Analysis: ICS, the magic emergency management tool

Catie Clark//May 22, 2020

Analysis: ICS, the magic emergency management tool

Catie Clark//May 22, 2020

photo of workers using computers
Workers using computers. File photo

The most useful tool in the emergency-response tool box exists because California catches on fire every year. This tool is absolutely free and anyone can use it. From the Governor’s office down to the smallest volunteer ambulance corps, everyone is on the same page and acting in unison to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic — all because of the management tool called incident command structure.

Idaho has been using ICS to structure its pandemic response through its emergency operations center at Gowen Field in Boise. The fire and rescue organizations in Blaine County used ICS to get them through their surge of COVID-19 cases at a time when they had the highest per capita coronavirus infection rate in the nation. Essential businesses like the St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems activated their own in-house ICS plans to respond to the COVID-19 event.

headshot of Katy Dudley
Katy Dudley

“At the end of January, we started actively monitoring the COVID-19 situation,” said Katy Dudley, the emergency manager for the Saint Alphonsus Health System. “On March 1, we implemented our ICS plan in order to prep for the potential impacts of the coronavirus in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon.”

The main features of ICS include advance planning and preparation for emergencies through shared drills, a shared emergency management structure, clear lines of command, and a fully-developed support structure to handle things like logistics so front-line responders don’t have to worry about things like running out of supplies or broken communications.

ICS was designed so that independent organizations could work together in an emergency without conflicts, dropped tasks or overlapping responsibilities. It is adaptable and scalable to any size or type of emergency. Over 50 years since its invention, ICS has become a universally-accepted emergency management tool for the simple reason that it works. Idaho’s Emergency Operations Center uses ICS to coordinate the response of multiple state agencies during an emergency.

“The command structure for the EOC looks similar to general ICS organization,” said Janice Witherspoon of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management. “We have a plans section, operations section, logistics section and then 16 emergency support functions that help to cover capabilities of the state. Those committees are filled with members that are represented in the ICS for Idaho.”

Idaho’s ICS is organized to coordinate everything from riot control and floods to finding personal protective equipment for health care providers during an epidemic.

A graphic showing Idaho's Emergency Support Functions, which are part of the state's incident command structure for responding to emergencies.
Idaho’s Emergency Support Functions, which are part of the state’s incident command structure for responding to emergencies. Click to enlarge. Graphic courtesy of the State of Idaho

ICS wasn’t created by any business school professor or government bureaucrat. It was invented by firefighters to solve the practical problem of many local fire departments fighting large regional wildfires when California goes up in flames every year.

ICS was developed after catastrophic fires in Southern California, kicked off by the huge 30 mile-long 1970 Laguna fire in San Diego County, which burned 710 square miles, destroyed 382 structures and killed 16 people.

Studies determined that failures in fighting the Laguna and subsequent fires were mostly due to flawed management, and not bad firefighting tactics or lack of resources. The management failures arose from unclear chains of command, lack of personal accountability, poor communications, lack of a pre-determined shared management structure, and a lack of shared planning and integration between agencies.

The U.S. Forest Service forest fire laboratory in Riverside, California, was funded by Congress in 1972 to address these problems when fighting wildfires in Southern California. The wildfire management system they created became the foundation of ICS.

At first, ICS was adopted throughout California and then by firefighters throughout the western U.S. By the 1990s, it was used throughout the country by fire departments. By the early 2000s, ICS was incorporated into the federal training requirements for hazardous materials response and then adopted by FEMA for disaster response. Businesses such as hospitals have since adopted ICS for their own response to medical emergencies.

“We’ve used our ICS many times,” Dudley remarked. “For example, ICS will be implemented when there is a multiple-vehicle car crash, which creates a surge into the emergency department at Saint Alphonsus. We also put it into place last year to be ready for a potential increase in measles cases after the outbreaks in Vancouver and Seattle. Fortunately, a measles outbreak never arrived here, but then 10 months later, our measles preparations set us up to be successful for dealing with COVID-19. We learn for every event.”

ICS’s true strength comes from integrating many organizations under one management umbrella for the duration of an emergency. That ability only develops when those different organizations sit down to plan together and then practice together in preparation for the day that an incident occurs.

“We regularly train and exercise year-round to be prepared,” Witherspoon remarked. “We have members of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management that cross-train so they can be prepared to step into any role at the drop of a hat. We can become operational at the drop of a hat; we get activated when an incident takes place and have a battle rhythm that we jump right into.”

“It’s a great management tool,” Dudley explained. “We evolved our ICS, moving it forward to meet our needs through advance preparation so that when something does happen, we can use it to focus on the matters at hand … We’re still in ICS mode now because we want to stay poised to respond to any increase in COVID-19 cases. We hope that doesn’t happen, but we plan to stay prepared.”