Montgomery County Forms Countywide Incident Support Team

Imagine this: You are the incident commander at a developing major fire, a destructive storm, a transportation crash with a significant number of injuries and vehicles involved, an oncoming flood, a significant crime scene or even a line-of-duty-death funeral. You look around and have a few...


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Imagine this: You are the incident commander at a developing major fire, a destructive storm, a transportation crash with a significant number of injuries and vehicles involved, an oncoming flood, a significant crime scene or even a line-of-duty-death funeral. You look around and have a few officers, but nowhere near the number needed to handle all of the sectors of your incident management plan. You can call more companies, but the officers responding would need to manage the resources they bring. If the event is big enough, who will do the data management and record keeping needed to justify compensation? Who would you call to handle all of these tasks to help you - not take over the incident - but help you make your job easier?

This was the premise for the development of the Montgomery County, PA, Incident Management Team (MCIST), when County Public Safety Director Tom Sullivan gathered a team of seasoned fire officers from within the county. The goal of this group was to develop a trained team available to assist with the major management of emergencies and advisory teams to augment the management of fire and emergency management planning, including but not limited to operational concerns, safety issues, incident command system (ICS) support, compliance with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and related support tasks.

Where did the concept come from? A fire in Gloucester City, NJ, two years earlier prompted Lee Perlmutter of the Willow Grove, PA, Fire Company to suggest the idea to Sullivan. The incident formed the basis for what the MCIST would be and how it would perform and resulted in the chief of Gloucester City making a presentation to the team in order to refine our concept, goals and operating procedures.

The first set of decisions centered on what roles the MCIST could fill at a major event and on what the team would NOT do. It was quickly determined that the team would not take over an incident, but serve in support roles including:

  • Planning
  • Logistics
  • Staging
  • Public information officer
  • Safety officer
  • Accountability/crew integrity
  • Communications aide
  • Resource management
  • NIMS-related activities
  • Whatever else the incident commander wants the team members to do

The next set of decisions focused on the people to fill various roles on the team. This included criteria for time in service, a minimum number of years as a chief-level officer, specific training programs completed and the willingness to "play nice in someone else's sandbox." This process resulted in the identification of some 20 senior officers and emergency management executives within the county as candidates. These individuals included people in positions of volunteer fire chief, career fire chief, fire marshal, township manager, borough manager, emergency management coordinator, municipal elected official and individuals employed by the county's Department of Public Safety who have served as fire chiefs.

The qualifications for the individuals were made relatively simple to start. They included

  • A present or past chief
  • At least 15 years of experience, including five at a chief-officer level
  • Incident command certification, including completion of various NIMS courses
  • National Fire Academy incident safety officer training
  • Fire officer certification

After the team concept and use was refined, additional team members were sought in January 2007. Discussions next shifted to the type of incidents to which the MCIST would respond. Given the nature of the team members, they quickly strategized on what types of help they could have used at prior incidents. They immediately identified working fires, major hazmat incidents, technical rescues, large-area searches, large brush/forest fires, airplane crashes, pre-planned events, floods and tornados, although no type of incident was excluded.

Operational issues became the next set of questions, including when the team would be dispatched, how frequently the team would respond and how team members would be identified. It was determined that this would be accomplished via a question to the incident commander by the dispatcher, at the first 20-minute mark of the incident, and at the same time queries are made for utilities, the American Red Cross and standby companies. In addition, the team would automatically be dispatched on Hazmat Level 2 incidents and with request for the county communications van.

At the discretion of the communication center, a radio frequency that is not being used on the incident would be assigned. Once the MCIST is on location, assignments would be made at the discretion of the incident commander. The team would respond in a vehicle with appropriate identification and each member would have a vest and protective clothing. Upon arrival at the incident, each team member is to immediately report to the incident commander for assignment, or be recalled by the incident commander if not needed at the time. The MCIST is required to follow the orders of the incident commander and the incident commander is not obligated to use the team. If the department fills all the roles on the emergency scene and does not need the MCIST to respond, the team can be placed on recall when dispatched.

An effective organization must also be progressive and the MCIST is no exception. The latest initiatives include interfacing and integrating with police and EMS incident support teams; jointly training with police, EMS and county staff on NIMS 300 and NIMS 400 to better understand individual roles and responsibilities, and closely coordinating with the South East Pennsylvania Type 3 Incident Management Team.

As with everything in the fire service, time will tell whether the MCIST program is successful. In this case, the program's first dozen responses included a multi-property structure fire, a commuter train accident with tens of injuries, support to law enforcement at a school incident involving a shooting, a drowning, line-of-duty-death funerals and support to a major public event. The approach worked and while there will always be areas to refine, the fundamental approach seems workable and efficient.

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