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The incident command system (ICS), in its simplest terms, is a management process for handling an emergency incident. It allows a manager (the incident commander) of resources (fire apparatus and firefighters) to account for and direct efforts to reach specific incident priorities.
The system provides a platform for the process to be repeatable and consistent from situation to situation. The incident commander (IC) will be able to retain his or her sanity in an otherwise stressful environment. All the while, the IC must direct people and equipment in a safe, effective and efficient manner. Without the aid of the ICS, much is left to chance at a time when organization and order are needed the most.
Photo by Paul Franz
A chief officer directs firefighting operations at a February 1996 fire in Greenfield, MA. An incident commander must direct people and equipment in a safe, effective and efficient manner.
Think back a few years to a time before the general use and acceptance of ICS. A phrase that would have coined the fire service's experience then would be "chaos" or other similar unflattering terms. This column will address the basic, time-tested principles of the ICS. It will prove to be a good refresher for those well- schooled in this discipline and a good starter for the novice.
The best way to get started is to discuss the laws, regulations and standards that require fire departments to adopt, train on and use an incident command system. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA) have laws that mandate the use of the ICS for departments that operate at hazardous materials incidents. This directive is found within the Superfund Amendments and Reauth-orization Act of 1986. Within this regulation, it is clearly stated that an ICS process must be used. For those in non-OSHA states and who just breathed a sigh of relief, your elation was too quick the EPA adopted the same language so that all 50 states must comply with this law.
Let's face it, all fire departments respond to hazardous materials alarms. About half of all hazmat calls occur within this nation's transportation system. Therefore, your next response may be the overturned tanker or derailed train car. Further, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) cites the need for a documented and utilized ICS. In both 1500 (Occupational Health & Safety Standard) and 1561 (Incident Management Standard), the need for departments to operate under an incident command system is spelled out for all types of alarms. So much for the heavy-handed approach; let's move on to the foundation components of the system.
As you study the ICS process, you can quickly see that it models sound management principles. The desire to have a reasonable "span of control" is a highlight of the system. Span of control refers to the number of subordinates one boss can effectively supervise. The ideal number is five employees/members answering to one officer. The range of the span of control ratio is three to seven or eight (according to the various textbooks). If an officer supervises fewer than three people, the term "over-managed" comes to mind; the supervisor- to-employee ratio is too low to be efficient. The supervisor is under-utilized in this situation.
The reverse is true if the number is higher than seven. Supervision is spread too thin and a sharp decline is realized in the effectiveness of the people who work in this environment. Accountability and safety oversight are also compromised when the span of control is too wide.
The next principle is unity of command. This term simply states that all operating members at an incident must answer to one boss and one boss only. If you operate a system that allows more than one person to give orders to any individual or group of individuals, there is a great potential for trouble ahead. When the rule of unity if command is broken, orders get countermanded and the operation starts into a confusing circular motion and the IC may not be able to re-establish control.