Just last month, Hurricane Dorian cut a destructive path through the Bahamas. As a historic category-5 hurricane, the storm leveled the Abaco Islands, leaving a rising death toll of 53 with more than 1,000 people missing.For crisis leaders in the path of ever-more powerful hurricanes, it’s not only time to dust off your severe weather preparedness plans, but also to take a fresh (or first) look at the Incident Command System (ICS).
So, what is the ICS? One of the most crucial developments in emergency management in the last forty-odd years, the Incident Command System is an operational incident management structure that provides a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response for organizations across the U.S. – AIIMS, modeled off of the ICS, provides a similar function in Australasia. And today, it’s experiencing a resurgence in interest.
You see, ICS was created in the aftermath of California’s catastrophic wildfires of the 1970s. Eventually, those fires were suppressed, but they left utter devastation in their wake. The Laguna fire, for one, was the third-largest at the time.
The level of destruction prompted a rethink, with emergency management researchers and practitioners asking how agencies could have done better. In studying the missteps, a few things became clear.
Resourcing and ill-conceived tactics, common culprits, weren’t necessarily at fault. Instead, the flaw lay with poor management and lack of synchronization among responding agencies. Scant joint planning beforehand had led to poor resource management and inadequate inter-agency communications on scene. Poor communications then corroded information flow at the site.
Exiting the wildfires, it was clear that response agencies would have to learn to cooperate, communicate, and coordinate better – not just in suppressing fires but in responding to major disasters more generally.
But how, exactly, since capabilities were quite narrow, and a common organizational framework didn’t exist?
First, that had to change. Analysts recommended an inter-operable structure that would eventually become the Incident Command System. Standardized first among fire response agencies, the wildly-popular ICS quickly spread to non-fire organizations. And nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see the structure in use in corporate crisis management.
So, what does the ICS teach crisis leaders?
The adaptability of the system to a wide range of incidents, even in the corporate sector, shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, ICS-developers created the structure with flexibility foremost in mind. Indeed, it’s the very idea of having a modular organization, one based on the size and complexity of the incident as well as the specifics of the environment, that explains why ICS can (and has) been such an attractive tool for crisis managers.
ICS concretizes a lot of incident management best practices into a unified approach to incident response. The structure integrates a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications, which then all operate under a common organizational structure. And that can mean a lot for corporate crisis teams, especially for organizers with a major physical asset footprint.
For starters, a corporate crisis is often beyond the capacity of a single crisis or business continuity team to tackle. The team will have to work in tandem with outside agencies to handle the disruption more efficiently. Since ICS offers a common incident management vocabulary, a crisis team will be able to communicate more effectively with outside agencies when those agencies come to respond to the emergency.
Also, the system facilitates the mobilization of outside resources. What’s more, it enables managers, whether internal or external, to set up a unified, centrally authorized, command structure quickly, without fear of miscommunication.
Nor does ICS just come in handy for crisis teams during or after an incident. It also helps organizations unite, plan, and simulate their responses before the incident breaks out in the first place. School districts, for instance, have been ready adopters of the ICS team framework.
Finally, ICS-creators, having experienced the ruinous effects of inadequate joint planning up in an emergency scenario not too dissimilar to the Dorian response and recovery, took the imperatives of coordinated planning very much to heart. You should too. To learn more about incident command planning and ICS more generally, download our Guide to Understanding ICS.