Who's in charge here? Demystifying incident management for public works professionals

MaryAnn E. Marrocolo
Director of Plan Management
New York City Office of Emergency Management
Chair, APWA Emergency Management Committee

Emergencies requiring the expertise of public works professionals affect communities across the country every day. From assessing damage, to managing restoration of essential services such as electricity and water, public works is essential to effectively managing and mitigating an emergency response. Despite this important role in the nation's emergency response network, many public works employees are unfamiliar with how emergencies are managed or how they fit into this management structure.

What is the Incident Command System?
The Incident Command System (ICS) is the nationwide system for managing emergencies. The use of ICS is the key component to the Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System (NIMS), and its use by state and local governments is mandated in order to receive federal preparedness funding.

ICS provides a consistent command structure that remains the same across levels of government and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. At the same time, it offers flexibility in organizing a response and can be modified to meet the needs of the incident at hand. ICS is scalable and expands and contracts to meet the size and scope of the emergency—from a water main break to an earthquake affecting several square miles. ICS offers a mechanism to integrate activities and fosters collaboration through clear reporting lines and communication channels.

Key to successfully implementing ICS is adherence to a set of core management principles including: following a designated chain of command where personnel report to only one supervisor and supervisors manage between three and seven subordinates; integrating communications by operating at a single incident command post and using common terms for functions, actions, and positions; managing by objectives through written or verbal action plans; and resource management.

The ICS organization is lead by the Incident Commander (IC). The IC is responsible for overall management and mitigation of the incident, setting incident priorities and objectives, and ensuring the health and safety of personnel and the public. The Command Staff (Operations, Planning, Logistics, Finance/Administration, and Investigations) are delegated authority by the IC to manage specific functional areas and support management and mitigation of the incident by implementing the Incident Action Plan.

An ICS organization can be established under a single or unified command model. Generally, the single command model is utilized when response to an emergency is dominated by one function, such as at the scene of a fire. The unified command model is used when multiple functions are equally dominant at a large complex emergency, such as an earthquake. Unified command is the preferred management model for complex emergencies because agencies coordinate actions and collaboratively develop the priorities and objectives within the Incident Action Plan.

How does public works plug into ICS?

Establish your role. To integrate into ICS public works managers should pre-establish incident management roles and functional areas of responsibility with emergency response personnel.

Respond when appropriate. When an emergency occurs, managers should report to the Incident Command Post and/or Emergency Operations Center. At the Incident Command Post, the Incident Commander and Command Staff manage tactical operations. The Incident Command Post is set up at the time the emergency occurs and is located proximal to the scene. The Emergency Operations Center is where senior-level managers set policy and provide logistical support and is generally located in a pre-established facility.

The Incident Command Post and Emergency Operations Center have the same goals, but different levels of responsibility—the former focuses on tactical operations and the latter focuses on strategic operations.

Public works staff will be deployed from a Staging Area, which is a holding area for personnel and equipment. Like the Incident Command Post, a Staging Area is set up at the time an emergency occurs and is proximal to the scene.

Get involved when at the scene. Key to operating within ICS is development of the Incident Action Plan. When appropriate, public works managers should be involved in developing this document. The Incident Action Plan sets measurable objectives for a given period of time (typically 12 to 24 hours) by answering the following questions:

1. What did we do?
2. What do we want to do now?
3. What are we going to do later?
4. What do we need to accomplish this?
5. Who is responsible for doing the work?

In addition to short-term planning, planning occurs for the future, generally referred to as Advanced Incident Action Planning. This involves an organizational assessment, evaluation of goals and objectives, evaluation of the effectiveness of previous and current Incident Action Plans, and strategy development for future contingencies and resource needs.

Be prepared to take charge. Once the "lights and sirens" response ends, someone has to clean up the mess. This is often left to public works to assess damage, move debris, and reconstruct damaged infrastructure. When command is transferred, the Incident Commander and the Command Staff will provide information on current conditions, safety hazards, priorities and objectives, personnel at the scene, and resource assignments and needs.

In summary...Managers belong at the Incident Command Post and Emergency Operations Center and should provide input into the Incident Action Plan. Staff and equipment belong at the Staging Area.

How do I go from the daily grind to emergency operations?

Plan for the unexpected. To support your roles and responsibilities during an emergency, an emergency plan must be developed. This plan should be structured using ICS, be flexible to accommodate multiple contingencies, and be easy to understand and navigate during an emergency.

Operate like your plan. To the extent practical, ICS should be integrated into day-to-day operations by organizing operational procedures around ICS and aligning normal job functions with emergency job functions. In addition, conducting training activities and holding exercises to test the plan and implementation of ICS are essential to success.

In conclusion, ICS can enhance your day-to-day operations and prepare you for emergency operations by providing a consistent, flexible, scalable, and integrative structure. Through planning for, training, and exercising ICS you will be positioned to quickly respond to the needs of your community when emergencies strike.

MaryAnn E. Marrocolo can be reached at (718) 422-4835 or mmarrocolo@oem.nyc.gov.