Can DSS/IS/IT improve the Incident Command System? What needs can DSS meet?

YES. Readers may recall my initial discussion of computerized decision  support in crisis/emergency situations (DSS News, 08/31/2003). That Ask Dan! concluded with a brief summary of the McKinsey & Company reports on the New  York Police and Fire Department responses to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. "The NYPD report mentioned improving communications and information  flows. The report on the New York Fire Department response stressed the need  for more inter-agency cooperation, improved communication and technology  capabilities, and the use of the Incident Command System (ICS)." At that  time I was "only vaguely familiar with ICS and its procedures". This column  is a follow-up and an expansion of prior discussions on computerized  decision support for crisis and emergency planning, response and management.  

What is the Incident Command System (ICS)?  

In 2003, I knew that ICS was a broad approach for managing crisis/emergency situations. In February 2005, as part of my preparation to give a keynote  talk at ISCRAM 2005 (, I decided to expand my knowledge of  crisis and emergency management, response and planning. I'm a DSS  generalist, but I wanted to focus my talk on that more specific context.  After some Google searching I found the website for the Emergency Management  Institute ( The Institute is operated by the  U.S. National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In  the U.S. Government bureaucratic hierarchy, EMI and NETC are part of the  U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  

I read some of the EMI training materials, followed links and then I  registered to take the online course offered by EMI on the Incident Command  System. I was skeptical about taking a "course", but I decided I would try  the interactive web-based IS-195 course. At a minimum, I could assess the  training technology and perhaps expand my knowledge of ICS and Emergency  Management. Basic Incident Command System (IS-195) is an Independent Study  course offered with printed materials dated January 1998 and an interactive  web-based course. Testing is web-based and a student needs to receive a  score of at least 75% correct to pass the course and receive a Certificate  of achievement from FEMA. My score on the pre-test was higher than 75%, but  I was on a mission of discovery and I completed all of the interactive  lessons, read some materials I printed out and studied for the online exam.  I passed the exam on March 6 and recently received my certificate. The web-  based course materials were sophisticated and well-constructed. I found the  documents on ICS at EMI, NOAA, NRT and at other websites helpful. For those  new to this field, I strongly recommend starting with the EMI web-based courses.  

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a system for managing emergencies. ICS  is a "standardized on-scene incident management concept designed specifically to allow responders to adopt an integrated organizational  structure equal to the complexity and demands of any single incident or  multiple incidents without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries".  According to EMI, "several States have adopted ICS as their standard for  emergency management, and others are considering adopting ICS. As ICS gains  wider use, there is a need to provide training for those who are not first  responders (i.e., law enforcement, fire, or emergency medical services  personnel) who may be called upon to function in an ICS environment. This  Basic Incident Command System (ICS) Course will begin to meet that need."  

In the early 1970s, ICS was developed to manage rapidly moving wildfires. According to a number of sources, the system was intended to address the following eight problems: 1) too many people reporting to one supervisor; 2) different emergency response organizational structures; 3) lack of reliable incident information; 4) inadequate and incompatible communications; 5) lack  of structure for coordinated planning among agencies; 6) unclear lines of  authority; 7) terminology differences among agencies; and 8) unclear or  unspecified incident objectives. The key player in ICS is the Incident  Commander on the scene, but a Command Center provides a reporting system to  a unified command structure. ICS is a framework or template for creating and  expanding a temporary organization for responding to an emergency or a  crisis. ICS is oriented toward consolidating the efforts of public sector  agencies, but conceivably it can mesh the efforts of public agencies, not-  for-profits, private sector organizations and individual volunteers.  

What are the DSS/IS/IT issues?  

The Incident Command System is bureaucratic, detailed and specific. To support response and management of an "incident", some transaction  processing is necessary and much of this is done today on paper forms, as an  emergency grows in scale accounting issues emerge that require an accounting  information system, and as more responders participate and the scale of an  incident increases there is an increasing need for decision support. Maps  are common decision support representations in emergencies, but Incident  Commanders and their staffs make use of other tools, data and models.  

Information technology must scale up and down as appropriate to an incident, DSS/IS/IT can serve particular responders on the scene of an incident, for example supporting triage by a medical professional, and DSS/IS/IT can be used in a permanent Command or Operations Center for multiple tasks.  

