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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, organizations involved in emergency management at the local, state and federal level were mandated to utilize the Incident Command System (ICS) to structure on-scene response efforts. The system is currently relied upon as an organizing mechanism for response in the United States, and its widespread use outside of the United States is being advocated. Yet, there is little evidence that the system is consistently used as designed or a salve to common response problems. This paper reviews the evolution of ICS in practice and the available research on its use and effectiveness. The review makes clear that more research on the system is urgently needed.

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The purpose of this special issue on the Incident Command System (ICS), as stated in the call for papers, is ‘to explore the “taken for granted” assumptions underlying the system … to open the black box of ICS, see what is inside, and determine if ICS is adopted and implemented – how it works in practice’. Assumptions underlying the current mandate to utilize ICS as the organizing mechanism for coordinating on-scene response in the United States include at minimum that

  • All entities responding on scene to incidents will use the system;
  • All entities responding to on scene incidents will use the system similarly;
  • The system is well-suited to coordinating response efforts to any kind of event, regardless severity, geographic scope, speed of onset, or other characteristics; and,
  • The mandate to use the system will lead to the correction of common response shortcomings.

Yet, when the black box of ICS is opened and its contents examined, it seems likely that its assumptions are faulty. This paper examines the evolution of ICS in the United States, the extent to which there is evidence to suggest it has been, or is currently, being implemented as designed, and the factors – gleaned from the empirical, peer-reviewed, scholarly research on ICS in the United States – that seem to influence how the system works in practice. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of this review and the need for future research on the system.

Evolution of ICS in the United States

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The United States has a chronic response problem. Disasters are too often seemingly ad hoc or piecemeal in nature. Throughout the nation's history, response has been typified by a host of difficulties related to interorganizational communication, coordination, collaboration, and leadership, among other challenges (see for example: Auf der Heide, 1989, p. 157; National Research Council, 2006, p. 141; Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001, p. 211). According to National Research Council (2006) problems commonly associated with response to large-scale incidents include

… failure to recognize the magnitude and seriousness of an event; delayed and insufficient responses; confusion regarding authorities and responsibilities, often resulting in major ‘turf battles’; resource shortages and misdirection of existing resources; poor organizational, inter-organizational, and public communications; failures in intergovernmental coordination; failures in leadership and vision; inequities in the provision of disaster assistance … (p. 141).

As a result, of these problems, response efforts have often been characterized as inefficient, wasteful, and/or ineffective (see for example: Waugh, 2006). Despite a variety of national level efforts to minimize the effect of, if not eliminate, common response issues, the problem has endured. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks revealed a response once again fraught with problems (see for example: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2004), the federal government initiated a series of sweeping policy changes to address response deficiencies.

Key among these initiatives was Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 that required the development of a National Incident Management System (NIMS) to provide ‘a consistent nationwide approach for federal, state, and local governments to work effectively and efficiently together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size, or complexity’ (Bush, 2003, p. 1). When the newly formed Department of Homeland Security rolled out NIMS in 2004, a mandate to implement the ICS in the on-scene response to all incidents was included within its Command and Management Component.

The view of the Department of Homeland Security is that ICS is ‘a management system designed to enable effective and efficient domestic incident management by integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure’ (Department of Homeland Security, 2004, p. 14). ICS is based on a variety of principles including hierarchical modular organization, span of control, establishment and transfer of command, chain of command, unity of command, and accountability, among others (Department of Homeland Security, 2004, 2008). The system aims to provide an organizational structure through which activities related to the functional areas of command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance and administration can be carried out in concert by all responding entities to any incident. The organizational structure of ICS includes a variety of units, positions, processes, and tools (Department of Homeland Security, 2008). As of 2004, all organizations in the United States are expected to utilize ICS to structure their interorganizational efforts for all response efforts regardless of the incident's cause, size, or complexity. It is believed that utilization of ICS will eliminate age-old response problems – at least those related to on-scene operations – and the following scenario will result:

When agencies involved in a major emergency use ICS … there are few, if any, differences in operations. In essence, they are ‘one’ organization, and can be managed as such. Instead of several command posts operating independently, the total operation can be directed from only one location. Instead of preparing several sets of plans (with no guarantee of coordination among them) only one set need be prepared to inform all participants. In place of several logistical and communications processes, only one system of collective and integrated procedures is used (Auf der Heide, 1989, p. 157).

