Webinar: What can humanitarians learn from Incident Command Systems?

3 Oct 2014
14:00 - 15:30

This webinar focused on Incident Command systems (ICS), with speakers from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and New York's Fire Department. Topics explored included the basics of ICS/IMS, and its potential effect on humanitarian emergency response. 

Humanitarian organisations have a lot to learn from emergency response professionals in other sectors, who regularly use Incident Command Systems (ICS) (also known as Incident Management Systems-IMS). Understanding of ICS/IMS could potentially help us improve our own leadership and organisational effectiveness in emergency response, and allow us to work better with national authorities.

Key points and lessons learned:
  • Technological, environmental and social developments of the 21st century have brought with them new organisational challenges for humanitarian actors, which increases the need for cross sectoral collaboration.
  • ICS can respond to and resolve the breakdown of situational awareness that can arise when there is a convergence of organisations and organisational structures following a disaster.
  • Basic ICS structure: incident command, first officer on scene, command staff (public information officer, safety, liaison), general staff (finance, logistics, operations, planning).
  • It is not a ‘how to’ manual. ICS intends to be a template to allow people how don’t know each other to come together to coordinate and define rules and create decision-making system for an effective response.
  • Some of the advantages of ICS/EMS include its flexibility, boundary spanning, the promotion of information sharing and clear divisions of labour and resources.
  • Unified Command is made up of many individuals – leadership is never one person. It is a collaboration of organisations.
  • Dispelling myths and misconceptions: that IMS works only with hierarchical or military organisations, requires the surrendering of autonomy and must only be used for ‘big’ events.
Q&A snapshot:

Many humanitarian responders may feel that ICS is too ‘top down’, is that a legitimate comment?

JP: When you look at the structural charts it looks on paper that it is very top down. However, my experience has been quite the opposite; it has really been a bottom-up process. Smaller organisations don’t have a voice unless they build into a system like ICS.

AH: Also, ICS is not something that is run from thousands of miles away. The Incident Command would be on the scene.

Would these systems have something to offer to a long-term crisis?

JP: Having a leadership team that manages intensely, but is replaceable I think is one of the strengths of the system. It prevents people from burning out and ensures that there is strong leadership throughout the response.

What’s stopping NGOs and INGOs from implementing ICS?

AH: One thing is the sheer number of humanitarian organisations and the diversity of these organisations. A second factor is that the number of organizations mobilised in a response may be extraordinarily large. Haiti and the Indian Ocean tsunami are examples where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations involved in the response.