Managing Crisis

Are We Too Dependent on the Incident Command System?

Just because you've trained everyone in ICS doesn't mean you're ready for a crisis.

by Lucien G. Canton / January 29, 2015

My colleague, Timothy Reicker, in the blog post Preparedness – ICS is not enough challenges the idea that just being well trained in the Incident Command System (ICS) means we are ready for a crisis. He astutely points out that while ICS provides structure, processes and standards, it doesn’t tell us how to employ them. His point is that we too often stop after providing ICS training and rarely do the in-depth planning and training needed to be fully capable.

With the inception of the National Incident Management System and its mandate to use ICS, the system has enjoyed widespread adoption and implementation across the country. This was not always the case. Many still recall the early days when it was so closely identified with firefighters that no one wanted to use it. It then moved to discipline-specific systems (e.g., police ICS, health ICS) where each discipline has to do it their own way. My own attempts to get it adopted first by FEMA and then by the city of San Francisco were the source of endless frustration. But have we now reached the point where we think ICS is the only way to manage incidents?

ICS has two significant drawbacks. It was developed to coordinate the activities of hierarchical agencies, that is, agencies with a defined chain of command. However, not all organizations are hierarchical. In the corporate sector, many companies are more consensus driven and use flattened management structures. This is certainly the case with many of the Silicon Valley companies with which I have worked. Attempting to use an incident management structure that is contrary to your corporate culture inevitably leads to failure. This is particularly true when you consider the second drawback of ICS: the extensive training burden it places on an organization. Unless you are practicing it every day, ICS training is very perishable and needs constant refreshing.

Things become even more complicated as one moves from the tactical to the operational and strategic levels. At the operational level, coordination becomes more important than command. Many emergency operations centers are organized around ICS on paper (looks good in the plan) but in reality tasks are performed not by branches or units but by ad hoc multi-agency teams built around a specific problem. This suggests that organizing under a Multi-Agency Coordination Systems or Emergency Support Functions structure might be more useful. At the strategic level, senior executives and political leaders rarely even know what ICS is, let alone make use of it.

This is not to say that we should discard ICS. The system has proven itself over time and provides a solid base on which to build response. However, we need to be less rigid in how we employ it, focusing on ICS principles rather than just structure and being open to adjustments based on organizational needs. Just because your organizational chart is built on the ICS structure doesn’t mean you’re really using ICS. And as Tim points out, just being proficient at ICS doesn’t mean that you have the supporting plans and processes that you need to be successful. Generic ICS checklists won’t cut it when you really have to deal with a crisis.