Prior to the mandate to use ICS within NIMS, there was reason to believe that the system would be both used and useful in addressing the United States' response problem. After all, the system had been developed to address the very same range of interorganizational issues noted in the response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Response efforts to wildfires in California in the late 1960s evidenced numerous interorganizational response challenges. An interagency group representing all levels of government was convened in 1972 to solve these problems. The project they engaged in was titled Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies – better known by its acronym FIRESCOPE. The outcome of FIRESCOPE was the Wildfire ICS

The Wildfire ICS came to be used by and popular among wildland firefighters within California and beyond in the decades that followed its conception. The Wildfire ICS was also adapted in some form or fashion by the fire service more broadly (Nicholson, 2006; Perry, 2003; Wenger, Quarantelli, & Dynes, 1990), and, eventually by other organizations such as the United States Coast Guard, Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (Christen et al., 2001; Harrald, 2006; Hannestad, 2005; Molino, 2006). The system was credited as a key facilitator of effective response to a number of events including the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 (Cook, 2009). Its use became so widespread that at least one scholar referred to ICS as ‘the de facto standard for firefighting and emergency management’ (Harrald, 2006, p. 263).

The system came to be perceived positively by a range of practitioners involved in response in the years leading up to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006; Tierney et al., 2001; Waugh, 2009a, 2009b; Wenger et al., 1990). ICS is viewed by practitioners as having the potential to bring order out of chaos, alleviate communications issues, clarify leadership issues, reduce duplication of effort, reduce response-related expenditures, facilitate the integration of human and other resources into operations, and potentially increase the safety of responders (Anderson, Compton, & Mason, 2004; Perry, 2003, p. 407). The system is believed to be applicable to the management of virtually any situation including ‘… urban fires, high rise fires and other agencies responsible for different types of incidents such as search and rescue, earthquakes, rock concerts, and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles’ (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1987, p. 3). These benefits, and others, have led certain responding organizations to enthusiastically support the system (Christen et al., 2001; Hannestad, 2005; Harrald, 2006; Waugh, 2009b).

The narrative to this point could lead a reader to believe that the evolution of ICS has been nice, neat, linear, and natural – the increasing use and eventual incorporation of it in the NIMS mandate propelled by the successful implementation of the system in practice and its popularity among practitioners. Similar narratives have been shared before countless times (see for example: Bigley & Roberts, 2001; Christen, Maniscalco, Vickery, & Winslow, 2001; Lam, Lin, Tasi, & Chiu, 2010; Perry, 2003; Stambler & Barbera, 2011; Tsai & Chi, 2012). Yet, the narrative to this point is incomplete.

While ICS did come to be used widely and enjoyed popularity in the years leading up to the 9/11, there has been consistent controversy regarding whether one system is suitable for response to all fires within the firefighting community – particularly between wildland and urban firefighters. A single system has not been used in fire – ‘many … have evolved over the past forty years, not in a linear format but rather more concurrently’ (Molino, 2006: 1). For example, while believing that response challenges in wildland and urban firefighting were similar, Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department, believed that the FIRESCOPE model was designed primarily for the management of large-scale incidents involving multiple agencies as opposed to the day-to-day urban fires with which his department contended (Angle, Gala, Harlow, Lombardo, & Craig, 2001). He developed an alternative system – the Fire Ground Command System – in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Angle et al., 2001; Coleman, 1997; Green, 2002).

The Fire Ground Command System is based on the same principles as the FIRESCOPE model (Coleman, 1997); however, as Coleman (1997) described it, the Brunacini version is ‘less formal and more laid back’ (p. 8). Brunacini designed his version of ICS specifically for small-scale incidents with a limited amount of impact that occur over a short period of time (Green, 2002; Molino, 2006). It uses a simplified organizational structure and is less hierarchical (Green, 2002, p. 1). The Fire Ground Command System came to be quite popular; and, it, like the FIRESCOPE model, came to be adapted and used in firefighting in the 1980s and early 1990s (Angle et al., 2001; Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2004; Molino, 2006).

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) – the standard setting body for the fire service – recognized that more than one version of the ICS was being used for various reasons. When NFPA 1561: Standard on Fire Department Incident Management Systems was released in 1990, it required that fire departments use an incident management system and specified elements that the system must include, but the standard did not require a particular model of the system be used (National Fire Protection Association, 1990). The very same year that NFPA 1561 was released, the National Fire Service Incident Management Consortium convened ‘recognizing the continuing challenges occurring in the fire service in applying a common approach to incident command …’ (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2004, p. 2). The Consortium's mission was to try to merge the Fire Ground Command System and FIRESCOPE ICS into a single system that both fire and rescue personnel could utilize. The result of the Consortium's work was Model Procedures Guide for Structural Firefighting, released in 1993. The National Fire Academy adopted the changes suggested in the Guide and the FIRESCOPE model was adjusted to reflect the Model Procedures (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2004); yet, the controversy regarding whether a single incident management system could be equally appropriate for managing wildland and urban firefighting continued (see for example: Brunacini, 2008; Green, 2002).

