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How to Use ICS to Bolster Your COVID-19 Response

The Incident Command System sprung out of a fire suppression event in the 1970s. But it didn’t take too long for non-fire organizations to begin using the system, as well.

The question is now as emergency response agencies mobilize against the COVID-19 pandemic, can ICS be relevant to their efforts?

Well, when it came to developing ICS, flexibility was a matter of intentional design – same goes for other national frameworks, like AIIMS, derived from ICS. At its core, ICS is meant to enable the effective and efficient management of incidents, including public health crises, irrespective of kind, complexity, or size.

How, exactly? The system codifies emergency management best practices into a unified approach to incident response, integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications, which then all operate under a common organizational structure.

Indeed, the key reason ICS has proven so successful is because it offers this common incident management vocabulary for all organizations involved in incident response. As a result, personnel from multiple agencies can communicate using the same language, rather than their own agency-specific terminology. The system thus lets incident managers set up a unified, centrally authorized, emergency command structure quickly, without fear of miscommunication in the field or in the incident command center (FEMA).

In the case of the COVID-19 response, ICS is particularly well-placed to help. In fact, ICS principles informed the creation of the Hospital Incident Command System, or HICS, which is presently assisting hospitals and healthcare organizations in improving emergency management planning, response, and recovery capabilities for planned and unplanned events – like COVID-19.

Similarly to ICS, HICS functions to provide hospital operations with strategic direction, so that key stakeholders can funnel resource support (be it staff or equipment) where it’s needed most. That’s why the structure of both frameworks is composed of two groups, Command Staff and General Staff, which helps emergency response agencies better liaise and communicate with their counterparts in the healthcare sector during a public health crisis.

That’s not ICS’ only benefit. The command structure also provides a rich stockpile of best practices. Having experienced some of the ruinous effects of inadequate joint planning up close, ICS creators took the imperatives of coordinated planning very much to heart. And that’s why, ICS, as it stands today, offers a pretty thorough process for incident planning, culminating in the development of the Incident Action Plan (IAP).

The IAP documents incident goals, objectives, and strategies, as well as contains tactics and vital information for managers and responders. Far from a static document, the IAP is meant to evolve as incident parameters change and facts on the ground shift – ideal for a fast-changing pandemic – thereby giving agencies an important means by which to disseminate critical information before, during, and after the incident.

Nor are flexibility and standardization the system’s sole attributes. ICS creators developed the system with 14 core features in mind, falling into the following broad categories: standardization, command, planning structure, facilities and resources, communications and information management, as well as professionalism. 


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