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Critical Incident Management: A New Era of Post-9/11 Dispatch Models

Author: Tom Maloney, David Matthew, Don Maynard, & Robert Neamy

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-01-25
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No longer are post 9/11 dispatch models able to support moderate or significant incidents separate and apart from the philosophy of critical incident management.  Personnel at Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) serve integral roles. Command and control of an incident starts as soon as the primary unit has been dispatched to virtually any call for service.  Regardless of responding discipline, the first arriving unit to a given call is generally considered the Incident Commander (IC) until another officer formally assumes command.  In the law discipline, many calls begin with the dispatch of primary and cover units.  The cover unit dispatched to a call for service is generally intended to initially serve the function of what the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) designates as a Safety Officer, unless directed into another role.  [For more information on ICS, see the authors’ prior article “Incident Leadership & Management: Dispatch in a Post-9/11 Era” posted here]

In the typical law enforcement call for service, the primary unit would act as the Incident Commander for the incident (this presumes that the primary unit dispatched is the first to arrive on the scene and the cover unit arrives next).  This is a common scenario, regardless of jurisdiction across the nation.  In other words, the plan on how to manage any call for service begins to evolve prior to arrival of the responding units.  Responders in the law discipline generally have an implicit embodiment of NIMS and ICS, while fellow responders in the fire discipline embody those management philosophies more explicitly.

Nonetheless, plans for handling calls are developed by responding units according to priorities. Most commonly, there are three overarching priorities for all calls for service: 1) Life Safety; 2) Incident Stability; and, 3) Property Conservation.  The behaviors of responding units are informed by those priorities, which are the foundation to command development.  All strategies can be traced back to the overarching priorities.  For example, law enforcement officers frequently articulate a need to “catch the bad guy” and “protect the scene.”  These two desired outcomes would be known as the basis for Incident Objectives and can be traced back to the priorities of life safety and incident stabilization (by catching the bad guy and preventing further injury or damage) and property conservation (by protecting the scene).  These processes of command development expose implicit steps that take place for virtually all calls for service.  Regardless of response discipline, understanding incident command involves making the implicit, explicit, thereby developing a more conscious understanding of the process.  The image to the right illustrates the process of command development.

In order for an IC to manage any incident, this individual must be able to gain and maintain situational awareness while directing, controlling and tracking both personnel and resources assigned to a call.   Building an effective command organization is the best support mechanism an IC can use to achieve the harmonious balance between managing personnel and incident needs.  Simply expressed, this means that large scale and complex incidents require large command organizations while small scale or simple incidents require smaller command organizations.  Dispatchers and communications personnel serve critical roles in either size organization. 


The basic configuration of command for any size organization involves three levels of thought and/or action:

1. Strategic Level: This entails the overall direction and goals of the incident.

2. Tactical Level: Specific objectives that must be achieved to meet the incident objectives.  The tactical level supervisor or officer is responsible for completing assigned objectives.

3. Task Level: Specific activities assigned to individuals or work groups that lead toward meeting tactical requirements.


Command Structure

The most basic organization combines all three levels of the command structure.  For example, a law enforcement officer on a single-unit response to a vehicle collision determines the strategy and tactics while supervising or doing each associated task themselves.

Progressing to a slightly more resource centric and generic scenario, the basic structure for an incident involving a small number of resources or personnel may require only two levels of command structure and is depicted in the image below.  In such a situation, the IC directly handles strategic and tactical levels.  Resources report directly to the IC and operate at the task level.

In large, complex and sustained incidents such as depicted below, communications units may be mobilized to respond to the field or dedicated dispatch resources may be isolated within a PSAP. Support and understanding of the philosophy of critical incident management provides opportunities for communications personnel to serve integral roles in incident management.

Sample ICS Organizational Chart:1

Communications Units

One example of a communication unit model in the fire discipline was the New York Fire Department (FDNY) response to the attacks of September 11.  The incident began approximately 8:46 a.m., the moment that first hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  The Field Communications Unit (Field Com - right) set up operations at approximately 9:15 a.m., in accordance with FDNY protocols. Field Com was responsible for tracking the location and job assignment of all resources at the incident (e.g., which units responded to which alarms and which units were assigned to each tower). Field Com was also responsible for coordinating the assignment of additional units to the incident with Dispatch, upon request by the Incident Commander.2  Different departments across the United states use various models to handle dispatch services.  New York and Los Angeles are America’s largest and second largest cities, respectively. 

Early in 2012, the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) opened a new Metro Fire Communications facility.  LAFD employs the use of firefighters as dispatchers.  Should an incident be large and complex, requiring an in-field communications unit presence, those same or other similarly trained firefighters would serve support roles through Communication Unit(s). (LAFD Mobile Command Centers, left). Both of these fire-based illustrations exhibit fire based field response capabilities as needed when events are large and complex.

Illustrations from the law discipline could include the police department in Chicago, Illinois and the Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security in Houston, Texas; these municipalities represent the third and fourth largest cities in America.  Authorities in Chicago constructed a state-of-the-art 9-1-1 center as a replacement for the antiquated dispatch system run by the police and fire departments. 

