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Incident Command System: The Next Generation?

Author: Randall D. Larson

Date: 2014-02-18
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Adding Today's Technology to Enhance Incident Management & Situational Awareness: A Look at “Next-Generation ICS”

It is described as “a mobile web-based command and control environment for dynamically escalating incidents, from first alarm to extreme-scale, that facilitates collaboration across [multiple] levels of preparedness, planning, response, and recovery for all-risk/all-hazard events.”  Designated the Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), its developers depict it as “a combination of tools, technologies, and an innovative concept of operations for emergency response.”

It’s what a lot of us in public safety have been waiting for since laptops and mobile computers first found a place inside our command centers, mobile command vehicles, and chief officers’ vehicles.

In my 25-year career in public safety communications, particularly as a member of a large, mixed urban/suburban/rural Bay Area fire department, I grew up with the Incident Command System, becoming well-versed in it within my dispatch center and fluent in its use in the field as an Incident Dispatcher and Communications Unit Leader for my department and on loan to the State during a handful of mutual aid wildfires.  It was our language, it suited our needs, and it worked. 

ICS was developed in the early 1970s in Southern California to meet the needs of fire service failures – to provide a standardized system that speaks the same language across all of the participating agencies and disciplines, allowing for a coherent, coordinated, and organized method of managing an incident, from its smallest scale to its largest, critical dynamic.  We activated and maintained ICS during operations using paper forms – lots of it – and this is where the incident dispatchers particularly had a role to play at the command post – managing communications, resource accountability, and documentation at the ICP just as they did back in the communications center.  We lived and breathed forms such as ICS 205s and 214s; we mapped out an incident for the IC on innumerable I-201s.  Some of these forms eventually became converted into Word and other computer programs, but there seemed to be little coordination outside of ICS forms being standardized nationally and made available for the fire service via the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.  Some agencies told of home-grown computer programs they’d developed to operate ICS using the Internet or local agency networks, but those were almost all in-house jobs and everybody else who was looking into that seemed to be reinventing their own.

As ICS morphed into NIMS and the reach of ICS spread outward from the fire service into law enforcement, EMS, and the cluster of other support agencies, non-governmental organizations, utilities and other major players within an ICS organization, we needed to adapt ICS outside of its original borders and make it dynamically functional in that kind of a collaborative emergency environment.

This is where a program like NICS can really be a game changer.  It transforms “analog ICS,” if you will, into the interactive, digital format of the Next Generation – which is where we live now (and it will eventually need to adapt into the Next Next Generation which is inevitably just around one of the next corners).  Conceived by the same breed of fire service visionaries who came up with ICS in the first place, NICS is sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, and is being developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory in partnership with the operators from the California First Responder Community.

Because NICS is based upon open standards and is non-proprietary (meaning it is not vendor-owned), it runs on any computer, any operating system, any browser (well, except Internet Explorer 8 and earlier; IE 9 works fine, but by now we all really should be using Mozilla or Chrome anyway). It requires no service contracts or upgrade charges, and can be adapted within some limits to fit the needs of your agency, regardless of your public safety discipline or function at the incident.
The system was developed by responders for responders, and, like the original Incident Command System, is modular, scalable, and flexible  - it grows to meet the needs of the incident at hand, and then condenses down to smaller size as the incident winds down.  Like ICS, it is easily adoptable technology for “small to large to extreme scale incidents.”   It uses an "App Store" model, meaning that additional Apps for the system can be developed by anyone, with simple plug-&-play functionality.
Incident data is displayed by using a web-based, open standards platform that allows users with the proper permissions to log into a map-based environment accessible via an ordinary web browser and Internet connection. Additional tools enable responders to quickly form teams, send messages to one another, and remotely share maps and drawings that enhance the management of the incident – all the while keeping the various management levels back at headquarters and above properly advised.

Its developers use the phrase “Tired–Dirty–Hungry” to describe the user the system is specifically aimed at.  It has been “carefully designed for the responder under extreme stress.  NICS provides collaboration and communication capabilities across all echelons of responders; it enhances the quality and accessibility of sensor data; and it integrates location data for resources, vehicles, and personnel. During an incident, NICS provides an information backbone that manages and distributes data, including real-time vehicle location feeds, weather, critical infrastructure, and terrain information.”

There have been commercial systems designed to provide information coordination in the past that provided a degree of this kind of interactive communications – I used one called E-Team when I had the chance to serve as a volunteer police dispatcher during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (definitely a career highlight), and it worked pretty good, but it was a text-based system whose scrolling column of text updates meant some information tended to flash by too fast to read, or notice.  The web-based, graphical nature of NICS, using today’s latest networking technology, is more intuitive to amend, search, and share, which is what you especially need at the early stages of a massively escalating incident, whether it’s a fire, a tactical law enforcement event, a search & rescue, or any other time- and resource-sensitive incident that has to be done right – right now.

It’s is available at no cost to Emergency Responders, and it’s always improving - like the World Wide Web, NICS will never be done; it will always be improved and adapted by the responder and emergency management community.  As a retiree, I’m no longer an active part of the system, outside of the occasional writing, teaching, or other type of engagement – and I have no association with NICS or its creators; I’m just pleased to share with you what looks to be just the kind of thing I would have loved using in the field and at the communications center, giving me the kind of interactive tools to help coordinate between the field and the increasing number of supporting players, associate emergency management agencies information requestors, and others who need to have consistent, coherent, and accurate information now.

Take a look at this excellent and absorbing video to see how NICS can function in the early stages of a rapidly-spreading wildfire.  Click here and then come back.

“Our only criticism is that unfortunate choice — the name, Next Generation Incident Command System,” wrote blogger Bill Gabbert at, in an excellent analysis of the systems potential for modern wildfire and disaster incident management (which is where I first learned about NICS).  “It implies that ICS is being thrown out and replaced. But NICS is a communications tool, infrastructure that works within the ICS or the National Incident Command System, and will not replace, but will enhance, ICS. Most products named next-generation, such as the next-generation air tankers, are intended to immediately or eventually replace older versions.” (read Bill’s blog here .)

Like Next Generation 9-1-1 – NICS is not a replacement system but an enhanced digital organism, taking advantage of the latest technology to augment a system to meet the needs of the latest communications technology.  And rather than everybody reinventing their own thing to bring ICS into the next generation in their community, why not see how this system can meet your needs – or at least give you some ideas to graft onto your own existing system.

It’s definitely got me watching.

To learn more, see the NICS “Help” page here 

To register for NICS and then access the system for an incident, click here

9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3.  Since retirement, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several fields of interest. 


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