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How can Incident Command System (ICS) be used to Support your Business in a Time of Crisis?

By Melissa Otero | Harkcon's Program Manager

A hurricane moves through your town and your place of business is devastated! How do you ensure the safety of your employees? How do you quickly and effectively seek help from local, state, and perhaps even Federal authorities? As you respond to the crisis, how do you prevent the following from occurring?

  • Too many people reporting to one person

  • Too many bosses

  • Daily organization structure unable to adapt quickly to emergency response needs

  • Little or no “timely” information

  • Not sure what your short-term goals were

  • No coordination with local, state, and perhaps even Federal authorities as well as other local businesses

Have you thought about what the consequences might be if you have too many people reporting to one person? Answers may range from losing valuable information, increased stress for everyone, or possibly overwhelming the person who is receiving the reported information. Other questions that have arisen are, “What might the consequence be if you have to report to more than one boss?” Often times there are power struggles, division of loyalty, or misinformation may occur between the various levels of bosses and one boss may only get half of the information. All of these issues can lead to serious problems.

Some of the major issues that occur when you receive misinformation or have little or untimely information include:

  • Your ability to make sound decisions is compromised

  • You are behind the power curve

  • You cannot make real-time public announcements

  • You look uninformed (stupid) and not in control

  • You lose the trust of your people and the public

All of this can lead to rework, loss of resources, or miscommunication. By using the Incident Command System structure you will eliminate these issues. Incident Command System, or ICS, is a flexible framework designed to achieve effective communication and management during response to and recovery from a small out of the ordinary incident to a large disaster.

If you embrace the use of ICS you will eliminate the issues listed above through these ICS key features:

  • Manageable Span of Control

  • Common Terminology

  • Modular/Scalable Organization

  • Integrated Communication

  • Unified Command Structure

  • Incident Action Plan (IAP)

  • Pre-Designated and Outfitted Command Centers

  • Comprehensive Resource Management

A manageable span of control is defined as the number of individuals one supervisor can manage effectively. Using the ICS methodology, the span of control for any supervisor falls within a range of three to seven resources, with five being the optimum. If those numbers increase or decrease, the you should reexamine the organizational structure and create additional sections as needed.

Common terminology is essential in any emergency management system, especially when diverse or other than first-response agencies are involved in the response. While Federal, state, and local authorities have worked hard over the last 15 years to communicate through a common terminology, this has not necessarily extended to the private sector. Knowing how to talk to government responders could mean faster access to key resources for your company.

A modular or scalable organization develops from the top-down organizational structure at any incident. “Top-down” means that, at the very least, the Command function is established by the first-arriving/on-scene employee who becomes the Incident Commander for your company. As the incident warrants, the Incident Commander activates other functional areas (e.g., sections). The response is built from on-scene employees up to executive staff. The ICS structure starts small with the Incident Commander. It builds to as large an organization as is needed, including a full scale Command Post and Emergency Operations Center.

An integrated communication system uses a common communications plan, standard operating procedures, clear text, common frequencies, and common terminology. Several communication networks may be established, depending on the size and complexity of the incident.

A unified command structure allows all agencies with responsibility for the incident, either geographic or functional, to manage an incident by establishing a common set of incident objectives and strategies.

An Incident Action Plan, or IAP, describes response goals, operational objectives, and support activities. It should answer questions such as, “What do we want to do? Who is responsible for doing it? How do we communicate with each other? What is the procedure if someone is injured?” An IAP should also describe the current status of the incident, identify team assignments and document resource allocations. A critical item to point out is that all IAP objectives need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-oriented) objectives to ensure the clearest communication.

It is important to note that developing an IAP starts from small to large. At the beginning of an incident the first IAP is verbally given by the Incident Commander when he/she provides opening direction to first responders. As the incident progresses, it becomes a formal process led by the Planning Section as the incident expands.

So we must define what an Operational Period is. The operational period is the time your team has to work on the IAP before the IC and Team Leaders meet again to assess status, discuss progress, and potentially chart a new course. At the beginning of an incident, the time frame is often short, between 2 to 4 hours, and expands as the incident matures. The IC and Team Leaders determine the length of the operational period.

IAPs should cover all objectives and support activities that are needed during the entire operational period. A written plan is preferable to an oral plan because it clearly demonstrates responsibility, helps protect the community from liability suits, and provides documentation when requesting State and Federal assistance. IAPs that include the measurable goals and objectives to be achieved are always prepared around a time frame called an operational period.

Operational periods can be of various lengths, but should be no longer than 24 hours. Twelve-hour operational periods are common for large-scale incidents. The Incident Commander determines the length of the operational period based on the complexity and size of the incident.

Pre-designated and outfitted command centers provide a centralized place to oversee all incident operations. At least two and possibly three locations for these command centers should be identified in advance. Staging areas are also important, so that you can keep and maintain resources while they await incident assignment.

Comprehensive Resource Management allows an organization to maximize resource use, consolidate control of single resources, reduce the communication load, provide accountability, and ensure personnel safety. Any changes in resource location and status must be reported promptly to the Resource Unit by the person making the change. Personnel accountability is provided throughout all of ICS. All personnel must check in as soon as they arrive at an incident.

Why is it important for personnel to check in and check out during an incident?

  • So that you don’t lose accountability of your people

  • So that you know exactly where your people are at and what they are doing

  • So you don’t leave anyone behind

  • So that you can reach out to the individual’s family, if necessary

Knowing the key features of ICS is important, but so is recognizing and using ICS best practices. Overall, if companies have three key things in place before an incident, they will be more successful in responding to an incident.

1. Clearly defined team roles and responsibilities.

It is important to have clearly defined team roles and responsibilities so that everyone knows what they are supposed to do, you do not have multiple people doing the same thing, and to eliminate duplication of effort.

2. Clearly defined teams, triggers and assessment processes.

Having a clearly defined team is obvious. Without knowing and identifying who is responsible for what prior to an incident you are way behind. Not having a clearly defined team also suggests that these team members have not been trained which immediately compounds the issue.

The trigger is the incident itself that requires a response. Triggers are those things that occur (big or small) that cause you to activate ICS.

It is also important to clearly define your assessment processes so you have a baseline and so you do not have to think about how you should or could response; it’s already documented.

3. Ability to develop an IAP with clear “SMART” objectives.

It is important to know how to develop an Incident Action Plan because this is the foundation for how you will respond to an incident. The IAP is your blueprint. It needs to be clear so that everyone knows exactly how to proceed.

Recognizing how ICS applies to business is critical to understanding what ICS can do specifically for your business. If you would like to contact the author of this blog, send an email to and reference the title, "How can Incident Command System (ICS) be Used to Support your Business in a Time of Crisis?"

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