"An army is a collection of armed men obliged to obey one man. Every change in the rules which impairs the principle weakens the army." William Tecumseh Sherman
Problems in the field do not improve until someone takes charge. From the simplest radio call to a major terrorist incident, a situation doesn't move from chaos to normalcy without a leader. Thinking back on your career, you can likely remember situations that spiraled down because a lack of leadership caused poor communications and inconsistent missions, and jeopardized safety.
Clearly, a law enforcement agency's response to an incident greatly improves when you establish strong leadership on scene. Through real-life situations, we have learned hard lessons about tactical leadership concepts, such as unified command, span of control and the necessity of good followership. Sometimes, law enforcement isn't the leader at the scene of an incident, but it's almost always part of the larger mission. By exploring how tactical command concepts have developed and examining some of the key components of the state-of-the-art response methodology, we can improve our on-scene leadership skills.
Developing a National Standard
In 1991, in Oakland, Calif., the Oakland Hills Fire devastated the East Bay Hills. Before it was over, 3,400 homes were destroyed, and one police officer, one firefighter and 25 civilians were killed. Although California's Statewide Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid System was in place, the response of hundreds of first responders (police, fire, medical and public utilities) was uncoordinated, primarily because of different organizational structures and command systems. By 1993, in response to the Oakland Hills Fire, California's legislature mandated the use of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), which incorporates the Incident Command System (ICS).
In 1994, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) adopted SEMS as its command and control paradigm. Throughout the 1990s, many agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, began to adopt SEMS/ICS. The 9/11 Commission noted the emergency response to the World Trade Center (WTC) was much different from the response to the Pentagon. In addition to the WTC first responders confronting a much more difficult mission because the disaster occurred hundreds of feet above their heads, the command and control response in New York was also less coordinated than the response in Washington.
Washington, D.C., is rife with overlapping and contiguous first responder agencies. But before Sept. 11, many D.C. agencies participated in a SEMS/ICS disaster-response simulation. The agencies had adopted and trained in SEMS/ICS. The 9/11 Commission Report compared the Pentagon response with the WTC response. It noted the use of SEMS/ICS by agencies responding to the Pentagon had enhanced coordination, speeded rescue and recovery operations and saved lives.
The formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) included folding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into the DHS bureaucratic structure. Based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission Report, the DHS adopted SEMS/ICS as the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS is now our nation's method of first responder command and control. Indeed, after Jan. 1, 2004, adoption and training in NIMS became a mandatory requirement for DHS grant funding. In other words, if your agency has not adopted and trained in NIMS, you can lose points in the grant-funding review process. Perhaps more importantly, if your community faces a major event, a lack of standardized command and control systems can cause loss of life, additional property damage and a delay in returning to normal.
The Incident Command System
The ICS remains the foundation of NIMS, and the heart of ICS is the concept of unified command, which is grounded in the leadership principle of "unity of command," a common military principle wherein each person within an organization reports to only one designated person. Whenever multiple jurisdictions and/or multiple agencies from within a jurisdiction respond to an incident, each brings its own chain of command. The ICS concept calls for responding agencies to join together in a unified command for the duration of the incident.
To facilitate unified command, agencies must adopt certain protocols. For instance, ICS calls for agencies to use common terminology when responding to an ICS-led incident, use a designated modular command structure and employ certain common command and control principles. Typically, agencies overcome differences in terminology by emphasizing communications in plain language. Codes such as the "10 system" are replaced with plain language. Although this may somewhat lengthen communications, under emergency circumstances, clarity trumps brevity.
The first step in returning any emergency situation to normal is someone taking charge. ICS is different from many other bureaucratic structures in that ICS calls for the most qualified person to assume responsibility over an incident. Imagine a police officer working a graveyard shift sees black smoke billowing against the night sky. The officer doesn't know where the fire is burning, but using the smoke as a landmark, navigates to the fire. Arriving before fire personnel, the officer must temporarily take charge. Although lacking firefighting equipment, the officer can make a situation report requesting fire personnel, begin evacuation, establish a perimeter and determine ingress and egress routes. That police officer is, at the beginning, the incident commander.
