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Disaster Incident Command System Analysis

Life is full of incidents that occur when least expected and demand immediate response due to their magnitude and nature. Moreover, such events cannot be entirely avoided even in the situations where strict precaution measures have been put in place. Different entities work together during disasters. This combination of facilities, personnel, procedures, and communication under an operational common organization structure designed to facilitate the efficient management of domestic incident activities is what is termed as Incident Command System (ICS). ICS is typically used for a broad spectrum of emergencies, ranging from small to complex events that are either human-made or natural such as catastrophic terrorism and floods respectively. The application of ICS can be observed at all levels of the government, private-sector, and nongovernmental organizations. Irrespective of the magnitude of the incident, the ICS management structure always works best where there are clear lines of authority and distinct division of labor. The essay discusses the tension created by ICS when managing disasters with cross-jurisdictional boundaries involving multiple agencies by analyzing how ICS structure accommodates the participant organizations' needs and steps taken to increase flexibility.


Mostly, ICS is coordinated in five primary functional areas, namely command, planning operations, logistics and finance, and administration (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). However, based on the requirement of the situation, the commander can establish a new functional area such as intelligence (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). The incidents that occur within a single jurisdiction, hence lacking jurisdictional or functional agency overlap, are relatively easier to manage since the commander has all incident management responsibility (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006). However, a tension rises when disasters cross the jurisdictional boundaries and involve multiple agencies. The tension arises primarily because of the change in the structure and information flow as well as personnel adjustment to emerging conditions (Tsai & Chi, 2012). Cross-jurisdictional ambiguity can easily arise particularly when the ICS structures that have to work together are organized differently (Tsai & Chi, 2012). In such a case, clarity should be given in the application of ICS concepts such as command, control, and coordination.

Ideally, the agency holding the primary jurisdictional authority over an incident assumes charge of the entire incident until new command structures are put in place where necessary. In any case, multiple-jurisdictional incidents are better managed under the agencies that usually control them (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). To accommodate all the participant agencies, and at the same time, increase flexibility, ICS normally has a modular extension structure that provides the means of incorporating all necessary elements, depending on the type, scope, size, and ramification of an incident (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). Numerous agencies are able to work together coherently because of the clear flow of incident command that runs from the top downwards (Zhang & She, 2014). The ICS modular extension structure makes it possible to transfer command to accommodate new agencies (Tavares, 2015). Consequently, ICS’ transfer of command makes it possible to introduce new command lines where the concerned agencies find it necessary (Zhang & She, 2014). Such a move should be followed by a briefing that communicates all essential information for continuous, safe, and efficient operations.

As observed above, some incident lacks a single responding agency and cross-political jurisdictions. The involvement of multiple agencies in such incidents calls for the reorganization of the command structure to incorporate the interests of all agencies and satisfy their needs at the same time. Unified Command and Area Command are the two variations commonly used to achieve multiagency satisfaction (Tsai & Chi, 2012). Thus, Unified Command brings the agencies to work together through a designated member where they analyze intelligence before coming up with a single Incident Action Plan (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006). In addition to creating a channel for all involved agencies to participate in decision-making, hence establishing a sense of satisfaction, Unified Command does not alter any of the other ICS features (Tavares, 2015). On the other hand, Area Command is responsible for managing multiple incidents that are under the management of different ICS. Such incidents that cross the jurisdictional boundaries are usually non-site specific and they evolve with time (Tsai & Chi, 2012). Therefore, such cases require high-level resource management or Multiagency Coordination Systems to remain inclusive of all involved parties (Tsai & Chi, 2012). Area command can become a Unified Area Command if the multiple agencies are involved in the decision-making process.

The ability to meet the needs of any incident regardless of their kind or size is one of the fundamental advantages of ICS in disaster management. Moreover, ICS allows the personnel from different agencies to meld together swiftly into a common management structure with the potential to mitigate a disastrous situation (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). It has also been credited with the ability to provide logistical and administrative support to all operational staffs and, at the same time, ensure cost-effectiveness by avoiding duplication of efforts (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). Furthermore, the flexible design of ICS mitigates potentially volatile situations, especially when multiple agencies are involved (Tavares, 2015). Nevertheless, the non-linear nature of disasters has a tendency of defying linear behavior. The inability to predict the nature and impact of disasters may lead to a poor communication and lack of accountability (Jensen & Thompson, 2015). Other ICS disadvantages include the possibility of overloading the incident commander, which leads to poor interagency integration.

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In sum, ICS is one of the fundamental forms of management that allows event manager to identify key concerns often under critical conditions and offer response guidance. Incidents, which are large in scope, require the response of more than one agency, thus creating tension due to the change in lines of command or blurred information flow channels. The application of Unified Command or Area Command in such cross jurisdictional boundaries ensures that all the involved agencies are accommodated and satisfied. As long as ICS remains flexible, especially in volatile situations, disasters cannot overwhelm the agencies tasked with mitigation responsibilities.

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