Effective incident command is an organized approach to managing chaos.

When the world has been turned on its head — in a city, a neighborhood, a region, an organization or even a country — the incident command system (ICS) provides a well organized, consistent approach to understanding the situation and bringing to bear the resources necessary to restore order and save lives and property. It takes skill and leadership to run Incident Management Teams (IMTs) effectively, and that starts with learning the fundamentals and then practicing and honing those skills through years of experience.

It also takes communication, because accurate and timely information is foundational to effectively managing incidents. In public safety circles, it is called situational awareness. In the IT world, it’s called data. But it all comes down to one thing: Incident Command fails without accurate and timely information.

That’s why FirstNet is crucial to the future of incident response.

In December, the Ninth Annual All-Hazard Incident Management Team Association Training Conference was held in Oklahoma City, providing the opportunity for hundreds of IMT professionals to learn IMT skills, as well as draw from the leadership experience of some of the best IMT/ICS professionals on Earth.

The conference also featured workshops about FirstNet and a communication technology demonstration by Oklahoma Public Safety Broadband Network (OKPSBN). The message: Communications related to IMT and ICS will soon take a monumental leap forward.

Data communications is no longer a “nice to have” part of incident response. Incident Commanders have long known that situational awareness data from the field in the form of video, pictures, sensors and location-based services allows them to make better decisions. No rocket science is required to figure that out.

But making information systems work when the world is in chaos and the smoke has not yet cleared is rocket science. In fact, it is harder than rocket science because there is no time to study the problem.

FirstNet will play a major role in helping to close that gap, and in the not-too-distant future. This is how:

•    By providing public safety with its own, dedicated data communications network that will allow responders to communicate without being degraded by panicking citizens who are trying to reach family and friends during the crisis.

•    By establishing the FirstNet network as soon as possible. Sure, we can enable network functionality after an incident. But the cavalry takes time to get there, and time is in short supply during the worst moments of an incident. IMTs need a hardened, dedicated network in place before disaster strikes. Responders need to have used that network previously — training, exercising and understanding its capabilities through daily experience.

•    By becoming ingrained in how we do the business of response. Apps for public safety already exist, and many responding organizations are now deploying their own apps. But the commercial networks they deploy on were not built with public safety in mind, and that is a huge problem. Commercial networks do not prioritize our public safety traffic in a way that meets the needs of response at the most crucial moments, and they are not built to public-safety-grade standards.

•    By being inherently interoperable and accessible to all responders who converge on an incident. Current interoperability tools vary in their complexity and capability. They require technical staff and troubleshooting skill. And some responding organizations cannot afford them. FirstNet will be a platform that cuts across all those differences and becomes a common denominator for all response organizations.

These are just a few of the ways FirstNet will make a difference in the incident command world, but they speak to a vision that is only now beginning to take shape. Envision a day when:

•    Responders entering an incident geofence are automatically known and a message pops up on their device: “Are you responding to the ABC Disaster?” Yes? “Would you like to download the ABC Disaster App?”

•    Through services like ICAM (Identity, Credentialing and Access Management) a responder and their capabilities will be known: “Are you responding to this incident as a firefighter, COML or USAR, or are you currently unassigned?”

•    The network and app will become a road map to direct resources regardless of their responding agency because large-scale emergencies will always require mutual aid responders with limited local familiarity: “USAR staging is at 123 4th Street. IMPORTANT: Traffic and roadway hazards exist. Proceed with caution via the attached route map ONLY.”

•    The app will provide personnel management tools so that incident command can assess the need and assemble teams more quickly and efficiently: “You have been assigned to USAR Team 5. Report to Kim Jones at 0700 at….”

•    The system will be the repository and messaging system for everyone in the incident, equipping responders with the best and most timely information. Operational informational updates, alerts, weather conditions, video briefings, site maps and personnel/team rosters will all be a click away.

•    Officials will be able to meet requests from the field more effectively because they will have better data, sooner. Responders with body-worn video will give incident command and EOC staff a boots-on-the-ground perspective in real time. Drones will allow more accurate and timely damage assessment with less risk to first responders. Videos from the field showing situational awareness at a glance will replace cable news on the walls of EOCs.

•    Location-based services will layer response assets by discipline, team, functional assignment and closest responder. And those tools will no longer be used just in EOCs but can be shared with the field via handheld devices.

Bottom line? Quicker response shortens the suffering that major incidents bring to our communities — building confidence within our citizens for the work that public safety does and impacting continuity of government.