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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 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.

One vital step in preparing for such a response is developing an emergency response plan. This plan should include a thorough and clear set of Standard Operational Guidelines that help define the initial operations of the department once they have arrived on-scene. A good start would include a clear Scope of the guideline; Department Responsibilities; Training Requirements; Actions of Members; Scene Integrity/Control; and Crime Scene response and investigation. Along with SOG's, it is wise to come up with a Logistical Resource List that encompasses emergency contacts in the event that they are needed at an incident. It can include the following:

  • Weather reports
  • Structural engineers
  • Municipal/State rescue teams
  • Equipment and tool suppliers
  • Lumberyards
  • Utility company management personnel
  • Heavy equipment rentals
  • Towing companies
  • Hospital/Trauma centers
  • Railroad officers
  • Apparatus repair personnel
  • Fuel companies
  • Caterers
  • Portable facilities
  • Housing/Shelter accommodations
  • Pharmacies
  • And the list goes on...

It will be difficult to locate experts and resources during the night or weekend hours, and the list of people requiring their services will expand dramatically after the incident occurs. Therefore, it is best to plan ahead.

The initial dispatch report for the incident will be a start to the size-up process. The initial unit reports of the arriving units will help to indicate the severity of the incident, even when they are not saying anything. Many initial responders are struck with awe based on the scene they are confronted with, that the initial unit report takes some time to be transmitted. The excitability of the dispatcher, the first arriving personnel, and citizen's reports will clue the responders to what lies ahead.

Upon arrival, scene success will not occur without scene control. Establishing command is the first step to gaining control. Depending on the nature and severity of the incident, many agencies may have a direct responsibility for the outcome of the incident: the fire service will be charged with any suppression and rescue issues, EMS will have mass casualty transport and treatment issues, along with responder care issues, and law enforcement will be investigating the incident for potential crime scene enforcement. Incidents as such are best suited to operate in a Unified Command System.

Command should be set well into the cold zone of the incident, and should be large enough to facilitate the needs of the entire command staff. Some jurisdictions have agreements with bordering communities to special call Command Officers to serve as Section Chiefs for the incident. But, no matter who serves in the role, each section will be staffed at an incident such as this.

The next step in controlling the incident is controlling the perimeter of the incident. As large scale incidents as these, there will be a large convergence of apparatus, personnel and equipment to respond directly to the scene. This can become chaotic, and clog the escape routes for transporting vehicles and apparatus that needs to re-position, based upon assignment. It may be wise to identify a location for multiple Level II Staging areas, based on type of resource.

There are many effective acronyms for size-up concerns that responders use at an emergency. Special Operations Incidents have some different needs, so there is a variation of the standard acronym, (COAL TWAS WEALTHS) that can be applied as such:

Constructon - It is not just limited to buildings. Vehicles, debris and heavy objects on scene will have to be moved, lifted breached, etc… How will that be accomplished? (Photo 3)

Occupancy - What was the building/vehicle/area being used for, and how does that affect the response?

Apparatus, personnel and equipment - This one is simple: you will need lots of each of them.

Life hazard - What are the abilities of the victims to self-rescue? Can they aid in their rescue?

Terrain - What is the layout of the land? Will you have to stage your apparatus, and carry your equipment in? Will you have to traverse flat land, or a debris pile? How will you move victims out of the hot zone? (Photo 4)

Water - It will be a necessity for stand by fire suppression, and for equipment maintenance. Conversely, water can add to the problem, and may have to be removed. How will you handle it?

Accountability - PASS tags, T-cards, you name it, there are many types of systems in place. How will you control accountability for multiple agencies, for each operational period?

Special circumstances - Is this a result of a terrorist attack? Is this going to become a crime scene, and evidence preservation is key? What are the infrastructure concerns of the community regarding this incident?

Weather - It can become necessary to provide shelter for a lot of displaced victims of the incident. Moreover, the responders will need a place to rest that is warm, dry, and out of the elements between operational periods. What impact will weather conditions have on the operation?

EMS concerns - Incidents such as these will require an Advanced Life Support (ALS) response. It may also be necessary to set up temporary triage sites, morgues, and care centers for responders.

Access to scene - In other words, Scene Control. It is imperative to scene success. Having one way in and one way out of the incident will help manage the scene.

Long term needs - Taking care of the responders is an important part of Command's responsibility. Boarding, comfort stations, food, Critical Incident Stress teams, and other miscellaneous supplies are needed to keep the scene running (Photo 5). Additionally, rescuers can be exposed to communicable diseases and infections when the damage to the area infrastructure compromises the safety of everybody in the region. Keeping an eye on the rescuers for signs of trouble, and acting appropriately and efficiently is vital.

Timing of incident - Did this incident occur near or on dates of national significance? (September 11th, Oklahoma City, etc…)

Hazardous materials - Is their presence the cause of the incident, or an end result of the occurrence? How will they be handled, and to what extent is the environmental impact?

Support materials - Saw blades go dull, generators need fuel, PPE rips and breaks. There are enormous logistical support issues that will have to be addressed to keep the incident moving forward.

Our society has placed the first-in emergency responder in the forefront on responding to a more diverse list of incidents. While many first responders may go their entire career without operating at a Special Operations incident, it is still imperative that rescuers train and prepare to be able to handle this type of response. Waiting to practice until the incident commences puts the responders in a dangerous, ill-equipped position that can result in injury, liability, and culpability. Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. Mike was a panelist on the Successful Rescue Operations in Today's Fire Service podcast and a guest on The Buzz on Technical Rescue: A Look at the USAR Equipment Cache. You can reach Michael by e-mail at