Establishing an Incident Command Structure at Special Operations Incidents

The changing times in our society today has resulted in the alteration of the roles of the Nation's emergency responders. Today's rescuers can find themselves on the front lines at a Special Operations Incident. Moreover, the long-term success at these...


The changing times in our society today has resulted in the alteration of the roles of the Nation's emergency responders. Today's rescuers can find themselves on the front lines at a Special Operations Incident. Moreover, the long-term success at these incidents relies on the actions of the "first-in" responders and managers. With this in mind, it is important to be able to identify the needs of the special operations incident, some common elements of the incident, training needs of the responders, and operational conceptual needs of the incident.

We can define the Special Operations Incident as any long term incident that may include the rescue or recovery of victims, requiring the assistance of outside technical specialists, trained in the specific Operational Needs of the incident. This requires the response of the "elite", if you will: the specialists in the service. Most of these personnel are members of Technical Rescue Teams, Rescue Companies, or Special Operations Units (Photo 1). These units are the ones that are intended to be highly competent in these areas, and since the costs that come with training and supporting these units are quite high, economically it makes sense to invest it wisely in the right people.

While the type of special operations incident may vary from each response, these incidents do have some common elements:

Dynamic Arena of Activity. The incident will undergo constant change from period to period. It will require a lot of flexibility in your incident action plan (IAP).

Written Incident Action Plan. Every incident has a formal action plan, and most of those are not written. This type of incident will require a formal, written IAP for each operational period.

Scene Integrity and Control. There will be a lot of responders at an incident such as this, and many of them will come uninvited. Keeping track of who is coming and going is imperative.

Huge Logistical Demands. Even an incident that lasts less than four operational periods will tax your resource cache to the limit. Having a long list of contacts for what you would need is paramount.

Long Term Events. These incidents go for hours, days or even weeks, depending on the severity. Therefore, operational periods are suggested for personnel control. These periods vary in length, but are no longer than 24 hours. Twelve hour periods are most common, but the length of the period is based on the incident needs, and can change with the flow of the incident.

Time Driven Events. As time progresses, the priorities of the incident will change. For example, a rescue incident will ultimately become a recovery incident, once enough time has passed for the potential of survivability to expire. While this is a difficult decision, it must be made in order to maintain scene control.

Multiple Staging Areas. Different resource types will have specific needs that will need to be addressed. Specific staging areas, bases and camps will assure that these needs will be met.

Unified Command System. There will be priorities during the incident that will need to be addressed for many responder types (for example: crime scene investigation, fire suppression, mass casualty treatment, etc.) therefore, having a unified command approach will ensure that all of these concerns will be met.

One of the most troubling issues comes within the jurisdiction in the arena of preparedness. Studies have shown that most potential for injury comes when responders are performing tasks during operations that they rarely respond to, and do not train for. Many jurisdictions do not drill yearly on the response to a structural collapse, trench rescue, large scale hazardous materials incident, or natural disaster (see Photo 2). Yet, these are the responses that will become most taxing on our personnel. Furthermore, there are few responders that are fluent in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to a degree that they would be able to successfully navigate a Type 1 or 2 incident successfully. In this case, the officer's next disaster response will be their first.

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