Learn unified command before disaster strikes

Making the leap from the incident command system to a unified command at a major incident can be smooth if you understand how it works


By Michael Brigati

Life happens. We hope for the best, but when storms rage, fires break out, or violence brings chaos to our streets, emergency response units are prepared for the worst.

The Incident Command System provides the standard for mitigating life-threatening situations. During crises, ICS affords fire, EMS, police and industrial response teams the operational platform to function safely and effectively.

By using the five principle components of the ICS — command, operations, planning, logistics and finance — a well-defined organizational structure can be implemented to meet the challenges typically encountered by emergency services personnel.

Emergency response units worldwide are familiar with these five components, for which a single commander is solely responsible. Fire, police and rescue are the first to arrive at an emergency in its incipient stage, and immediately establish the command structure using the ICS model.

This works in the normal course of emergency event management. Occasionally a disaster or catastrophe occurs way beyond the scope and resources of local response teams, challenging the criteria employed to handle smaller incidents.

5 things that can compromise unified command

1. A breakdown in strategic planning between members of the unified command can lead to the misappropriation of resources and delays. Efficiency, an essential component of unified command, is compromised when members lack specific training and preparation.

Chiefs and emergency service coordinators would be wise to train with companies and corporations that may be called upon to function at an incident requiring their expertise. Lack of coordination between teams who don't routinely work together provides for conflict, misunderstanding and inappropriate action.

2. Lack of skill in handling equipment, for example booms, disbursement and recovery systems creates confusion and can exacerbate the incident, as was the case in the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The size and complexity of the disaster required British Petroleum to assemble response teams from neighboring regions, some who were unfamiliar with the systems in place on site.

3. Highly skilled personnel are excluded from the pool of unified command experts because they've been promoted to administrative roles. Frequently in the fire service, our officers rise through the ranks because of technical proficiency.

At incidents requiring specific skill sets, the best person for the job, regardless of rank, needs to be placed in the appropriate tactical position.

4. The disaster poses a threat to regional infrastructure. Communication towers, water delivery systems, and electrical power lines may be destroyed, severely inhibiting effective communication.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, devastated the region's communication system. This left emergency responders incapable of swift and efficient access to information.

5. Inadequate resources place a strain on key response teams. In the event of a major incident requiring unified command it is essential to have adequate manpower and equipment.

In the case of the Southern California wildfires, resources and manpower were diverted to new fires breaking out near the original, resulting in a weakened response overall.

Enter unified command
Catastrophes such as Super Storm Sandy; the recent ammonium nitrate plant explosion in Waco, Texas; and the Boston Marathon bombing all demonstrate the need for a comprehensive emergency response alternative beyond the auspices of ICS.

These events were so significant, diverse and complex, they necessitated the magnification and expansion of combined reserves from neighboring cities and commercial businesses.

A single department, even one with a considerable workforce, cannot hope to combat such disasters alone, and an isolated incident commander will need the concentrated support of an additional, strategic and tightly coordinated system. This is where unified command becomes the administrative system to address incidents of such magnitude and intricacy.

The same discipline and training that forms the basis of ICS becomes especially significant in unified command. Skilled coordination is critical as local, state and federal authorities arrive and assume control in a multi-jurisdictional response. The initial responders are then absorbed and integrated into the unified command.

Military roots
The idea of unified command is not new. We need look no further than our own branches of the military to better understand how such an organizational structure works on a national scale.

The directors of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force combine their distinct knowledge and experience, manpower, resources and facilities to coordinate joint operations. After careful planning and prioritization, their collective strategies are synergized into a plan that is then activated with appropriate assets to achieve the shared objectives.

Man-made or natural emergencies are the domain of unified command, where response becomes an empowered team effort. However, unlike generals and admirals, its participants are chosen along three guidelines.

  1. Geographic location of the event. The principal decision makers from affected states, provinces or territories, and the towns, counties and regions comprise the management team.
  2. Type of emergency. The nature of the crisis will determine what agencies within those jurisdictions will be needed.
  3. Government levels involved. Federal, state, local, and even sovereign nations must be considered. The appointed leaders at appropriate levels become part of the unified command group.

Selecting the unified command team revolves around these factors either separately or in combination. The process lends itself to establishing common goals and related strategies that everyone must endorse to resolve the major incident confronting them.

Cohesions and authority
It is essential for the leaders from government and private agencies with varying jurisdictions to operate cohesively in a single command structure. This is most critical, as it allows the unified command management team to make decisions and formulate an action plan before implementing tactics to effectively respond to the complexities of the emergency.

Because of the enormity and scale of resources needed to address the issue at hand, it is essential unified command members be selected carefully for other reasons as well. Unified command management is obliged to have the legal right to act at the incident.

Each member of the team should possess the leadership acumen that obviates the need to refer to a higher authority. Each is delegated a fundamental area of responsibility, commensurate with expertise, in order to identify and optimally apply resources to meet the demands of a specific portion of the overall action plan.

In addition, members of the unified command group must:

  • Agree and abide by the stated objectives and strategies developed by the team.
  • Provide and maintain availability for an extended period of time, both of indispensable material goods and leadership.
  • Have access and authority to fund their respective departmental involvement.
  • Select and support specific staff positions to employ on-scene resources at the tactical level.
  • Be clear on any limitations and share with the team any legal, jurisdictional or safety restrictions.

Making a plan
Once assembled, the unified command team then begins to hammer out the details of a comprehensive Incident Action Plan. The IAP lies at the very heart of all else that follows and is similar to individual departmental strategy, except that it occurs on a much grander scale.

Overall priorities of life preservation and safety, protection of property, and confinement are listed and prioritized. The functional positions of logistics, financing and planning are addressed, as is the now unified operations section necessary to carry the IAP to completion. Tactical maneuvers and execution are discussed and prearranged for deployment during specified operational periods.

As an example of just how large unified command can be and the collection of bureaus and agencies needed to control a major incident, one has only to recall the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

The incident commanders assembled to tackle that environmental disaster included executives from the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Interior, Fish and Wildlife, National Parks, as well as the EPA, Coast Guard, OSHA and of course, British Petroleum and the oil rig operating company, Transocean.

As civic leaders of our communities, officers of our own departments and senior managers in industry using emergency response teams, we have the knowledge and expertise to provide our men and women with a detailed understanding of incident management.

It is our responsibility to maintain preparedness at a local level for those times when inter-jurisdictional and multi-agency cooperation is called for at the level of a unified command.

About the author

Michael Brigati is a retired Senior Captain, paramedic and rescue diver for the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS Department. He received degrees in both psychology and sociology from Ricker College in Maine. His graduate degree studies in counseling psychology took place at Virginia State University and he has been a speaker at the World Congress for Critical Incident Stress. He's an accomplished author and outdoors enthusiast; you can follow him on Twitter @MichaelBrigati and Firethieves.com.

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