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Author: Randall D. Larson
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
(Originally published in our May, 2004 issue.)
Using An ICS Model to Manage Critical Incidents in the Communications Center
The Santana Row Fire in San Jose, California, August, 2002, destroyed an entire city block's worth of
connected shops and apartments as well as numerous apartments and townhomes several blocks away. One resulting program that was developed afterwards to aid the dispatch center in managing critical incidents of this size adopts an Incident Command System (ICS) model to run the dispatch center during such times. Photo: Jim Acker.
A critical incident, whether caused by acts of nature (geological/weather caused disasters), acts of man (terrorism, crime), or acts of happenstance (vehicle accidents, freak accidents), must be handled proficiently and effectively by the agency responsible for handling it. That agency’s dispatch center must be able to support the field response in a proficient and proactive manner.
The Communications Center has a critical responsibility to the community, and to its own responders, in managing the incident effectively. An agency’s standard operating procedures, protocols, plans, and procedures form the basis for dispatch operations, especially during the less frequent, high-risk major incidents.
When an extraordinary incident hits a community, the dispatch center is thrown into an exceptionally busy period of critical, peak activity. There is the potential for chaos to reign, or for conflicting orders from multiple supervisors to throw dispatch operations into disarray. Having a standardized method of managing extraordinary incidents in the dispatch center will maintain a smooth operation and maximize support to the field responders. A manner of incident command, modeled after the field Incident Command System (ICS) system, geared for the needs and responsibilities of fire, EMS, or police dispatch, has been found useful in establishing a standardized, modular, and flexible means of managing dispatch responsibilities during extraordinary incidents.
The Need for a Dispatch ICS Program
Neither dispatch centers nor responding agencies can effectively plan for every potential emergency eventuality. We can only prepare for most eventualities by having a standard methodology for managing most kinds of critical incidents. That methodology can then be adapted to virtually any type, kind, or severity of incident
The Key is Standardization - of command, of accountability, of resource management, of incident organization, and of tactical planning within the dispatch center. All of this equates to what already exists within ICS.
By transforming Field ICS into Dispatch ICS, critical incidents can be managed in the dispatch center using the same function-based method as field ICS. The functions are simply adapted to meet the needs of Dispatch operations.
Dispatch ICS gives supervisors a starting place to begin a standardized method of managing the dispatch center during extraordinary events without having those events quickly run out of control due to anyone’s confusion of responsibilities. It also provides specific assignments to later-arriving personnel who come in to assist, rather than having them just try to find tasks to help with without specific direction (the dispatch equivalent to “free-lancing” on the fire line).
The modular nature of the Incident Command System allows it to expand and contract based on an incident's needs. An initial attack incident may fill out only an Incident Commander position, while extended and major attack incidents require additional positions to be filled as necessary.
The Incident Command System
The Incident Command System is a modular system of emergency management which can expand and contract in size and complexity based on the needs of the incident at hand. Central to ICS is a manageable span of control which allows for the subdivision of components when one’s ability to supervise is compromised by too many direct subordinates. ICS standardizes the use of common terminology between users, consolidated action plans, integrated communications, pre-designated incident facilities, and comprehensive resource management.
The Incident Commander (IC), along with such aides as a Public Information Officer, Safety Officer, and Liaison Officer, make up the Command Staff. The IC has overall responsibility for the incident, and usually represents the jurisdiction in which the incident occurs. Based on the input of subordinate Sections, the Command Staff sets the objectives and priorities in the mitigation of the incident at hand.
The IC is directly responsible for four Sections, which make up the General Staff.
The Operations Section conducts the tactical operations to carry out the objectives set by the IC. Dividing tactical resources into manageable divisions, groups, and branches, this is where the actual firefighting takes place, and is thereby the most visible component of ICS.
The Planning Section is responsible for managing all information relevant to an incident. Plans develops the action plan to accomplish the objectives set by the Command Staff, collects, evaluates, and disseminates situation information, and maintains status of all resources assigned to the incident.
All incident support needs are provided by the Logistics Section, which coordinates provision of incident facilities, transportation, communications, supplies, food and medical services to support the planning and suppression operations.
