Davies Consulting

Strategies for Complex Organizations

ICS Trial by Fire

by Steve Owens

Does Incident Command System (ICS) seem too complicated?  Hard to apply?  Does it seem to create a bunch of bureaucracy?

Perhaps you’re overthinking it.

We help utilities who are trying to rework their approach to incident response with an eye toward handling “the big one” (a.k.a. “the next Hurricane Sandy”).  And, yes, in that application there are a lot of new things to think about: new roles, unfamiliar titles, flexible org charts, new and upgraded processes, and new communication expectations, among other things. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Meanwhile, the “We’re Pretty Good Already, Why Change?” syndrome is still a barrier for some companies.

Despite all this, ICS is becoming leading practice as utilities work to enhance emergency management and incident response. This is because ICS is built on logical (and fairly simple) fundamental principles that most of us can get behind. With a few basics in place, on-the-ground utility emergency management gets pretty clear in a hurry.

Recently, one member of a company-wide ICS implementation team shared his experience applying ICS on the fly in response to an isolated, but significant, incident. The experience gave him and his team a glimpse of how powerful a tool ICS can be, even when the incident is far from the magnitude of a Sandy-esque storm.

In this case, a network cable failed in a downtown area, causing a dramatic explosion in a manhole. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but there were outages in a vital downtown area. This type of event tends to draw the attention of the media, the public, the city leadership, the police and fire departments, company folks, and anyone who owns a smart phone. In other words, everyone in the local community was talking about it.

The local utility crew arrived on the scene and immediately began routine safety, containment, and troubleshooting efforts.  The on-scene crew supervisor was quickly overwhelmed by a mishmash of distracting inquiries from the numerous interested parties, some of whom were on scene and others calling on the phone.

Fortunately, our ICS implementation team member arrived on the scene, fresh from an out-of-state ICS training session. He had never before applied ICS outside of a simulation, but he knew what to do and he took action. He was ready for a trial by fire.

After a quick briefing from the harried crew supervisor (who gladly yielded his de facto Incident Commander (IC) status) our ICS-trained leader assumed command of the incident. The crew supervisor assumed the Ops Chief role and began to focus on the tactical issues at hand.  Collaboratively, the two quickly identified their incident objectives and tactical priorities, establishing a basic, verbal Incident Action Plan (IAP), and went to work.

One objective was to properly manage media interest, so our IC enlisted a public information officer (PIO) to coordinate with the media from an off-site location. On the other hand, the IC chose to retain Liaison, Safety, Planning, Logistics, and Admin roles.  Throughout the incident, he coordinated directly with police and fire responders, conferred regularly with the network supervisor, adjusted the response as needed, and skillfully guided the response to a positive resolution, handling communications and overall coordination while enabling the technical folks to take care of their business.

Our impromptu IC was successful because he understood and applied a number of powerful but simple elements that define an ICS response:

  • Recognize the problem(s), technical and otherwise (Situational Awareness);
  • Establish Incident Objectives and an Incident Action Plan;
  • Get help to share the load (Scalability);
  • Let Ops deal with Ops stuff (Tactical Execution);
  • Cover all the needed roles, whether delegated or held (Modular Organization; Clear Roles & Responsibilities);
  • Let the experts do their thing (Ops; PIO) (Delegation of Authority);
  • Realize hazards are not always storms (All Hazards Approach); and
  • Know who’s in charge (Chain of Command/Unity of Command).

ICS applies powerful, logical principles in a simple and highly effective manner for successful emergency response, even when you’re “on the fly.”

When you describe it like that, it doesn’t seem so hard, does it?


Steve Owens is a senior consultant with Davies Consulting.