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National Response Plan: The Local Perspective

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National Response Plan:  The Local Perspective


Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA



Katrina Reveals Lessons for First Responders


            The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) promotes the National Response Plan (NRP) as a comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents[i].  However, the federal, state and local response to Katrina should have every first responder asking serious questions. 


            Earlier articles in this series pointed out that it is more likely we will have to work through a major natural disaster than a human caused terrorist event.  Although serious debriefing on the response to Katrina has yet to take place, we should use the event as impetus to explore the NRP.  In essence, we should get ready in our own communities.  The last two articles in this series on terrorism are directed at organizational responses to all hazards, including terrorism.


Learning from Fire


            In 1991, in Oakland, California a devastating wildfire raged uncontrolled through the Easy Bay Hills[ii].  By the time the fire was controlled, over 3400 homes were destroyed; one police officer, one firefighter and 25 civilians were killed.  Although California had the Statewide Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid System, the response of hundreds of first responders (police, fire, medical and public utilities) was uncoordinated primarily because they had different organizational structures, and command systems. By 1993, and in response to the 1991, Oakland fire, the California Legislature mandated the use of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) which incorporates Incident Command System (ICS)[iii].


            In 1994, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) adopted SEMS[iv] as its command and control paradigm.  Throughout the 1990s, many agencies, such as the United States Coast Guard[v], began to adopt SEMS/ICS.


The World Trade Center and the Pentagon


            The 9/11 Commission noted that the emergency response to the World Trade Center (WTC) was much different from the response to the Pentagon.  In addition to the WTC first responders having a much more difficult mission with the disaster playing out hundreds of feet above their heads, the command and control response was different than the Pentagon. 


            Washington, D.C. is an area rife with overlapping and contiguous first responder agencies.  Just prior to 9/11, many of the agencies in D.C. participated in a SEMS/ICS disaster response simulation.  The agencies had adopted and trained in SEMS/ICS.  The 9/11 commission report compared and contrasted the Pentagon response with the NYC response.  They noted that the use of SEMS/ICS by agencies responding to the Pentagon had enhanced coordination, speeded rescue and recovery operations and saved lives. 


            The formation of the DHS included the folding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into the DHS bureaucratic structure.  Based on recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report, the DHS adopted SEMS/ICS as the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  NIMS is now the nations preferred method of first responder command and control.  Indeed, after January 1, 2004, adoption and training in NIMS is a mandatory requirement for DHS grant funding.  In other words, if your state or local agency has not adopted, trained (including, at least table top exercises) in NIMS, the applicant can lose points in the grant funding review process.  The foundation of NIMS is the Incident Command System (ICS).


Unified Command


            The heart of ICS is the concept Unified Command[vi]. Unified Command is founded in the leadership principle of Unity of Command; wherein each person within an organization reports to only one designated person. Consider that whenever multiple jurisdictions and/or multiple agencies from within a jurisdiction become involved in an incident each has its own chain of command.  The ICS concept calls for responding agencies to join together in a Unified Command for the duration of the incident.


Unified Command has a number of advantages:

        One set of objectives

        Collective approach to strategies

        Improved information flow and coordination

        Better understanding of objectives, priorities, limitations, and

        No compromise of authority

        Each agencys plans, actions, and constraints are known

        Optimizes combined efforts of all agencies

        Cost effective



            To facilitate unified command, agencies must adopt a certain protocols. For instance, ICS calls for agencies to use common terminology when responding to an ICS led incident, use a designated a modular command structure; and, certain common command and control principles. Typically, agencies overcome differences in terminology by emphasizing communications in plain language.  Codes like the ten system are replaced with plain language.  Although this may somewhat lengthen communications, under emergency circumstances clarity trumps brevity.


Incident Command


            The first step in returning any emergency situation to normal is someone taking charge.  Indeed, in watching Katrina unfold over such a wide area it was often difficult to determine who was in charge.  ICS is different from many other bureaucratic structures in that ICS calls for the most qualified person to assume responsibility over an incident.  Think of a police officer working graveyards and seeing black smoke billowing against the night sky.  He or she doesnt know where the fire is burning, but using the smoke as a landmark they navigate to the fire.  Often, police officers arrive before fire personnel and must temporarily take charge.  Although they dont have fire fighting equipment the officers can make the first situation report requesting fire personnel, begin evacuation, establish a perimeter and determine ingress and egress routes.  That police officer is the Incident Commander.


            Fire personnel are better trained and equipped to handle a fire emergency.  After arrival, the ranking fire fighter becomes the Incident Commander because they are the most qualified person.  This is the beginning of a Unified Command.  The police officers probably still maintain the perimeter and assist in keeping ingress and egress routes open, but they are essentially subordinate to the fire fighter who is now the Incident Commander. Conversely, if the burning structure contained a sniper, the police officers would maintain incident command because they are better equipped to handle the sniper.



