The Last Piece of the Incident Command System Puzzle

Laura Ballantyne

Although the dramatic events of the Boston Marathon validated the reality of possible continued terrorist attacks, previous anthrax attacks identified vulnerabilities in early identification of any biological event. Any type of terrorist attack or major incident needs superior coordination among the diverse agencies that respond to such occurrences and tighter control of how areas or sectors are managed.

The rapid evolution of the anthrax cases and their impact across multiple locations, jurisdictions, and professional communities and constituencies (e.g., public health, hospitals, private physicians, police, environmental agencies, military response teams, firefighters, and affected workers and their unions) revealed the benefit of coordination planning.

Some endemic factors that impeded coordination were very basic. Procedures as seemingly routine as standard practices for clinical and environmental testing and use of proper protective clothing and equipment proved to differ among public health officials, fire and rescue services, police, environmental specialists, and so on. For some, responding to these incidents represented the first time they had met with and coordinated with other agencies. This approach results in disagreements on which procedures and standards to follow. In addition, plans need to anticipate the need to forge quick relationships and procedures between the public health departments and local emergency responders or police affected and involved in these types of emergencies. Most importantly, they need to know whom and what are entering into these now “classified hazardous areas.” This potentially catastrophic omission needs to be rapidly addressed and quickly rectified.

New and unanticipated working relationships also contribute to difficulties communicating critical information, such as key decisions on who should be allowed to enter such dangerous areas. Should they be expected to just walk in and report to someone who looks in authority? Similarly, communications and coordination channels between public health and private groups affected by the emergency-such as hospitals-do not fully anticipate such mass convergence of emergency responders in their response plans. This results in rapidly establishing ad hoc restrictions, which result in people who could help being restricted while anyone in a uniform is allowed to enter with no questions being sought regarding their validity.

Agency Interoperability

Clearly, these types of events led organizations to recognize the need for greater interaction, control, coordination, and communication among various constituencies. How, then, is it possible to establish a rapidly deployed sector management system that all parties can simply understand and apply-one that will feed a newly defined discipline of what qualifications, competency, authority, and experience are deemed safe to ensure no one is allowed to enter unchecked into such potentially dangerous environments? The answer lies in reasserting the traditional role of sector management while integrating technology that improves the management control functions.

Whenever there is a need to deploy large numbers of emergency service personnel, together with their vehicles and equipment, a sophisticated incident command system (ICS) is brought into use.

This system divides a fireground into sectors for operational command; command support; safety; USAR; marshalling; entry team control; logistics; decontamination; water; foam; relief management; crew rehabilitation; and welfare, communications, and press liaison. In effect, the fire and rescue service controls the inner cordon, the police service controls the outer cordon, and the ambulance service controls the casualty clearing stations.

However, there are major omissions in the system. There is no focal point for the operational sector commanders, there is no way of knowing the qualifications of individual personnel (or if the qualification is current), and there is no way of knowing when someone enters and leaves an operational or support sector or how many times someone has been committed as a member of an entry team.

With regard to equipment, no record is kept of what equipment is used, when it is used, and in what area of the fireground.

These factors are important throughout the incident and are essential aspects of debriefing and post-incident considerations. In the aftermath of an incident where large numbers of emergency personnel display symptoms of toxic effects or infectious disorder, these factors are vital.

Vital Information

Although some indication about the movement of personnel can be gathered from interviews, this will be time consuming and far from robust, dependent as it would be on the individual recollection of personnel who were obviously not looking at a watch to record times of activities. Investigations of large and complex incidents have shown that it typically takes weeks of work and numerous interviews to try to establish details of personnel, actions taken, and decisions made by anyone other than the incident commander (IC).

After the incident, it is essential to know, among other things, the following:

  • Who was in command at what sector at different stages of the incident.
  • Who was where.
  • Over what time period.
  • What they were doing.
  • What personal protective equipment was being worn.
  • Which people formed entry teams, where they searched, and how long they were in the building.
  • Which team carried out rescues.
  • Where jets deployed.
  • The duration of rest periods.
  • What equipment was deployed, where, and when.

A Solution

There is now an answer to the problems, and it is called iSCOPE™-Incident Sector Command Organized Protected Environment.

This new approach is based on “critical design” and acknowledgment that any disaster or crisis management system must be accompanied by the right training and expert support. This system was specifically based on the demanding needs for greater integration and management of emergency sector or zone management but also on providing much more functionality, dynamism, and making it more user-friendly for crisis management teams to manage the extensive and growing spectrum of 21st century threats. This methodology also provides extra protection from the ever increasing possibility of criminal or civil action faced by all government departments, nongovernment organizations, and corporate businesses.

Sector command management must be simple to establish, be practical in application, and have the ability to increase or decrease its functions as any type of incident escalates in size or complexity. It must have flexibility and be adaptable to safely manage all stakeholders who may have to enter into its jurisdiction. iSCOPE™ provides for the needs at the incident site and integrates with existing back office functions to ensure that individuals being tasked have the right skillset for the role that they are required to carry out.

iSCOPE™ uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology coupled with bespoke software to provide sector command posts that identify responders’ skill sets and the currency of those skill sets; enables commanders at every level to know the availability and location of responders; displays risk information, generic risk assessment data, standard operating procedures, and any other documentation required at each sector command post; maintains a record of decisions and actions at each sector command post; and links sector command posts to incident command units to dispatch centers.

The system is based on sector command post portals equipped with antenna, reader, and laptop. The standard portal is a completely standalone system with a desk, white board and map board, signage, and laptop together with its own power supply. Other versions are available to suit individual needs. For example, it is possible to have a simplified version at each entry control point. Other portals are available that can be fixed to a fire apparatus or the roof bars of a command car. The portal fixing system means that accessories can be fitted quickly and easily as required. Webcams can be installed on the portal to record all activity within each sector. The portal can be supplied in base aluminium or powder-coated to reflect different agencies.

Each responder is issued with a unique RFID tag. The tags can be worn as wrist bands, dog tags, fitted into helmets, or clipped onto turnout coats as required. As an individual passes an antenna, the tag is read and the software displays the individual’s photograph and skill sets and the currency of those skill sets to the sector command support officer. Tags on equipment will show which piece of equipment was taken into and out of a sector at what time and by whom.

Using iSCOPE™, sector commanders have access, at their sector command post, to all reference material that the fire department wishes to be available; can see the names and skill sets of all personnel within the sector; can view the activities of each individual within the sector; can view a log of all decisions and actions within the sector; is able to send messages to the command post; can speedily initiate and update analytical risk assessments; and have access to many more functions as required.

The information at each sector command post is transmitted to the command post and from there to the dispatch center. In cases of injury to personnel, a record of exposure, blood type, allergies, and so on is accessible (with security levels) at dispatch centers for transmission to hospital. In cases of fatalities, details of the next of kin are accessible at dispatch centers.

iSCOPE™ as described for the fire service is equally able to be applied to police and EMS agencies and many other organizations where it is essential to know the skills of, know the availability of, and track the movements of key personnel.

LAURA BALLANTYNE is the Canadian representative for BSG Command Systems, a fire and crisis management consultancy and technology company focused on vastly improving the outcome of major physical crises. She is also a regional manager for 3Ci Global Solutions UK Ltd. and 3Ci Global Solutions Canada.

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