Emergency Management

Taking Another Look at ICS in 2020

The incident command system (ICS) many emergency managers and response practitioners are familiar with today was brainstormed in the 1970s by the crews fighting rapid wildfires in California.

Its basic principles were eventually carried over to other response operations in various sectors, and is still widely in practice today. After the events of 9/11, it became a cornerstone in response operations for all outfits across the US as a means of unifying the disparate response teams often involved in disasters.

This system, however, was developed in the 1970s, and while it’s been used and occasionally updated through the decades, it’s a good time to ask if we should update it again or if we can identify and address any of its shortcomings.

Can We Improve ICS?

In February 2016, Stephen Grainer, the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, wrote about the ICS and why practitioners may need to take a second look at it in the years to come. (You can read his article “Incident Command System: Perishable if Not Practiced” at domesticpreparedness.com.)

Grainer noted the extensive ICS training personnel across outfits have received since the methodology’s wide-spread and federally-guided adoption in 2004. Almost paradoxically, Grainer believes the widespread availability of training is causing ICS to be less effective.

While many ICS training students are aware of core ICS principles because of classes, their knowledge isn’t so useful. The core principles are guidelines that apply broadly to emergencies and incidents. As incidents develop, they grow in complexity and require tailored approaches; personnel with only limited introductory ICS training most likely won’t know how to shape the ICS guidelines to the unique situation before them. Additionally, even personnel with more in-depth training may not be able to utilize their knowledge due to leadership structures.

Grainer also acknowledges that major disasters, especially ones that require responders to use an ICS structure, aren’t common enough to keep practitioners’ muscles strong. Of course, fewer disasters is a good thing. But if little is done to test the training of personnel, practitioners may not execute ICS tasks and principles perfectly within their responses.

Training and Application

If certain areas of training are shortcomings of ICS in 2020, it’s only natural that we ask what we can do to shore up these inefficiencies and ensure teams can fully utilize ICS principles.

The first step many teams can take is to make training more accessible for personnel. This includes providing training opportunities on a somewhat regular basis, maybe annually or bi-annually. This gives personnel a chance to brush up on their knowledge and apply it more accurately during disasters.

Not all staff may need this basic training that often, however. Some may just need to see it in action; exercises help teams refine their operations and guiding principles for disaster responses. Exercise leaders can incorporate ICS guidelines into their exercises to give all stakeholders a sense of how ICS works and adapts to evolving incidents without the outside pressure of a real-world event.

Advanced ICS training is also important. Teams should look at the structure of their responses, see what individuals take leadership roles, and offer advanced training to them. This will allow response leaders to inject ICS principles and ideas into an incident, and ensure a team, as it continues its response to an incident, is also adhering actively using these guidelines.

The Future of ICS

It’s been close to 50 years since the incident command system was pioneered. As it’s been adopted and used across the country, it’s been adapted to not only meet the times, but the evolving nature of disaster response. In 2020, it’s healthy for all of us to take a look at the system, identify what works, what doesn’t, and seek resolutions for the pain points we recognize.

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