Completed in 1995, Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) headquarters is home to an integrated dispatch system for the city's police, fire and emergency medical service.  The OEMC also has multiple operations centers for coordinating all aspects of Chicago's emergency services.  The OEMC was developed with the physical capacity to provide staffing, facilities and equipment to support all law and fire field operations from space available within their center, which is the norm for most all of their operations.3  There are times when complex incidents and communications support for them may have to be managed from the scene. Therefore, the OEMC has a unified communications vehicle equipped with a wide range of radio communications and interoperability equipment. The equipment design is so robust that it can stand in for the OEMC's communications systems should their primary facility become inoperable.4

In 2003, Houston developed a similar state-of-the-art Houston Emergency Center (HEC) that consolidates all PSAP, PD and FD communications efforts.  In Houston, the HEC was designed and developed to provide staffing, facilities and equipment to support all law and fire field operations from space available within their center.  Nonetheless, Houston has endeavored to maintain relationships with nearby jurisdictions to make certain that a robust capacity for those agencies that make use of mobile dispatch teams and dispatch command centers to provide communications support for the largest and most complex, extended operations.

 In all of the foregoing illustrations, different models of communications support are successfully employed by both fire and law disciplines.  The initial article in this series also described Tactical Dispatchers serving the law discipline and Incident Dispatch Teams serving the fire discipline in lengthy or complex field responses.  In essence, communications units in one form or another support critical incident management and incident command for small and large, simple and complex events alike. While the models employed may differ in format composition or staffing formulas, each provides core capabilities in which teamwork is a juxtaposed upon professional relationships in order to build successful critical incident management teams.  The essence of and dire need for a team to effectively and efficiently manage critical incidents means that there is one command structure for the incident, with a wide variety of team members in various roles, with specific responsibilities.  Communications Units and personnel are integral components of the team and require training to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.


Responsibilities & Training

In the framework of NIMS and ICS, dispatch personnel might be appropriately categorized as Technical Specialists.  Regardless of the model chosen for service delivery, these technical specialists fall under the direction of a Leader, who assigns communications personnel as needed.  Responsibilities include assessing communications systems/frequencies in use; advising on communications capabilities/limitations; developing and implementing effective communications procedures (flow) internal and external to the incident/Incident Command Post; and preparation and implementation an incident communications plan.  Typical responsibilities include preparation of a variety of ICS forms such as the 205 (Incident Radio Communications Plan), 205a (Communications List) and 214 (Activity Log).

This evolution provides strong evidence that the inclusion of communications personnel in standing operational and training meetings provides an avenue for more than education and familiarization.  To be appropriately inclusive builds a foundation for ongoing operational input and leads to clarity in roles, expectations, responsibilities and builds a strong incident management structure.  In addition, the appropriate integration of Incident (Fire) and Tactical (Law) Dispatchers into response management methodologies further facilitates cross discipline understanding, as does the inclusion of law or fire liaison representatives in the Communications Center during large incidents that do not merit a field response by PSAP personnel.

FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) offers a multitude of self-paced courses designed for people who have emergency management responsibilities; many on-line courses are offered free-of-charge to those who qualify for enrollment.5  Here are a number of on-line courses that may prove beneficial for PSAP professionals who may be assigned in Communications Units:

  1. IS-144 Telecommunicators Emergency Response Taskforce (TERT) Basic Course (3-hours in length)
  2. IS-201 Forms Used for the Development of the Incident Action Plan (2-hours in length)
  3. IS-230.b Fundamentals of Emergency Management
  4. IS-242.a Effective Communication
  5. IS-704 NIMS Communications and Information Management (2-hours in length)
  6. IS-802 Emergency Support Functions Communications (30-mintues in Length)



Under times of stress, people revert to what they know and practice; those in the first responder disciplines know this old adage all too well.  Frequent dialogue by law and fire supervisors and managers with communications managers, supervisors and dispatchers enables cultural and operational understanding across all emergency service disciplines, thereby enhancing the operational process and creating opportunities to examine and understand the larger operational picture.  Ultimately, while there are multiple goals to be achieved in emergencies, our own organizations must realize a higher level of intra disciplinary trust and the recognition of interdependence upon one another to guarantee more outcomes that are successful. 

When considering the increase in events and incidents requiring a unified command incident management structure that have surfaced in the post-9/11 environment in America, teamwork must be a central, critical multidisciplinary behavior.  Increasing the involvement of dispatch personnel as critical players and collaborators in preparedness efforts can only serve to strengthen those very planning and preparedness efforts.  Response capabilities in America have grown and matured considerably in the era since the tragic events of 9/11.  Yet, as professionals we can continue to improve our core capabilities and in the delivery of services such as prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery by maintaining effective and efficient public safety communications centers ready to support the successful management of major incidents by simply planning, training and working together.

Tom Maloney, MA, retired from San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, after 31 years of public service, to found Maloney & Associates, LLC in 2007. David Matthew is a graduate of the Homeland Security Program at NPS, currently the Deputy Fire Chief for the City of South San Francisco. Don Maynard is a 26-year emergency dispatch veteran and is the Fire Operations Manager for San Mateo County (CA) Public Safety Communications (NAED-ACE). Robert Neamy served for 33 years with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, retiring as deputy chief of operations.

Related Stories:
Baker County Oregon Incident Dispatcher Team Assists With Arrest of Homicide Suspect
Dispatch ICS: Managing Major Incidents in the PSAP Using an ICS Model
Tactical Dispatching: Stand-Off in Susquehanna
Incident Leadership & Management: Dispatch in a Post-9/11 Era


1) ICS-300 Incident Command System document (n.d.).  United States Department of Agriculture website.
2) FDNY Fire Operations response on September 11 (n.d.).  New York City website
3) Kordelewski, T. & Stratton, M., personal communications, 2012.
4) Careless, J. (2007).  “Chicago's OEMC: A Unified Approach to First Response.”  Retrieved from  EMSWorld website


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