In addition to concerns about the applicability of a single management system to all fires, firefighters have also noted other concerns including, for example, the appropriateness of the system for rural areas and volunteer and small fire departments (see for example: Clayton, 1990; Dyer, 1989; Henderson, 1991), diminishing usefulness of ICS when other responding organizations are not also using the system (see for example: Kaskey, 1989; Ullman, 1998) and obstacles to implementation related to disagreements over who should be in command of an incident (see for example: Podlubny, 1992). Concerns about ICS have not been limited just to the fire service. There are concerns among practitioners that the system may not be as flexible and scalable as it needs to be and may not be applicable to all kinds of incidents, particularly those that are not localized, such as pandemics (Waugh, 2009a). Public health agencies have complained about conflicts between ICS' unity of command and their more collegial decision processes and military after action reports following fire responses have expressed concerns about ICS operations not fitting their battle rhythm, i.e., the tempo of decision-making and operations (Waugh, 2009a). Law enforcement agencies also have expressed concerns that the top-down command structure is inconsistent with the autonomy normally granted to police officers on the street (Waugh, 2009a). The cultures of fire service and law enforcement agencies are quite different and command structures reflect those differences. The Emergency Management Accreditation Program, the organization that sets standards for, and accredits state and local emergency management programmes in the United States (now including Ottawa, Canada; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and one US Army Corps of Engineers regional organization) has long supported the use of formal incident management systems, but only offers ICS and NIMS as examples (see Standard 2.11 at http://www.emaponline.org). Even Craig Fugate, the current Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator, expressed concerns about ‘ICS zealots’ during a plenary session at the annual Natural Hazards Workshop at the University of Colorado in 2006. Some people, according to Fugate (2006), are unable or unwilling to modify the system when events suggest that it is not working or that another organizational structure might work better.

Practitioners are not alone; disaster scholars too have voiced issues with ICS and command and control models over the course of its evolution. In fact, critiques have been common within the disaster research community (see for example: Drabek, 2003; Dynes, 1983, 1993, 2000; Neal & Phillips, 1995; Schroeder, Wamsley, & Ward, 2001; Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001; Perrow, 2005; Walker, Harrald, Ducey, & Lacey, 1994; Waugh & Streib, 2006; Wenger et al., 1990; Wise & Nader, 2002). Scholars have questioned whether such systems are needed (see for example: Drabek & McEntire, 2002; Dynes, 1994), flexible enough (see for example: Drabek & McEntire, 2002; Waugh, 2009a, 172), appropriate for response operations (see for example: Drabek, 1983, 1985; Drabek & McEntire, 2002; Neal & Phillips, 1995; Waugh, 2009a; Waugh & Streib, 2006; Wenger et al., 1990), information sharing (see for example: Comfort, 2002, 2007), and collaborative leadership (see for example: Waugh, 2009a, p. 168); and, whether use of such a system is actually counterproductive relative to its intent (see for example: Jensen, 2009; 2010, 2011; McEntire, 2001: 8). In fact, the National Research Council (2006, p. 142) went so far as to state that ‘empirical research … finds essentially no support for the command-and-control model either as a heuristic device for conceptualizing the disaster management process or as a strategy employed in actual disasters’.

The evolution of ICS is not as simple as most narratives might lead one to believe. There has been an ongoing debate about the applicability of one on-scene incident management system to all incidents, situations, and organizations among scholars and practitioners – even firefighters. This debate suggests that the assumptions upon which the ICS mandate is based may be inaccurate. Yet, a history of competing command systems and questions regarding the system does not mean that ICS is not used in practice.

Evidence regarding the system's implementation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Examination of the evidence regarding ICS implementation in the United States suggests that ICS is being used and has been for decades, but there are caveats to this observation. While ICS has been used as designed, it has also, concurrently, been ignored, partially used, underused, misused, and used in organizations and jurisdictions in ways that are not necessarily compatible with the way the system is used in other organizations and jurisdictions. This variation in implementation seems to characterize the fire service's experience with the system pre- and post-NIMS mandate as well as the experience of other organizations and jurisdictions.

Most of the evidence regarding the implementation of ICS in the United States comes from firefighters. The National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program requires participants to complete an applied research project on a topic of their interest as a capstone to their training. Many participants have chosen to focus on ICS for the research. Their papers reveal a history of fire departments, agencies, and jurisdictions not using ICS at all (see for example: Burton, 1989; Brent, 1992; Byrnes, 2005; Funai, 2013; Juratovac, 2004; Miller, 1991; Otto, 1997; Ross, 1994; Wieland, 1995), underusing it, inconsistently using it, or misusing the system (see for example: Johnson, 2002; Kernan, 1995; Kitterman, 2009; Podlubny, 1992; Price, 2000; Spencer, 2010) as well as a history of modifying one of the dominant models of the system (see for example: Coleman, 1991; Cooper, 2001; Obier, 1990; Ullman, 1998; Weston, 1997; Williams, 1989). Other scholarly, peer-reviewed works reporting the results of empirical research on ICS also suggest that the system is not being implemented consistently day-to-day (Jensen, 2009, 2011; Jensen & Yoon, 2011) or in response to large-scale incidents (Branum, Dietz, & Black, 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Jensen, 2008; Lutz & Lindell, 2008; Moynihan, 2008, 2009a). And, there is evidence to suggest that as the system is being modified county-to-county within and across states, although the extent to which the modifications being made are compatible county-to-county is unclear (Jensen & Youngs, forthcoming). The literature seems to suggest a wide range of variables influence whether, and how, ICS is implemented.

