Are you the weakest link in IMS?

CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
01/11/2012 -

“Incident Management Systems don’t work.” The words still rang in my ears as I felt my face become flushed and emotion begin to build in my chest. While attending a recent class, one of my classmates hit all of us with the statement above. I quickly thought of every fire and every motor vehicle collision to which I have responded in my career. Yes, some didn’t run like a Swiss clock but for the most part the Incident Management System (IMS) had run calls effectively and efficiently.


I cannot remember a single patient we left behind at the scene or a building fire that is still burning today that can be attributed to an IMS failure. How could this person make such a statement? How could a claim be made that something that we routinely use and put our faith, and quite literally our lives, in doesn’t work?

I quickly suppressed all the emotion, swallowed hard, and asked the question, “Can you provide one example where IMS didn’t work?” The reply was, “How about 75 percent of the Line of Duty Death Incidents, probably most of the white powder calls you’ve been to. If that’s not big enough, how about Hurricane Katrina.”

My classmate continued to elaborate that IMS works well for small single jurisdictional, single agency incidents virtually all the time; however, failure is increasingly prevalent as the incident grows larger. I was speechless as I was terrified that my classmate might be correct.

The modern day Incident Management System has humble beginnings. In the 1970s, the California Department of Forestry developed a system to coordinate the responses to wild land fires. In the 1980s, Chief Alan Brunacini and the gang in Phoenix adapted the existing model for use in the urban fire service. After September 11, 2001, the IMS world was changed to reflect a transition to the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Although NIMS had some new names for a few things, we in the fire service weren’t really doing anything new. The terms may have changed but the requirements to be successful did not and have not.

The first of these requirements is common terminology. Anyone who belongs to a department that is still using codes and signals should read this section. A command post should mean the same thing to east coasters as it does to west coasters. Specifically, resource designation should utilize common terminology. A friend and fire chief in California once told me of a neighboring fire chief who was hired from the southeast. Not long after taking the chief’s job in California, he found himself at a structure fire in an isolated area without pressurized hydrant coverage. He ordered a tanker through his dispatch center and after about 90 minutes, you can guess what he got. Yes, the one with wings on it. Tankers have wings and tenders are the big trucks that hold lots of water. Remember if we have trouble distinguishing these words then signals and codes are going to be even more ambiguous.

Code and signal sets can vary widely between jurisdictions. On a mutual aid call, if we ask someone to Code 4, the Signal 12 over by the 10-48 and they stand there and stare at us like a deer in a vehicle’s headlights, it’s probably not because the person we are talking to is stupid, they just don’t know what we are talking about. Communicating with clear text eliminates the confusion which is often associated with codes.

Modular Organization

Modular organization is the second requirement of IMS. It typically represents the building of additional responsibilities as they are needed. In other words, as the incident grows so must our incident management system.

Manageable Span of Control

Manageable Span of Control is the third requirement of IMS. A manageable span of control is normally considered to be three to seven persons reporting to each position with an optimum of five. This is where our comprehensive resource management also comes into play. Instead of having massive numbers of single resources (engines, ladders, ambulances) reporting directly to the Incident Commander, we break them up into strike teams and task forces. Remember in Strike Team, the “S” and the “T” are almost the same in the alphabet. Strike teams represent a group of the same type of resource under a common leader. Task forces are combinations of resources under a common leader.

Ten engines in a group would be a strike team while three engines, two ladders, and an ambulance would be a task force. Comprehensive resource management also aids in the accountability of resources and personnel. Command staff members are no longer tasked with tracking individual resources (each engine or each ladder) but only have to track task force or strike team supervisors. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to account for their respective resources and personnel.

Incident Action Plans

Incident Action Plans are an essential component of the IMS in order to insure that everyone is working on the same sheet of music. Freelancing, particularly on large incidents, can result in bad things.

Pre-designated incident mobilization center locations and facilities are also important. In IMS, everyone should understand what a command post and a staging area is and what their uses are.

Integrated Communications

Integrated Communications is also extremely important. This is very challenging for multi-jurisdictional and/or multi-agency incidents. The limits of existing radios and technology gaps between jurisdictions can make the transmission of information difficult at best. However, steps must be taken to overcome these gaps and limits as information and intelligence management is likely the most important function of IMS.

Consider the command post at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. A rumor among responders is that shortly after the command post was established and all civilian air traffic had been grounded; the military deployed a jet to provide combat air patrol over the area. During its first pass over the command post, the incident commander and his staff (not being aware of this information) thought that it may be another plane being used as a guided missile and quickly fled the command post.

Whether this is true or not, it reinforces the importance of information during major incidents. Integrated communications are the method by which this information flows.

Finally, the proper establishment, transfer, and unity of command are needed for IMS to function properly. Command must be established and transferred using proper procedures. Additionally, everyone should know to whom they report within the chain of command. By utilizing the unified command structure, all the players will have an opportunity to have their needs met.

Consider our average motor vehicle collision. Although we don’t typically assemble a unified command post at these incidents, each player shows up with a different set of needs. Fire-Rescue shows up to perform fire and hazard control and transport any patients that need to go to the hospital. If EMS is a separate agency, they fill the latter role. Law enforcement arrives to perform an accident investigation and to insure traffic has the least amount of disruptions. In larger incidents, there are many more operational and investigatory agencies that will respond, each with a separate set of needs. Unified command insures that these needs are categorized, prioritized, and executed so that every agency’s needs are met.

All of these requirements, functions, or pieces are necessary for IMS to function properly. My classmate is both right and wrong. To put a blanket statement out that suggests, “IMS don’t [ever] work” is wrong. IMS does work when the pieces are assembled and the system is utilized properly. However, as we lose integrated communications, unity of command, common terminology, or any of the other requirements/pieces of IMS, we increase the chance of failure.

If we examine Hurricane Katrina or the line of duty death investigations, we can probably find what the weakest link was in IMS that led to the catastrophic failure of the system in those cases. Likewise, right now in our departments or organizations, we can probably identify what our weakest link in IMS is.

Maybe we still use codes or signals that would complicate the common terminology requirement. The aforementioned misinterpretation of codes or signals could easily result in a catastrophic IMS failure. Or perhaps we have personnel that could potentially represent different agencies at the same incident which would stress the unity of command requirement.

Any individual that has the potential to operate from two different organizations’ sets of rules/needs will create operational problems and multiple occurrences could stress IMS to the point of failure.

Keep in mind that your department or organization will be combined with other organizations during major incidents. By utilizing the requirements/pieces of IMS properly, you will insure that your department or organization is not the weakest link. It takes every organization doing this to insure safe and effective management of the incident. Consider the IMS requirements and their application to your department or organization. When the next major incident occurs, will your department or organization be the weakest link?

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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