When we train on the Incident Management/Incident Command System (ICS/IMS), we often discuss the roles of the general staff — operations, planning, logistics, and finance/administration. However, we spend much less time discussing the importance of the ICS Command Staff. On a complex incident, the IC will be overwhelmed by the amount of information that must be processed in a time compressed environment. Unfortunately, the IC must make timely decisions that have the potential to bring catastrophic consequences. The command staff can take a number of burdens off the IC and keep the IC sane.
The command staff is made up of the public information officer, the liaison officer and the safety officer. Each of these positions can also have assistants or deputy positions that help execute their roles throughout the incident. Some would argue that the command staff positions are superfluous positions that are unnecessary. Let’s examine a scenario to see if you would want these positions available if you were the IC.
You have arrived at this scenario incident and assumed command from the first arriving units. The scenario is this: A southbound freight train has collided head-on with a northbound passenger train on a bridge over a river that separates your jurisdiction from a neighboring county’s jurisdiction. There are two passenger cars and three freight cars in the water below the bridge. The consist suggests that the freight cars in the water are high pressure cars transporting Ethylene Oxide — a flammable, toxic, and corrosive liquefied gas. It is estimated that there are 35 civilians missing between the two passenger cars and 120 people total on the train.
So, our first step is to determine in what jurisdiction this incident has occurred. Given that the river is not in one jurisdiction or the other, it would be wise to get someone from our neighboring jurisdiction together with us and agree to prosecute the incident collectively. By assigning resources collaboratively, we can ensure that there is no duplication of effort and we maximize the utility of each resource to save lives, protect property and stabilize the incident. After all, that is why ICS/IMS was developed. In that tradition, we (a representative from our neighboring jurisdiction and you as the IC) agree that we will need a large hazardous materials response, water rescue assets, a large contingent of ambulances — for the people on the train that are injured and not in the water. You also agree that some local public protective actions must occur immediately to evacuate civilians in the immediate vicinity of the incident and to keep others away.
Finally, we are going to have to perform some high speed/low drag operations involving the potential for plugging and patching, underwater search and recovery, decontamination, high/low angle rescue, and advanced life support treatment and transportation. How are you going to do all that stuff? Simple, you will appoint members of the general staff. Your operations aection chief will begin developing strategies and tactics, your planning section chief will initiate an Incident Action Plan, and your logistics section chief will begin ordering resources through mutual aid and state assistance compacts to assist in performing all of the things you want to do. Members of the command staff become just as important as the general staff early in the incident.
First, let’s consider the public information officer. They are going to be dealing with the media and press releases. A colleague of mine once said that the fire service is the only occupation where our operational success is inversely proportionate to the perception of our operational success. What does that mean? When we crawl down a dark hallway and knock down a fire while holding it to room and contents, it may not even make the newspaper. The inverse is if we fail to hold the fire to a room and contents and it spreads to other rooms, the entire building, and then adjacent buildings. Although we failed, there will be lots of press present and performing “live from the scene” break-ins to your regular television programming. Our scenario incident will likely have everyone from the local newspaper to Fox News and CNN present. As the IC, you simply need to decide if you want the media to report information that is potentially inaccurate or if you want to use the media to your advantage and distribute accurate information to the public. Given that we decided on performing a number of public protective actions, it is probably best to use the media to combat any inaccurate information that is likely appearing on every social media outlet available.
As the IC, you probably do not have time to drive to the media staging area and hold a press conference, therefore you will appoint a public information officer. Their job will be to take the information you want distributed and give it to the media so that the public stays properly informed. They can also answer the media’s questions and provide ongoing updates as to operations, life safety concerns and changes to evacuations and sheltering orders. The public information officer takes an immense load off of the incident commander so that you can focus on the incident operations and ensure that everyone, including the responders, are safe.
Speaking of safety, let’s examine the role of the safety officer. This person’s job is to ensure that every task that is being performed on the scene is being done safely. We have often heard that the safety officer has the authority to override the Incident commander’s orders. While this is true, it should probably never happen. The safety officer is another set of eyes to help guide you in operating. For example, if you decide that you are going to have a crew in structural fire PPE attempt to stop the ethylene oxide leak, the safety officer can point out that research materials indicate that Level A HazMat protection is the appropriate PPE for such a task. You may not have had a chance to read research materials on ethylene oxide, but the safety officer is there to make sure that if you have not, you’re not making a decision that could put responders’ lives in danger. In lieu of overriding your order, the safety officer should be pointing out that in order to better protect the crew that will be attempting to stop the leak, they need a different level of PPE and an assortment of air monitors. This call is bad, but you do not want to make it worse by having firefighters (or any other responders) getting hurt or killed. The safety officer is there to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Finally, we have the liaison officer. In the absence of this position, it is your responsibility (as IC) to meet with all of the arriving units that your logistics chief ordered for this incident. Since you are really overwhelmed, you may end up telling one of them that you do not have time to talk to them because you are really busy. Everyone that is arriving wants to help make the incident better. But if they feel like they are just sitting idle and no one even has time to talk to them, you might find that at the point where you need them to go to work, they are no longer at the scene. What is to keep them at the scene when they were called to help but have no direction? The answer is, the liaison officer. Instead of telling them they don’t have time to talk to them, the Liaison Officer checks them in, determines the number of personnel and resource types that they brought to the fight. Then they THANK THEM for coming and helping. If this incident is not in their jurisdiction, they don’t have to be there. The liaison officer takes the burden off of you to ensure that all of the additional forces requested feel like they are engaged — and appreciated. The liaison officer can also prioritize those who need to talk to the IC. At our scenario incident, those players include, but are not limited to, police/fire/and EMS from both jurisdictions, both the passenger and freight train companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Natural Resources, State and Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, etc. Do you want to meet with all of these agencies while you are trying to manage this incident? If not, appointing a liaison officer will help you tremendously.
As you can see, those that say the command staff are unnecessary positions are mistaken, particularly on a large and complex incident like our scenario. The public information officer prevents you from having to deal with the media, which is labor intensive. The safety officer ensures that your orders are providing the highest level of safety for those operating at the scene, giving you a second set of eyes on every task you are performing. The liaison officer helps to prioritize and engage the many resources and players that would be involved in a major incident such as this. As a result, especially on “big” incidents, you should consider appointing command staff positions early, so that you as IC can keep your sanity.
Be safe and do good!