After the firefighters' arrival, the ranking firefighter, the most qualified person to lead the incident, becomes the incident commander (IC). This marks the beginning of a unified command. The police officer still maintains the perimeter and assists in keeping ingress and egress routes open but is essentially subordinate to the firefighter. Conversely, if the burning structure contained a sniper, the police officer would maintain incident command because the police officer is better equipped to handle the sniper.
Unified Command Advantages
Incident Command Post
With ICS, the location where the IC manages the emergency is called the incident command post (ICP). Widespread emergencies are often coordinated and managed through the use of a pre-designated facility commonly called an emergency operations center (EOC). Larger emergencies may have several field ICPs that are coordinated through an EOC. The EOC, receiving information from the ICP, coordinates the deployment of personnel and resources to the various ICPs. The ICPs use the personnel and resources to manage the incident locally. This is the type of arrangement we could have expected during the response to Hurricane Katrina a regional EOC managing the flow of personnel and resources to smaller EOCs or field ICPs.
ICS has proved effective for all types of incidents, including:
Incident Command Structure
ICS is referred to as a modular system because it can expand and contract based on the emergency. If the problem can be handled with few personnel and minimal resources, then an ICP may have only an IC, who plans, makes decisions and assigns tasks. An emergency with only an IC would be relatively small and short in duration. However, as an emergency outgrows the ability of a single person, modules are added.
Usually the first module, or subordinate commander, added is an operations chief. This person must carry out the direction of the IC. The operations chief might direct additional assistant chiefs assigned either by the geography of the incident (e.g., an inner and outer perimeter) or by the types of services. Or, in the case of a relatively localized emergency, the operations chief might allocate subordinate commands based on duties. Example: At a local emergency you might have an operations chief in charge of a fire branch and another in charge of a law enforcement branch.
The next module added: the logistics chief. This person must obtain, organize and allocate all resources, such as personnel, equipment and supplies. For instance, during a flood the IC might direct the operations chief to conduct helicopter-rescue operations. The operations chief would communicate the personnel and equipment needs to the logistics chief. The logistics chief would locate and assign personnel and resources to the mission. The operations chief would brief the personnel on the mission and oversee completion.
Emergency situations are brought to conclusion by getting ahead of the emergency. This is done through the ICS planning process. For larger emergencies (based on size and duration), you need a planning chief. This person takes the overall goals of the IC and prepares action plans that are implemented by the operations chief. This component frees the operations chief to handle the here and now while someone else prepares for the next step.
Span of Control
ICS recognizes that you simply can't do everything yourself and that you can only effectively work directly with a limited number of people. While an IC may ultimately deploy thousands of personnel, they can communicate directly with relatively few. The span-of-control management concept stresses that a leader can directly supervise only a limited number of people. The number often cited is somewhere from 7 10. This same principle applies to all subordinate personnel. The operations chief has 7 10 direct reports, and so on, down the chain of command.
Many agencies are, in some form, adopting and training in NIMS/ICS. As a first responder, you can improve your incident leadership skills in at least two ways. First, seek certified training from the DHS. Any law officer can sign on and use the FEMA training tools to receive certified training in NIMS/ICS as well as a wide variety of disaster-related courses. Second, once you successfully complete these Web-based courses, an official certificate of completion is sent to you, and for those who receive certification, the U.S. Department of Labor provides a number of Web-based tutorials for refresher training, including an excellent overview of ICS. You can access the tutorials at www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/ics/. For information on how your agency should coordinate its training in NIMS/ICS with its grant seeking activities, go to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Grants and Training Web page at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/odp/welcome.html.
We all know that situations do not unfold as clinically as I've described. We now know Hurricane Katrina was the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, and as the White House has acknowledged, the "nation's current incident management plans and procedures fell short of what was needed." The International Association of Fire Chiefs' President Bill Killen added in testimony before Congress, "Without exercises, learning the NIMS would be like learning to ride a bicycle by reading a book."
Clearly, training and practical exercises are key components of incident management. The closer we come to handling emergencies within the framework of ICS, the more lives and property we can save.
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA, owns Hi Tech Criminal Justice Online and wrote Police Technology (Prentice Hall), Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style (Quill Driver/Word Dancer Press) and NYPD to LAPD: An Introduction to Policing (Prentice Hall). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.