Incident Management vs Incident Command

As I was writing my thoughts on the updated ICS-100 course in my previous post, I got to thinking that it may be prudent to reinforce the difference between incident management and the incident command system (ICS).  ICS is a specific application of incident management, while incident management is, in all, much broader than ICS.  Incident management includes field responses, emergency operations centers (EOCs), activities of secondary and tertiary organizations, funding streams, public information, and even the mechanics of politics focused on that disaster response.  Ideally, we would prefer these to all be orchestrated, such that they operate lock-step, but rarely, if ever, do we see such a thing.  It would be as if a chorus, band, orchestra, stage performers, ushers, concessioners, stage hands, lighting and sound operators, and custodial staff were all working on the same performance and conducted by one person.  They don’t.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  That’s why incident management systems, such as ICS, were developed.

Knowledge and application of systems, like ICS, are certainly important.  The beginning of every ICS class tells you why, so I don’t need to get into that here.  But to continue with my oft criticized analogies, if ICS is the trees, incident management is the forest.  And, as it turns out, many people can’t see the forest for the trees.  While ICS may be concerned with putting out the fire, stopping the bleeding, or catching the proverbial bad guy, incident management is about so much more.  Even doctrinally, consider that the National Incident Management System (NIMS), comprised of key elements, such as resource management, command and coordination (this is the ICS piece, and more), and communications and information management.  We also need to consider incident management beyond these, in as broad a scope as possible.

Incident management is a deliberate series of actions taken to solve problems associated with incidents and disasters.  There are a lot of problems that can be caused, directly or indirectly, by whatever issue we are dealing with, be it flood, fire, or hostile event.  Incident management needs to prioritize these problems and take action to address them.  While it may sound like our incident command system structures do the same type of thing, they are often concerned with immediate effects and actions that save lives and stabilize the incident, as they should be.  But that focus, necessarily, is narrow in scope and doesn’t address all the ancillary and important issues that an incident may cause.

Consider FEMA’s Emergency Support Function (ESF) structure and the matters they address.  Here are a few:

  • Transportation
  • Communications
  • Public Works and Engineering
  • Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services
  • Public Health and Medical Services
  • Agricultural and Natural Resources
  • Energy
  • External Affairs

Do your plans address these issues?  And by plans, I mean real, actionable plans.  Many jurisdictions have functional annexes to their plans, most following the federal ESF structure, which do little more than state what agencies participate in each of the jurisdiction’s ESFs and what their primary goals are.  Let’s be honest… these are aren’t plans.  They are fully inadequate to be plans.  These are prose I might use for the introduction of a plan, but certainly not the substance of the plan itself.  This is exactly why we are missing the mark when it comes to incident management.  We talk a lot about ICS, ICS is in our plans, we train people in ICS (though not as good as we should be), emphasize ICS in exercises, and focus on ICS when an incident occurs, but how much attention is given to broader incident management?  Typically far too little.  I’ve actually had conversations with local public safety officials, asking them how well they feel they are prepared for the next disaster, and they responded that they are fine because they are trained in ICS.  I’ve received this response in more than one jurisdiction.  That’s pretty scary, especially given the lackluster condition of their plans.

Can ICS be applied to broader incident management issues?  It sure can.  It’s simply a management system that can be applied to anything you want.  But the problem is that people conceptualize ICS as something to only use ‘in the field’ and during the more urgent initial period of response.

The take-away from this is that we need to identify what our issues are and how we are going to manage them.  These are essential parts of the planning process.  Write good plans.  Invest time, effort, and likely some money into it.  Do you need to use the ESF structure?  No, but certainly make sure that all concerns are addressed.  Think about the cascading impacts of an incident.  Leverage stakeholders from across the community to ensure that you are getting input from multiple perspectives and interests.  Doing so will help you be better prepared to manage the entirety of the incident.

As always, thoughts are appreciated.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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