And some more specific issues:  

Is commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS) or specialized, customized software more appropriate for ICS? Or do both have a place in supporting the ICS? In general, I favor using software like Microsoft Access and Excel to create templates that can be used in a specific incident situation. For  example, an Access Database can support ICS form 201 (Incident Briefing),  ICS form 203-OS (Organization List), ICS form 207-OS (Organization Chart),  ICS form 204 (Assignment List), ICS form 219 (T-Cards) and the Resource  summary. Excel applications can also be developed to record and analyze this  type of management information. As the scale of an incident increases, more  specialized, web-based applications may be useful for distributed data  gathering, data analysis and decision support in the temporary ICS  organization. The web is an excellent means of gathering, maintaining and  sharing data from ICS form 209-OS (Incident Status Summary) and for ICS form  214-OS (the Unit Log) and form 214a-OS (Log for individual units). The Unit  Log "records details of unit activity, including strike team activity."  

Electronic ICS forms have been developed by the Office of  Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, NOAA (, but MS Access  and Excel templates are potentially much more useful than MS Word documents  or PDF documents. Specialized software is needed for specific types of  incidents. For example, a variety of Oil Spill Software is available from  NOAA, including GNOME, ADIOS 2, DOGS, and SpillTools. Making this  specialized software available for download from a website helps insure that  the most recent version will be used when an incident occurs. Also, web-  based communication systems for incident responders like ResponseLink ( or the E-Team incident management system (Walton, 2003) can be useful.  

What software is needed to support an Incident Commander? What technology training is needed by an Incident Commander? An Incident Commander needs to be comfortable in a high technology "cocoon" of wireless interconnectivity,  web access and stand-alone tools like MS Access and Excel. An Incident Commander needs to be able to check for and resolve hardware and software problems. If some or all of the technology infrastructure breaks down, an Incident Commander also needs to be able to improvise and continue functioning. That situation may involve using stand-alone computing or no information technology support.  

How can data be gathered easily, inexpensively and reliably during an  incident? We need to gather data before we can use data-driven or model-  driven DSS. Emergency response planners need to consider using radio  frequency identification (RFID) tags for resources as they check-in at an  incident scene. RFID tags can be used to track, inventory and monitor  individual emergency vehicles and emergency responders. Tag them at check-  in!! Personnel and equipment arriving at an incident "can check in at  various incident locations. Check-in consists of reporting specific  information which is recorded on a form. IS/IT can help managers at these  locations record the information and share it immediately with the Resources  Unit. Then incident management personnel and command centers need to be able  to capture the RFID data in real-time. Remember the rule: gather the data at  the source in digital format whenever possible.  

Can computerized support assist in on-going emergency operations planning? Another key aspect of an ICS is the development of an Incident Action Plan (IAP). If an incident continues for more than about 12-18 hours, a planning cycle is typically established by the Incident Commander and a Planning  Section Chief is designated. An Incident Action Plan is then developed for  the next operational period (usually 12- or 24-hours in length) and  submitted to the Incident Commander for approval. A web-based Planning DSS  can assist in development of an IAP for a particular operational period and  help focus available resources on the highest priorities/incident  objectives. A web-based planning process can potentially speed-up the  planning process and better integrate staff inputs and identify critical  shortfalls.  

Over an extended crisis/emergency, how should technology planning and technology operational issues be incorporated into the command structure?  Part of the problem in emergencies is that information technology can  malfunction, breakdown and create ancillary problems. The larger the scale  of the crisis/emergency in terms of number of people affected and the number  of responders, the more likely it is that technology problems will occur.  Currently the Incident Command System (ICS) doesn't adequately address how information technology will be supported, maintained and mobilized during an incident. More technology planning is needed for crisis/emergency  management and potential Incident Commanders need an increasingly high level  of technology sophistication. Emergency simulations and exercises need to use  a wide variety of technologies and technology breakdowns should be  simulated. As far as ICS information technology operations ... follow the  KISS approach ... Keep It Simple Stupid.  


Power, D., "How can computerized decision support help in crisis situations?", DSS News, Vol. 4, No. 18, August 31, 2003 

Power, D., "How can DSS help in crisis planning, response and management?", DSS News, Vol. 6, No. 6, February 27, 2005 

Walton, Matt S., III, "Rebuilding an Emergency Operations Center for NYC following 9/11", 2003, posted at DSSResources.COM September 11, 2003.

The above response is from Power, D., Can DSS/IS/IT improve the Incident Command System? What needs can DSS meet?  DSS News, Vol. 6, No. 8, March 27, 2005.


Last update: 2005-08-16 22:01
Author: Daniel Power

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