Factors influencing ICS implementation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

The small body of empirical work on ICS in the United States published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals implicitly or explicitly suggest that a wide range of variables may be relevant to understanding how ICS is implemented and towards what ends. Specifically, the extent to which ICS ‘works’ seems to vary with the influence of a diverse array of pre- and per-incident factors. The factors fall into the following categories: individual participants, individual organizations, leaders within the system, the response network, the local area, the hazard event, and how the system is implemented in response.

Individual participants

The research suggests that the characteristics of the individuals who participate in the response are important to understanding how ICS is used and the extent to which ICS works. ICS seems to work best when the individuals participating are paid, or career, employees (Branum et al., 2010; Jensen & Yoon, 2011) of traditional first responder organizations (e.g., fire, law enforcement) (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1296; Branum et al., 2010). Individuals with this background tend to have clearly defined and accepted response-related value systems wherein the goals of response and task priorities associated with ICS are more likely to be understood and shared with others (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1295). As Bigley and Roberts (2001) stated, ‘the viability of [ICS] … appears predicated, in part, on a value system that is clearly defined and almost completely accepted’ (p. 1295). Regardless, the ICS research suggests it is critical that all participating individuals accept, or buy-into, use of the system (Bigley & Roberts, 2001; Buck et al., 2006; Granillo, Renger, Wakelee, & Burgess, 2010).

Arnold, O'Brien, Walsh, Ersoy, and Rodoplu (2001) suggest that participating individuals must have been exposed to the system prior to participating in a response for the system to work. Yet, exposure is too abstract a notion by itself. The ICS research suggests that the individuals involved in response must understand ICS (Branum et al., 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Crichton, Lauche, & Flin, 2005; Granillo et al., 2010; Lutz & Lindell, 2008; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 904), have had significant training in the system (Branum et al., 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Crichton et al., 2005; Granillo et al., 2010; Lutz & Lindell, 2008; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 903), and significant experience with ICS through exercises and/or previous response efforts (Branum et al., 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Crichton et al., 2005; Granillo et al., 2010; Lutz & Lindell, 2008; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 903) for the system to be most useful.

It seems that significance of training and experience has at least three important dimensions – frequency, depth, and specificity. The individual training and experience of participants in the system are likely to contribute positively to ICS' usefulness when it has been periodic and when there has been little time between when individuals were trained and when they attempt to use the system in response (Lutz & Lindell, 2008). Furthermore, individuals are likely to influence the usefulness of ICS positively when they have had a combination of general ICS training as well as training related to the domain of their organization within the system and their specific role (Branum et al., 2010). And, with respect to depth of training, there is nothing in the research that suggests that all types of exercises are not important; yet, the research does suggest that individual experience gained through full-scale exercises and in response to real world events is particularly relevant to ICS' overall usefulness (McLennan, Holgate, Omodie, & Wearing, 2006). Finally, it seems critical that individuals participating in the system have technical knowledge related to the type of hazard event they encounter and the resources necessary to meet the needs of the event (Branum et al., 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Crichton et al., 2005). This technical knowledge presumably would result from a combination of training and experience related to specific events – as opposed to just ICS.

Individual organizations

The ICS research suggests that both pre-incident and per-incident characteristics related to the individual organizations participating in the response are also relevant to understanding the use and overall usefulness of ICS. For the organization to contribute positively to ICS usefulness, it appears that ICS must be accepted outside of administration and management of the organization – throughout the entire organization (Thomas, Hsu, Kim, Colli, Arana, & Green, 2004). Training of employees throughout the organization is also critical (Lutz & Lindell, 2008; Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a; Thomas et al., 2004); and, the training must be culturally appropriate for the system to be adopted in a meaningful way (Granillo et al., 2010). Beyond training, the extent to which organizations have prepared a pre-incident plan that incorporates ICS (Branum et al., 2010; Thomas et al., 2004), exercised that plan (Thomas et al., 2004), and evaluated its performance using ICS after exercises (Thomas et al., 2004) is important to understanding the ability of individual organizations to contribute to ICS usefulness in response.

