Incident Action Planning: Staying the Course

by Stephen Grainer

Emergency responders throughout the United States have been working diligently since 2006 to meet the most current compliance criteria for completing intermediate and advanced Incident Command System (ICS) training.  The ICS training stipulated in NIMS (the National Incident Management System) compliance criteria includes the course “Intermediate Incident Command System for Expanding Incidents” – also known as ICS-300.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has determined that middle managers and supervisors, including unit leaders, must complete training to the ICS-300 level by the end of fiscal year 2008.  The target date for that training to be completed is 30 September of this year. To meet that goal, tribal entities, local emergency responders, state government agencies that have been assigned emergency-response duties, and other agencies and organizations are working vigorously to: (a) identify the specific personnel who need the training; and (b) ensure that those personnel are trained to the required level by the target date specified.

At the root of the ICS-300 training is the principle of training personnel to be prepared to manage the previously mentioned “Expanding Incident” – which is defined as one in which the resources usually available to cope with most emergencies are unlikely to be capable of achieving the desired level of control for the incident at hand.  ICS-300 provides training in a number of topic areas not previously developed in either ICS-100 (“Introduction to ICS”) or ICS 200 (“Basic ICS”). 

Notably, there are two important units in ICS-300 – “Resource Management” and “The Planning Process” – that provide the student with the training specifically needed to manage an expanding incident.  Those two units serve as an essential foundation for the mass of knowledge needed for developing and following a comprehensive Incident Action Plan (IAP).  The ability to develop, implement, and monitor an IAP is the most critical element in effectively managing any major incident – but becomes even more critical when an incident grows in size, scope, and/or complexity.

Q&A, Plus IAPs and SOPs

The most important question asked by many ICS 300 students is both reasonable and simple: “When should an Incident Action Plan be used?”  The answer is equally reasonable, and even more simple: “Always.”

However, it must be pointed out that in a theoretically “routine” emergency, and/or other relatively common situations, it is usually not necessary to create a written IAP.  Most typical incident-response operations are carried out in accordance with standard operating procedures (SOP) that are based on repetition and success and have been developed over a long period of time.  For example, firefighting, EMS (emergency medical services), law-enforcement, public-works, and public-health agencies – and a broad spectrum of other agencies and organizations (the highway department, for example) – typically respond to emergencies and other situations that crop up almost every day with a “standard” resource contingent and conduct their operations in a similarly “standard” way. These situations are met and (in an overwhelming majority of cases) resolved by using procedures that generally have been proven successful over a period of years. Which, of course, is why they have been designated as the “standard” way to meet similar situations in the future. 

Moreover, although the specific incident manager (foreman, supervisor, officer, etc.) on the scene usually has the flexibility needed, in most if not all cases, to adjust and adapt to the specific conditions encountered in any single incident, the standard operating procedures prescribed for that type of incident typically provide the organizational and operational framework needed for bringing about a successful conclusion.  In perhaps 90 percent of responses, in fact, the incident is over before enough time passes even to draft a written IAP.  Therefore, although the response is managed in accordance with IAP guidelines, a specific plan addressing the procedures that should be followed to deal with a specific ad hoc situation is seldom written.

Instead, the procedures followed during most if not quite all emergency situations that suddenly develop simply flow naturally from an intellectual or mental plan coordinated by the incident commander on the scene and carried out according to standard operating procedures. This is as it should be, because time is of the essence in coping with most emergencies, and the more time that passes the worse a specific situation becomes. Which is another excellent reason why responder units and individual responders must learn and practice standard operating procedures until SOP becomes all but automatic – somewhat like breathing.

Steve Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs.  He has served Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination since 1972 in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer.  As a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, he currently is developing and managing VDFP programs to enable emergency responders and others to achieve NIMS compliance requirements for incident management.