Finally, the Finance/Administration Section is responsible for managing all financial aspects of an incident, including procurement, timekeeping, compensation and claims, and incident costs.
Not all Sections and subordinate units are needed for every incident. The modular ICS components are designed to be expanded and filled as needed by the incident at hand.
Although created by and for the fire service, ICS has proven to be as effective for managing EMS, law enforcement, Search and Rescue, and disaster scenarios. It has proven time and time again to be an effective and dependable means of managing the response to an emergency.
The Function of Dispatch ICS
Due to the nature of the dispatch function and the limited staffing usually available, several field ICS positions have been combined to make Dispatch ICS workable (i.e., a single person assumes duties of all three Command Staff personnel; the Dispatch Officer in Charge (OIC) also handles Finance Section matters, and so on). This can be further modified based on the staffing available to the dispatch center at the time of the incident. ICS is modified to fit the given incident - in this case, the given dispatch center conditions. The important thing is to standardize the ICS structure and then fill the responsibilities needed at the time of the incident based on available staffing at that time.
Incident Commander = Dispatch IC (Comm Manager or Senior Staff Commander) The Communications Division Manager assumes Dispatch IC or OIC, and has responsibility for all communications functions for the incident. The Dispatch IC manages Communications Operations through Dispatch Operations Section. Dispatch IC is the immediate liaison with field commanders and approves operational decisions made by Dispatch Operations.
Dispatch IC coordinates long-term needs of Comm Section (through delegation to the General Staff, as necessary or appropriate), delegates authority to modify responses (in accordance with SOPs) to Dispatch Operations, and insures coordination/cooperation of staff. As with Field IC, Dispatch IC ensures a level of organization necessary to effectively manage communications operations is established. Dispatch IC also coordinates with field command to facilitate appropriate and effective teamwork to mitigate the emergency
Incident Dispatchers Kelly Riley and Deanna Mateo operate communications at the Command Post for the Santana Row, filling in their ICS Position in the Logistics Section. ICS is mandated in the field - but it also has a place in the dispatch center when critical events challenge the PSAP. Photo: R D Larson
Dispatch PIO/Liaison/Safety (Shift Supervisor or Admin Staff) Due to the nature of dispatch operations and the amount of available personnel, the three Command Staff Positions can most likely be handled by a single individual. If staffing should permit and the workload necessitate, the duties can be divided:
Public Information Officer = Dispatch PIO. This is a designated supervisor or clerical/admin staff given the primary responsibility of handling media calls. This frees supervisors/operations dispatchers from getting tied up on media requests. The Dispatch PIO must have the authority to speak for department, if agency SOPs permit.
Safety Officer = Dispatch Safety. This position ensures safety and welfare of dispatch staff during the critical incident by ensuring dispatchers are given breaks, relief, meals, water, ergonomic stretch-breaks, critical incident stress debriefing, and other support measures as may be needed. Dispatch Safety also ensures safety of the premises in the event of an earthquake, terrorist attack, hazmat incident, or other event that causes damage or threat to the dispatch facility.
Liaison Officer = Dispatch Liaison. This position has responsibility for immediate Communications liaison with field commanders, EOC, Department Senior Staff, City/County VIPs, Allied Agencies, and other participating agencies and companies. By identifying a single individual to handle these liaison duties, there is a continuity of information/knowledge that will expedite and enhance critical communications. Callers don’t need to redefine the nature of their call every time somebody new answers the phone, and it frees the other dispatchers and supervisors from having to take time away from their own responsibilities to handle these tasks.
Operations = Dispatch Opts (Shift Supervisor) Just as in the field, when the original IC (normally the shift supervisor on duty when the incident started) is relieved by a higher-ranking commander, that individual assumes Operations. This should be the only individual to interface directly with the dispatchers and calltakers (if two supervisors are available, the first should assume Opts and supervise the radio dispatchers; the second should assume Deputy Opts and supervise the calltakers). Dispatch Operations is responsible for all Communications Operations during the incident, under the direction and authority of Dispatch IC. Opts is the immediate supervisor of Communications Center dispatchers, and directs all dispatches relevant to the primary incident in accordance with agency SOPs. This position should be empowered with the authority to modify responses in accordance with SOPs or by direction of Dispatch OIC.