Also important in understanding the system's usefulness are factors related to per-incident ‘tools, rules, and routines’ (Bigley & Roberts, 2001). Bigley and Roberts (2001) suggest that ICS' usefulness is negatively impacted when organizations strictly adhere to standard operating procedures and operational routines related to how resources should be used or tasks performed in a situation where such standard operating procedures and routines are inadequate to the needs associated with the event and/or the response environment. Their research found that when resource use and response tactics are improvised as warranted by the response situation (p. 1289) the system is more useful. Branum, Dietz, and Black (2010) suggest that the extent to which the resources that each organization needs to respond to the event are available is also relevant.

Leaders within the system

The ICS research suggests that a range of factors related to individuals within the ICS per-incident response system may be as relevant to understanding ICS usefulness as factors related to the individuals and individual organizations participating within the system. Some characteristics related to individual leaders seem to lead to the system being more useful than others such as leaders who command respect, exude confidence, and are able to demonstrate an adaptive management style, technical competence, flexibility, accountability, and responsibility (Crichton, Lauche, & Flin, 2005). Additional factors related to the individual leaders within the system that seem critical include their pre-incident training and experience (McLennan et al., 2006). But, if the system is to be useful, then it appears that the leaders in the system need to have had pre-incident relationships with one another and trust one another (McLennan et al., 2006).

When leaders have these characteristics, they appear better able to manage both the overall response effort and use of ICS; and, how leadership within the system manages the response and use of ICS is important in understanding the system's usefulness according to the ICS research. When the system seems to be most useful, leaders continually monitor the overall response situation including the response environment, how ICS is being used, decisions being made by leaders throughout the system, and progress towards response tasks; and, their monitoring results in an accurate and common operating picture (McLennan et al., 2006). The system also seems to be most useful, when leaders utilize their situational awareness to make strategic decisions; and, the decisions that they make are made rapidly and regularly reevaluated (Crichton et al., 2005; McLennan et al., 2006). The research suggests ICS works best when the decisions that are made by leaders are at the strategic (as opposed to the tactical) level and, in hindsight, were appropriate to what is needed (Crichton et al., 2005; McLennan et al., 2006).

Beyond factors related to leadership decision-making, it seems as if factors related to the communication of leadership are important. Specifically, review of the research suggests that when leadership communicates objectives as opposed to detailed directions on how to achieve objectives (Crichton et al., 2005; McLennan et al., 2006) and does so clearly (Crichton et al., 2005) through a closed communication structure (McLennan et al., 2006), the system will be more useful. The extent to which leadership in the system shares power per-incident also appears to be related to how useful ICS is. When the system works best, leaders delegate tasks effectively, allow individuals within the system to make operational decisions based on their technical expertise, and allow individuals within the system to improvise solutions to new problems as they are encountered (Bigley & Roberts, 2001; Crichton et al., 2005; McLennan et al., 2006). Other leadership factors that the literature suggests are relevant include the extent to which leadership has access to resources (McLennan et al., 2006) and the use of unified command (Branum et al., 2010) – although unified command may not be appropriate to some response situations.

The response network

Review of the ICS research also suggests that pre-incident and per-incident characteristics of the response network also impact ICS use and the extent to which ICS is useful. ICS appears to work best when there are few organizations actively carrying out the response (Moynihan, 2008, 2009a); there are enough individuals to staff needed ICS functions and accompanying organizational structures (Branum et al., 2010; Crichton et al., 2005); and, when the entities participating in the ICS remain stable over the life of the incident (Moynihan, 2009a, p. 904). It seems critical that the entities in the network have pre-incident working relationships with one another (Branum et al., 2010; Crichton et al., 2005; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 907) based on trust (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2008, 2009a) and frequent contact over a long period of time leading up to a response (Buck et al., 2006). These pre-incident relationships across entities in the network seem to foster cooperation among the entities needed for ICS to work per-incident (Branum et al., 2010).

It also appears important that the entities across the network share an understanding of the overall response situation (Branum et al., 2010; Crichton et al., 2005; Moynihan, 2008, 2009a). The ICS research suggests they are able to share this understanding when the entities throughout the network regularly evaluate what is happening to ensure they understand it correctly (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, pp. 1290–1291) and response-related information is communicated in an accurate and timely fashion (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1291; Branum et al., 2010).

The authority system built into ICS needs to be recognized as legitimate throughout the response network for the system to work (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1296). The entities across the network ought to know who is in charge (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 907), recognize the person in charge as a legitimate leader (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 907), and be willing to accept tasks assigned by that person (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1296; Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 907).

The local area

In addition to the many pre- and per-response variables discussed to this point, variables related to the local area where ICS is being used may also be relevant. Granillo et al. (2010) have suggested that there must also be an emergency management orientation within the surrounding culture.

