Crisis management basics and ICS

July 18, 2006

It’s easy for me who is into the communication and communication technology game to forget that crisis communication starts with an effective crisis response. In working with clients, I have to keep going back to the basics of crisis management. It’s been a great benefit to me to have had much exposure to the Incident Command System. If you are not familiar with ICS and you have anything to do with managing crises for your organization, I strong advise you to become familiar.

ICS was created in the 1970s by the fire service. It was designed to help manage a fast moving event (like a wildfire) when there are multiple agencies involved. The problem was simple. You have all these people show up to help. They have their own ways of doing things, their own command structure, their own language, their own communication technologies like radios, their own cultures, their own attitudes, etc. How do you get them to all cooperate and work together. The answer is a very simple, scalable management structure that everyone must learn and adhere to. Plus other key principles such as interoperability of systems.

ICS has been proven to be very effective. It moved out from the fire service into fire departments, emergency management departments and eventually some federal agencies like the Coast Guard. From there it began moving into the private sector, largely because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the post-ExxonValdez legislation. This law requires oil companies, shipping companies and those dealing with oil near the water to conduct annual drills with the Coast Guard and other local and state agencies. These drills as well as actual spills always use ICS.

I first became aware of ICS in the middle of a major incident involving a gasoline pipeline explosion with three fatalities and an entire community in shock. Since then I have been involved in dozens of incidents and drills using ICS and have adapted it for use in responding to crises for almost any kind of organization. If you have interest, comment here and I will send you my own basic document.

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2 Responses to “Crisis management basics and ICS”

  1. Thom Carr Says:

    There is an interesting article in Dec 2001 issue of Academy of Management Journal by Gregory A Bigley and Karlene H Roberts, “The Incident Command System [ICS]: High-reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments” that suggest the ICS can be used in project management also, beside the fire service and emergency management.

  2. gbaron Says:

    I think you are right. Some of the core management concepts, such as limited span of control (no more than five direct reports), basing an organization of clearly defined areas of responsibility, separating out planning from operations–all these and many more are applicable to a much wider range. I would advocate the basic structure in particular for ad hoc teams or task forces who have a lot of time pressure.
    Thanks for the comment.


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