Does Anything Really Change after a Catastrophic Incident?

The author served as the fire incident commander for the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.


One reason that so little improvement occurs is that we look at our emergency response capability through a framework that limits our perspective and our opportunity for change. Emergency response services are provided at the local level, and the drivers for strategic policy decisions are usually related to the political, social, and economic needs of the local community. Making decisions about resources and response policy from a local perspective results in one set of outcomes. Making decisions from a regional perspective is likely to result in very different decisions in terms of how resources are organized and allocated. A regional perspective is also likely to result in improved outcomes in terms of the effectiveness of a regional response to a catastrophic incident. Therefore, the second step in becoming better prepared for catastrophic incidents is to know the limitations of our own local response capability, and to take action to develop and sustain an effective response capability on a regional basis.

As long as decisions about strategic response policy are based on a local perspective, the problems associated with a large scale response will continue. These problems include the following:

  • Resources will be underutilized rather than maximized.
  • Separate command structures will be created for each of the emergency services rather than one integrated and coordinated command and control system for the entire incident.
  • First responders will continue to have problems communicating with each other, resulting in low levels of situational awareness, a slow decision making process, and ineffective action based on inadequate information.

However, there is a short period of time after a catastrophic incident that provides a window of opportunity for collective action and change. That time is now. Take this time and use it for a hard and honest reflection of the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of your response capability. Compare your latent potential for a catastrophic incident against your local and regional response capability. Ask yourself this question: If a catastrophic incident occurred today in our community, and we had to rely on resources from around the region to provide an effective response capability, what would that look like? Would it be like herding cats, or would it be well organized? Would the structure and process of command and control between the various response agencies be coordinated and integrated, or would it be uncoordinated and disintegrated? How would the various response resources work together, and how would they communicate with each other? Can we do better?

All of these questions are related to the capability of the first response agencies in terms of command, control and communications. First responders are good at command, control and communications on a local level, which usually occurs within their own organization. It is apparent from the catastrophic incidents that have occurred over these last few years that we are not as good at developing these response capabilities on a regional basis.

Command, control and communications systems need to be integrated and coordinated on a regional basis rather than a local or jurisdictional basis. One way to accomplish this is to think of a regional response capability in terms of a functional distribution of resources. Most first response organizations think of the distribution of resources based on a vertical separation by jurisdiction or by type of first response agency, as in figure 1.

The different types of first response agencies depicted in figure 1 could also represent different jurisdictions of the same type of agency. For example, the figure could represent three different fire departments, or three different law enforcement organizations. Based on this structure, the response to incidents is purposely designed to be separate. Each type of first response agency or jurisdiction is designed to have a separate capability for command, control and communications.

A more effective and efficient way of organizing regional resources in preparation for a large scale response to a catastrophic incident is through a functional distribution. A functional distribution of resources is based on a common structure and process of command and control, as illustrated in figure 2.

In a functional structure, all of the first response agencies are integrated and coordinated through a common structure and process of command and control. During a catastrophic incident, several different jurisdictions or types of first response agencies may be represented in the command element. This might include representatives from fire, law enforcement, and EMS who come together to form a joint command staff. Regional resources are organized at the logistical level. These resources are then assigned to the operational element based on their capability and where they are needed and what tasks need to be accomplished as part of the overall incident action plan.