The hazard event

Contradicting one of the fundamental assumptions underlying ICS, the ICS research suggests that the system is not equally useful in events of all types, scales, and complexity. In fact, the research suggests that the system works best in rather routine, somewhat common emergency situations – as opposed to events of a larger scale that one might term a disaster, catastrophe, or complex humanitarian crisis (Buck et al., 2006). Some of the specific hazard event characteristics that seem to facilitate ICS usefulness include when the event occurs in an urban area (Jensen & Yoon, 2011), a response of long duration (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2008, 2009a), and an incident with a limited geographic scope of impact (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2008). Additionally, ICS appears to work best when the impact associated with the event requires relatively few tasks to be addressed in the response (Moynihan, 2009a, p. 903) and when the entities involved have prepared to address those tasks (Buck et al., 2006). Additionally, the ICS research suggests that the system's usefulness is enhanced when the resources required to meet the needs associated with the event are available (Bigley & Roberts, 2001, p. 1296), on-scene convergence has not occurred (Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 903), and there is little, or no, volunteer participation in the response (Branum et al., 2010; Buck et al., 2006; Moynihan, 2009a, p. 903).

Use of ICS

The manner in which ICS is implemented in the initial stages of the response and on an ongoing basis is also important in understanding whether, and to what extent, the system works (Thomas et al., 2004). Bigley and Roberts (2001) found that the system works best when appropriate and fast decisions are made to add or eliminate ICS organizational components (e.g., sections, divisions) and positions in light of the task and functional requirements of the event (p. 1286–1287). Complete ‘system resetting’ may even be required when it is evident that the ICS structures being implemented are no longer effective or need to be altered significantly to meet the needs associated with the event (p. 1288). Bigley and Roberts (2001) indicate that the system's usefulness depends on the extent to which individuals throughout the system remain integrated within the overall response effort as the system is adjusted to the response environment (p. 1292). Crichton et al. (2005) and Moynihan (2009a) also suggest that these factors are relevant to ICS usefulness.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

There are good reasons to believe ICS will be a consistently effective organizing mechanism for the management of on-scene response. ICS is currently the required system for on-scene incident management in the United States. It has been mandated for use by all responding organizations for nearly a decade. There is significant support of the system within the emergency management community. The system has a clear underlying theory (i.e., if it is implemented, effective response will result); and, to support making the theory real in practice, a series of structures, processes, and positions are specified as well as their relationships to one another. The system can, and has been, used successfully to facilitate command and control, communication, and coordination.

There are also good reasons to want it to ‘work’. The United States has an enduring response problem that the use of the system is purported to correct. A variety of attempts have been made to address response issues over time and have not worked as hoped. Significant time, energy, and funding have been invested in seeing the NIMS mandate, and its subcomponent ICS, implemented, and implemented effectively.

None of the existing empirical research on ICS has stated that the theory underlying ICS is a flawed or that the desire to see ICS work is unfounded. Instead, research has suggested ICS has not been, and is not currently, consistently used or equally effective in all events and contexts in the United States. A lack of use, misuse, underuse, partial use has been observed as has a tendency to modify the system from its design. A critical issue to address through continued dialogue in the emergency management, academic, and policy communities is why organizations and jurisdictions perceive the need to adjust the system when the system itself is premised on the need for a common approach to incident response. Nevertheless, it does not appear from an examination of the system's evolution and evidence regarding its implementation that the system is consistently implemented, implemented similarly, or equally suited to all events, contrary to the assumptions upon which it is based.

Review of the small body of empirical research published in scholarly, peer-reviewed publications suggests that myriad variables influence the system's implementation and effectiveness. Variables related to those who participate in the system including each individual responder, each organization, and leaders within the system appear to be important as do variables related to the response network overall, the local area, the hazard event, and how the system is implemented in response. Many of the variables seem to need to be in place before an incident occurs; and, many of the variables seem to need to be in alignment during the response itself.

All of the variables may have to be aligned for ICS to be implemented as it ought and achieve the ends for which it was designed; alternatively, only some may be preconditions for implementation and/or effectiveness. Rather than being preconditions, perhaps some of the myriad variables are simply influential. Regardless, the suggestion that the systems use and/or effectiveness is vulnerable to any variables – much less a wide range of variables – is concerning.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to ensure that all of the variables are in alignment pre- and per-incident at any given time much less over time and across the United States. The presence or absence of variables related to the hazard event and local area are completely beyond control while others, like those related to individual participants, organizations participating, and the response network, can be influenced, although still not controlled. For instance, training and practice can be provided to all individuals and organizations pre-incident and efforts can be made to generate buy-in and commitment, but whether the individuals and organizations who respond to a particular incident have actually trained, practiced, and developed relationships with one another based on trust, or, whether they are each committed to implementing the system cannot be guaranteed.

