is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazards approach to incident management. ICS allows all responders to adopt an integrated organizational structure that matches the complexities and demands of the incident while respecting agency and jurisdictional authorities. Although ICS promotes standardization, it is not without needed flexibility” (IS-100.b, p. 2.3).1 In short, the ICS provides a consistent way to manage incidents, especially in crises that require response from multiple jurisdictions and disciplines. It creates an organization chart and management protocol that supersedes those of all the responding agencies. Under the ICS, responders fill positions beginning with the Incident Commander (the person in charge) and expanding to include other positions as required. These pre-defined positions, such as Liaison Officer, Operations Section Chief, and a host of others, are understood by all responders, who may not use the same titles in their everyday management. For the duration of the crisis, the ICS imposes a quasi-military structure on the responders, who suspend their normal methods of management in order to cooperate, prioritize, and focus resources on critical problems.

Key Terms in this Chapter

After Action Report: A report written by the key players in the incident response, who analyze what worked during the response, what did not work, and why. Sometimes called an After Action Review.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): The agency within the United States Department of Homeland Security responsible for coordinating the response to disasters that outstrip the resources of local and state governments.

Resources: People, equipment, supplies, and facilities that are available to respond to an incident.

Command Staff: The Information, Liaison, and Safety Officer positions in the ICS hierarchy. These three help the Incident Commander with the ‘big picture’ issues: keeping various audiences (partners, constituencies, superiors) informed; coordinating assistance from supporting agencies and partners from outside the repository; and protecting the safety of everyone involved in the response.

General Staff: The Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Administration/Finance Section Chief positions in the ICS hierarchy. These four positions help the Incident Commander manage the tactical and strategic details of the incident response.

Incident Command System (ICS): A standardized combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure (excerpted from Glossary of related terms, n.d.).

Span of Control: The number of people a supervisor is responsible for managing. According to ICS, one supervisor should manage only five individuals and never more than seven.

Incident Commander: The person who directs the response during and/or after an incident.

Incident: Any occurrence that requires a response to protect lives and/or property.

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