ICS has been proven effective for              responding to all types of incidents,       including:
        Hazardous materials incidents
        Planned events (e.g., celebrations, parades, concerts, official visits, etc.)
        Response to natural disasters
        Single and multi-agency law enforcement incidents like warrant services,
        Multiple casualties (like major traffic collisions)
        Multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency incidents
        Air, rail, water, or ground transportation accidents.
        Wide-area search and rescue missions
        Terrorist Incidents




Incident Command Structure


            The Incident Command System (ICS) is referred to as a modular system because it has the capacity to expand and contract based on the needs of the emergency.  If the problem can be handled with few personnel and resources then an ICS based Command Post[vii] may only have an incident commander who makes decision, plans and assigns tasks.  An emergency with only an incident commander would be relatively small and short in duration.  However, as an emergency outgrows the ability of a single person modules are added.


A typical emergency could be handled with an incident commander and four subordinate commanders handling their areas of expertise.


            Usually the first module, or subordinate commander added is an Operations Chief.  This person is responsible for carrying out the direction of the incident commander.  The Operations Chief might have additional assistant chiefs either divided by the geography of the incident or by the types of services.  As an example, a regional incident commander handling Katrina might have subordinate commanders responsible for smaller geographic regions.  Or, in the case of a relatively localized emergency the Operations Chief might allocate subordinate commands based on duties.  As an example, at a local emergency you might have an Operations Chief in charge of a fire branch and another in charge of a law enforcement branch. 


            Depending on the emergency the next module might be the Logistics Chief.  This person is responsible for obtaining, organizing and allocating all resources such as personnel, equipment and supplies.  Again, returning to Katrina, the Incident Commander could direct the Operations Chief to conduct helicopter rescue operations in a certain part of New Orleans.  The Operations Chief would communicate the personnel and equipment needs to the Logistic Chief.  The Logistic Chief would locate and assign personnel and resources to the mission.  The Operations Chief would brief the personnel on the mission and oversee its completion.


            We all know that situations do not unfold as clinically as has been described.  However, the closer we come to handling emergencies within the framework of ICS the more lives and property we can save.  Moreover, emergency situations are brought to conclusion by getting ahead of the emergency.  This is done through the ICS planning process.  At larger emergencies (based on size and duration) a Planning Chief is needed.  This person takes the overall goals of the Incident Commander and prepares Action Plans which are implemented by the Operations Chief.  This frees the Operations Chief to handle the here and now, while having someone else prepare for the next step.


The Incident Commander can have three direct reports on the ICS staff:
        Information Officer to handle media inquiries and coordinates the
         release of information
        Safety Officer to monitor safety conditions and develop measures
         ensuring the safety of
         all assigned personnel.
        Liaison Officer as the on-scene contact for other agencies assigned
         to the incident.



Span of Control


            ICS recognizes that you simply cant do everything yourself and that you can only effectively work directly with a limited number of people.  While the Incident Commander for Katrina may ultimately have tens of thousands of personnel deployed, he or she can only communicate directly with relatively few.  Span of Control is the management concept that a leader can only directly supervise a limited number of people.  That number is often cited somewhere between seven and ten.  This same principle applies to all subordinate personnel.  The Operations Chief has seven to ten direct reports, and so on and so forth down the chain of command.


            The National Incident Management System (NIMS) relies on the Incident Command System for the operational management of disasters and emergencies.  And, the NIMS is  part of the overall National Response Plan.  In the next article we will look at how the Department of Homeland Security has been recently reorganized and how the National Response Plan may affect state and local agencies. 


About the Author

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of Police Technology and Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style.   


[i] DHS Website

[ii] Buntin, John, Disaster Master Governing Magazine/December 2001

http://www.governing.com/archive/2001/dec/disaster.txt (August 6, 2003)

[iii] Cardwell, Michael D., Nationwide Application of the Incident Command System is the Key The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2000.

[iv] Federal Emergency Management Agency, Exemplary Practices in Emergency Management, Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), http://www.fema.gov/rrr/exp_06.shtm (May 2, 2003)

[v] Cardwell, Michael D., Nationwide Application of the Incident Command System is the Key The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2000.

[vi] The idea of Unified Command is a fairly common military principle.  The operation of combined arms in a defined geographic area or defined mission require that one commander direct all operations. 

[vii] With the Incident Command System (ICS), the location where the Incident Commander manages the emergency is called the Incident Command Post.  Wide-spread emergencies are often coordinated and managed through the use of a pre-designated facility commonly called an Emergency Operations Center (EOC).  Larger emergencies may have several field Incident Command Posts (ICP) that are coordinated through an EOC.  The EOC, receiving information from the ICP, coordinates the deployment of personnel and resources to the various ICPs.  The ICPs, use the personnel and resources to manage the incident locally.  This is the type of arrangement we could have expected during Katrina.  A regional EOC managing the flow of personnel and resources to smaller EOCs or Field ICPs. 

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