Based on the review of the system's evolution, evidence of its use, and the variables influencing its use and effectiveness, it seems safe to say that the assumption that mandating ICS for use in on-scene response will solve common response problems is also wrong. While the incident command system can, and has been, implemented successfully, this review would suggest it cannot be expected to be everywhere, all the time.

It is important to keep in mind that there has been very little empirical, scholarly, peer-reviewed research on ICS within or outside of the United States and more is urgently needed. The landscape of literature related to ICS is broad. Dotting the landscape is the aforementioned discussion of command and control models by disaster researchers as well as literature specifically addressing ICS in professional magazine articles, National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer papers, graduate student papers, theses, and dissertations, book chapters, and scholarly journal articles. (See Table 1 for an outline of the major features of this landscape and sample citations.) Very little of what has been written reports on empirical research and even less has been peer-reviewed and published in scholarly outlets.

Table 1. The Landscape of ICS Literature
  1. *The factors in this paper were induced from the articles in these categories.

Literature related to command and controlSee for example: Comfort, 2002; 2007; Drabek, 2003; 2007; Drabek and McEntire, 2002; Dynes, 1983; 1993; 1994; 2000; Neal and Phillips, 1995; Schroeder, Wamsley, and Ward, 2001; Tierney et al., 2001; Perrow, 2005; Walker et al., 1994; Waugh and Streib, 2006; Waugh, 1993; 2009a; Wise and Nader, 2002
Articles in professional magazinesSee for example: Bennett, 2011; Cardwell and Cooney, 2000; Decker, 2011; Dudfield, 2008; Goldfarb, 1997; Larson, 1998; Parker, 2005
National Fire Academy Fire Executive Officer papersSee for example: Bardwell, 2005; Berk, 2001; Brent, 1992; Cole, 2001; Nash, 1994; Juratovac, 2004; Webb, 1990
Naval post graduate student papersSee for example: Favero, 1999; Templeton, 2005
Student theses and dissertations based on empirical researchSee for example: Arney, 1993; Benson, 2004; Chian-Cheng, 2005; Cone, 2007; Domorod, 1991; English, 1992; Fakhoury, 2009; Freeman, 2005; Hancock, 2010; Huang, 2004; Huang, J., 2004; Mason, 2006; O'Neill, 2008; Schoen, 2008; Su, 2004; Szabo, 1993; Williams, 2005
Scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles NOT based on empirical researchSee for example: Adams et al., 2010; Andrew and Kendra, 2012; Arnold et al., 2005; Autry and Moss, 2006; Fishbane, Kist, and Schieber, 2012; Gyorfi et al. 2008; Hansen, 2007; Hayes, 2012; Jacoby, 2005; Madigan and Dacre, 2009; Moynihan, 2007; 2008; Nicholson, 2006; Phonburee et al., 2010; Stumph, 2001; Wenger, Quarantelli, and Dynes, 1990; Zane and Prestipino, 2004
*Scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles based on empirical research on specific aspects of ICS in the United StatesSee for example: Arnold, Paturas, and Rodoplu, 2005; Branum, Dietz, and Black, 2010; Crichton, Lauche, and Flin, 2005; Granillo et al., 2010; McLennan et al., 2006; Stambler and Barbera, 2011; Thomas et al., 2004
*Scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles based on empirical research on ICS overall in the United StatesBigley and Roberts, 2001; Buck, Trainor, and Aguirre, 2006; Jensen and Yoon, 2011; Lutz and Lindell, 2008; Moynihan, 2008; 2009a; b
Scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles OUTSIDE the United StatesArnold et al., 2001; Djalai et al., 2012; Lam et al., 2010; Nja and Rake, 2008;Tsai and Chi, 2012; Tsai et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2008; Yarmohammadian et al., 2011

The authors of this article were only able to identify 14 scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles reporting the findings of empirical research on ICS in the United States. Some of these articles focused only on one aspect of the system and others were more general and many evidenced methodological issues (Jensen, forthcoming). The reader should not draw from our discussion any sweeping conclusions about the veracity of the assumptions upon which the system is based or whether the mandate to use ICS will ultimately lead to the elimination, or reduction, of common response shortcomings.

Going forward, it is critical that more research on ICS implementation and effectiveness be conducted pre- and per-response and in a variety of organizational, geographic, national, and event settings before we can confidently assert conclusions regarding the system's potential. The discussion in this paper has been offered to both instigate research and provide a foundation for its conduct. Building on the prior research on ICS and exploring the variables it has suggested are influential and would allow disaster researchers to amass a significant body of knowledge related to ICS usefulness in a relatively short period of time.

