The Incident Command System

  This article explores the benefits and challenges of migrating the Incident Command System (ICS) to its next level given remarkable advances in enabling technologies, a changing threat, the importance of thinking about response as all risk...


  This article explores the benefits and challenges of migrating the Incident Command System (ICS) to its next level given remarkable advances in enabling technologies, a changing threat, the importance of thinking about response as all risk...


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Instrumentation is becoming pervasive in our daily lives. Modern cars are a good example. Scores of miniature, cheap sensors talk to the car’s computer to instantly analyze and fine tune overall system performance, in some cases dozens of times a second. How soon will it be before radio frequency identification tags (RFID), cheap enough to be woven into clothes we buy at the mall, are woven into every hose so that an engine “knows” about its complement of onboard hose and can communicate that to tactical operational and re-supply functions as needed?

New concepts in command and control that treat battlefield data as “streaming” are changing how military commanders collaborate and solve complex problems. A good example of this is the military’s Command Post of the Future (CPOF) research project developed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and deployed to Iraq with the First Calvary Division in 2004. Fire service personnel were invited to view the system during combat training maneuvers at the National Training Center in the California desert and during actual combat operations in Iraq. MIT Lincoln Laboratory (MIT LL; see www.ll.mit.edu), a federally funded research and development center, has applied and continued these research concepts and has adapted them to emergency response.

Web-Based ICS

The key idea in the MIT LL approach is to use the concept of a Services Oriented Architecture (SOA), an architecture that allows all sorts of apps and data to be plugged in at will from any source (laboratory, commercial vendor, university, firehouse or police precinct, etc). The Department of Defense has spent considerable resources perfecting the SOA concept, and it is readily and freely available to the first responder community for experimentation and use. MIT LL has teamed with CAL FIRE and the sheriff’s office in Riverside County, CA, and has been testing this concept for more than two years. It is now being scaled up to other departments and agencies in Southern California to include San Diego County agencies.

Looking Ahead

Does work like this give us a glimpse of what ICS-Next Generation may look like? The approach that is taking shape is open, non-proprietary, web-based and can be accessed by any standard computer (any computer type and any operating system) through the web (any browser). Myriad operational data can be transmitted in real time between operators. This includes maps of all types, operator-to-operator sketch, chat, pre-plans, incident action plans, dispatch and current resource data, weather information, historical fire data, and automatic vehicle and personnel location data (AVL/PLI) as examples.

For instance, apps have been developed that allow ground units to access real-time aerial intelligence data gathered from air assets as well as allow the ground commander to control the aircraft camera from the ground using a simple joy stick so that the commander can see what he wants to see.

All data can be recorded for future use for both historical and legal needs. Possibly even more important is the training value of creating notional emergency scenarios and studying historical incidents using the same technology.

This next generation of ICS will obviously provide a greatly improved benefit to the operator in the field, but will also provide additional value added to the overall emergency response community. Operational commanders at national, state and regional levels can access real-time information on an incident or multiple incidents to enhance strategic decision-making. Involved political leaders can be kept informed of current threats and ongoing operations, and the public can be notified of emergency operations both current and proposed that may affect their safety and welfare.

Continued development, testing and refinement of these concepts will be conducted in the Southern California test area and other selected regional locations in upcoming months. This development will take place through both training exercises and through response to actual all risk incidents. Challenges in scaling to extreme-scale incidents (e.g., massive natural disasters), easy-to-use operator interfaces (little to no-training required), and simple but powerful user commands that are suited to the “tired-dirty-hungry” responder will be high on the research agenda.

BILL CLAYTON is the chief of the Sycuan Fire Department in San Diego County, CA, and previously served as a division chief for CAL FIRE. He has 48 years experience in emergency response.