Plans = Dispatch Planning (Assisting Supervisor) While Command and Operations may be the most visible element of Dispatch IC, just as they are in the field, they rely heavily upon the expertise of the Planning and Logistics Sections to support their ongoing needs. Dispatch Plans is responsible for planning the overall needs of the Communications Center during incident, including: Resource Status, Communications Status and Staffing, Demobilization Plan, Situation Status, updating an Incident Status Board in dispatch, providing relevant data to field IC (weather status and forecasts, status of mutual-aid requests, advising of related activity outside of the incident). Plans insures that Dispatch IC is aware of changes in the field situation, and also provides for any extra communications-related documentation that may be required by this incident, including the assembly of an After Action Report and Post-Incident Evaluation for the dispatch center.
Logistics = Dispatch Logistics (Assisting Supervisor, Assigned Dispatcher, or Admin/Clerical staff). Dispatch Logs is responsible for all logistical service and support needs of Communications Center during the incident, including providing for food, medical aid, transportation of personnel (as needed), facilities (opening up conference rooms, offices, or kitchens, for example), dispatcher supplies, equipment maintenance (liaison with radio techs), and so on.
Finance = unfilled. These responsibilities would normally be handled by Communications Administration post-incident; unless the event is of such nature that ongoing financial considerations are necessary at the time, such as the need for vendor payments, emergency supplies or food orders, authorization of staffing overtime, and so on.
The ICS organization chart as modified for Dispatch ICS. Based on availability of supervisory and management staff, the goal is to fill positions and effectively manage the dispatch center during critically challenging incidents, and maintaining a reasonable span-of-control.
Dispatch ICS In Operation
Dispatch ICS is not an everyday incident management system. It should be activated when an extraordinary incident occurs or escalates in the field. The shift supervisor or dispatch center manager recognizes the significance of the incident and makes the decision to move into a Dispatch ICS structure. Once invoked, communications operations are reorganized into a Dispatch ICS Structure. Additional staffing is called in from on site administrative positions, training, meetings, or from off-site training, meetings, or even from off-duty.
To accommodate a smooth transition from normal operations info a Dispatch ICS mode,
a laminated organization-chart can be set up and kept with the Dispatch ICS SOP Manual.
During a Dispatch ICS mode, use a grease pencil to notate the name of the person
assuming each position as they are filled.
This would allow positions to be filled automatically as new people come into the Dispatch Control Room
to assist without having to distract a working supervisor in the midst of ongoing
activities to ask for an assignment. It also serves to document management activities.
Dispatch ICS functions are filled from the top down. That means that initially, during the first stages of a fast-growing, fast-moving incident, all of these responsibilities will fall to the on-duty shift supervisor(s). There may be times when additional staffing is not available. Even so, Dispatch ICS can assist dispatch center staff in managing Control Room activities by providing task guidelines that can aid the supervisor or manager in prioritizing duties. At the very least, Dispatch ICS can function as a task list to offer the lone supervisor a rundown of duties and tasks that will keep them from operating out of control. If and when staffing permits and additional personnel arrive to assist, assign them to handle unfilled Command positions or subordinate positions beneath them (i.e.: Situation Status, Radio Support, Supplies, etc). If staffing does not permit this, the responsibility for those duties falls to the position above it.
Dispatch ICS can make a challenging and difficult event more manageable from the Communications Center, by identifying standardized functional tasks and responsibilities, by standardizing positions that are needed to be filled, and by creating a workable modular organization to support field operations and manage the communications function. Dispatch ICS matches the concepts of Field ICS, perpetuates documentation of major activities, and facilitates the concept of Management By Objective. It will facilitate more effective coordination of communications support functions during a routine, significant, critical, or major event.
9-1-1 Magazine editor Randall Larson retired a Senior Dispatcher and Field Communications Director for the San Jose (CA) Fire Department in 2009, with 20 years experience in emergency communications.