It will fall to future researchers to investigate a range of topics related to ICS. For instance, more needs to be known about how the system is implemented day-to-day and in incidents of varying size, scope and complexity (e.g., extent of use, appropriateness of use given the situation) and by whom. Moreover, research needs to explore the extent to which ICS is effective in addressing common response problems. Yet, how effectiveness would actually be assessed will need to be carefully addressed including whether a qualitative or quantitative approach will be used and whether the data gathered will be subjective or objective.

Based on the existing ICS research, there is reason to believe that all of the variables discussed are relevant to understanding ICS implementation and effectiveness. Future research will need to first establish whether the variables identified from the prior work on ICS are actually related to these two dependent variables and then if they are predictive of them. Conducting such an exploration will require some degree of operationalization and measurement of the variables identified and discussed in this paper. How these variables will be operationalized using a qualitative or quantitative approach will also need to be carefully addressed by future research.

There seems to be an implication within the literature that the variables discussed are not simply or solely related to the system's usefulness. Rather, the literature indicates that the manner in which the system is used in a given response may be an intervening variable that explains the extent to which the system is effective. If relationships are discovered between the independent variables identified in this paper and ICS usefulness, then research must examine whether the variables are (1) directly related to the system's effectiveness, (2) directly related to how the system is implemented, and (3) whether implementation is an intervening variable related to effectiveness of the system. Where direct relationships are found between the variables identified in this paper and ICS implementation and/or effectiveness, then the strength of those relationships and their relative influence should be examined. The extent to which the variables identified in this paper are themselves interrelated will also need to be investigated.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to explore the relationship of all of the variables we identified in this paper in one single incident response study. Yet, there is considerable value in future research doing less than a comprehensive study of all of the variable groups and the variables within them (e.g., taking one or more group of variables and exploring their relationship to ICS implementation or effectiveness) particularly if the researcher(s) involved link their research findings to the prior work on the topic and explicitly state the variable relationships they do/do not discover. There is a significant need for research in this area and it must begin somewhere.

While there is much work to be done if we are to understand when ICS is used and useful, it is a work worth doing. Response efforts have time and again revealed similar problems in the United States (and around the world for that matter) and a solution to those problems is desirable. The review of the system's evolution, evidence related to its use and the plethora of factors that the ICS research suggests influence its implementation and effectiveness suggest ICS is unlikely to be the solution. Yet, empirical research is needed to demonstrate the potential of the system.

Should some, or all, of the variables identified in this paper be found to be related to ICS implementation or effectiveness, it would be cause for concern. The ICS mandate is based on the assumptions that the system will be used and useful in all places and contexts, but if there are variables that lead to a lack of use, partial use, or misuse of the system and/or variables that lead to the system being less than effective, then it may be wise to revisit the mandate to use ICS, revise the system, or – at the very least – revise ICS related training to include reference to the variables that are related to ICS in practice and what can be done to limit the negative influence they might have.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Evolution of ICS in the United States
  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

This paper began with a set of commonly held assumptions about the use of ICS in the United States. Based on the review presented here, the assumptions are faulty but the existing evidence does not suggest that the system does not ever work in response, for any organization(s), in any location. The assumption that all entities responding on scene to incidents will use the system is wrong, but there is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that many organizations do use ICS. The assumption that all entities responding to on-scene incidents will use the system similarly is also wrong even while some organizations likely do so. The organizations that do use the system similarly are able to do so, the literature suggests, because a number of variables are in alignment at a given time and place. The assumption that the system is well-suited to coordinating response efforts to any kind of event, regardless severity, geographic scope, speed of onset, or other characteristics has been questioned here but additional study is critical. And, it is still uncertain whether the assumption that the mandate to use the system will lead to the correction of common response shortcomings is accurate. All that can be said with certainty is that more research is needed.

More research is needed not only because we need to know more about the system but also because any decisions made about the system stand to impact so many. When discussions regarding ICS' use were confined to urban and wildland firefighting, the implications of any decisions made about the system, while important, were somewhat limited in their impact. Yet, American society is different now than in the early 1970s when ICS was developed. Discussions regarding ICS in the United States context now involve myriad organizations of multiple types with a range of individuals within them responding to different hazards, operating in different geographic areas, with different values, cultures, priorities, and resources in situations where emergent groups and volunteers will likely emerge and converge to render assistance. Additionally, there is more and more expectation that government processes be inclusive and transparent and that they be sensitive to issues of equity. This approach to ICS policymaking is needed to make sure that ICS can work on the ground, and work with the buy-in of those intended to implement the system. Incident response is a complex issue that defies easy, blanket solutions; and, important policy and programme decisions related to ICS ought not to be made within closed management systems or in the absence of empirical research to inform those decisions.

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  5. Evidence regarding the system's implementation
  6. Factors influencing ICS implementation
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
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