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Why police agencies need to embrace the Incident Command System

ICS is a powerful system that can help you organize chaos on all scenes

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One of the best attributes of ICS is that it helps you communicate with co-responders by encouraging use of plain speech and a common terminology.


It has often been my delight over the years to introduce new concepts or methods in law enforcement. Most of the time I have been met with utter resistance, unless (of course) the new item was high speed, low drag, tactical or it exploded.

I got my start in law enforcement through search and rescue with a sheriff’s office in the mountains of Colorado. SAR presented some unique challenges that were different from the criminal side. Over the years, the Incident Command System (ICS) was developed to handle all kinds of emergencies through their commonalities. However, falling short of the three aforementioned coolness factors, ICS has not taken off with law enforcement like it has with our fellow first responders.

ICS history

I often hear cops disdainfully refer to ICS as “fire stuff.” Fire agencies did start ICS back in the 1970s. The approach was created in response to millions of acres burned, and properties and lives lost. Firefighters realized their organization and communication were problematic, not necessarily that they lacked resources. ICS became a systemized approach to solving fire challenges on various scales across jurisdictions.

When the World Trade Center towers fell, it was painfully evident how poor operability was between responders. Fire and law enforcement could not speak on the radio, terminology was unclear when communications were established, and the cellular network was jammed with so many attempted calls.

A couple of presidential directives later, we had the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and National Response Framework (NRF) to help guide organized community response to various emergencies. ICS became a tool capable of being used on any type of incident, hence the designation “all hazards.”

Attributes of ICS

ICS is a powerful system that can help you organize chaos. It is scalable, meaning you can use it on small incidents like a roll-over or major investigations like a man hunt. It can also be used for pre-planned situations like a motorcade or sporting event.

The Incident Command System thrives on management by objective. It’s been my experience that law enforcement is often reactive to situations until they are resolved. Two strengths of ICS are managing by objectives, and getting proactive about the incident by making a written plan to achieve those objectives. This document, called an Incident Action Plan (IAP), establishes incident objectives and how they will be accomplished. It also outlines who is responsible for what.

I am sure you’ve heard the fire chief get on the radio and boldly announce he’s the Incident Commander. This is reflective of some core elements to ICS – chain of command and unity of command. Most police are familiar with chain of command; unity of command only means several people report to one supervisor. In addition, ICS uses manageable span of control. This concept goes all the way back to Napoléon and refers to a supervisor only being responsible for three to seven subordinates, with five being optimal.

One of the best attributes of ICS is that it helps you communicate with co-responders by encouraging use of plain speech and a common terminology. For instance, in some jurisdictions an ambulance is called a bus, or order a “tanker” and you might get a water truck or an airplane dropping fire retardant.

The system advocates clear terminology and clear text. A lot of police still use codes like “10-8,” “Code 6!” or even “Yeah, this guy’s ‘Code Rainbow.’” ICS teaches literally saying you are on scene as opposed to “10-23” or whatever designator you’ve used before. Using plain speech avoids miscommunication with agencies that may not know your codes.

I’m sure we’re all keenly aware of the differences between our disciplines. The Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting demonstrated a large difference between fire and police. Cops often work independent of immediate supervision and problem solve on their feet. Firefighters work more as a unit, executing commands as a single body. The use of ICS can bridge these gaps.

ICS Challenges

Using ICS seems like it might take more effort than you would normally apply to solving a problem. In addition, many police incidents start, peak and resolve before ICS can even be established.

Bad guys drive the bus. I know. We are reactive because our decision tree is almost always dictated by what the bad guy does, but almost any protracted situation can benefit from the use of ICS. Planned events are a great place to start because there are often fewer variables. Consider using ICS for your next warrant service or parade.

Another issue with ICS is the classes. Many of you have attended them, perhaps begrudgingly. The trainings are often boring, sometimes even overwhelming. My suggestion is to use ICS in the field. It is no different than that first small flashlight you got that replaced the enormous one you carried for years – if you practice with it, you will get good at it.

Rewards of Using ICS

Think about the current challenges facing law enforcement these days. Increasingly we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with EMS and fire at larger incidents. Whether it is a terrorist attack, a mass casualty incident or some other type of crisis, we have to be able to work together.

Fire departments have been using ICS for decades, and EMS is getting up to speed too. Many other organizations like utility companies, hospitals and even governmental bodies are also adopting ICS.

Although there are law enforcement agencies around the country practicing ICS every day, it’s been my experience that law enforcement has been slow to adopt the principles. It is being taught in police academies now, but that learning is soon lost if the recruit is hired into an agency where the culture does not support use of ICS.

I chased trainings and certifications all the way to becoming a Type III All Hazards Incident Commander. I was exposed to floods, rescues, MCIs, fires, SWAT calls and more in various areas around the country. My knowledge of ICS deepened, and I learned from other people who solved some major calamities. When major situations struck in my jurisdiction, experience with ICS ensured I handled them with aplomb.

As an example, my agency had roughly 20 sworn and served around 14,000 total population. In July 2010, two felons assaulted and overpowered three jailers. They broke out of the facility and stole a pickup before fleeing south. A high-speed pursuit ensued, and I got called out. Deputies chased the suspects down near the New Mexico border. New Mexico officers joined in the search when the abandoned pickup was found. Jurisdiction was unclear because it was dark and the remote nature of the land (missing signs demarking borders) left us only to focus on recovering the escapees.

Unable to locate the suspects, we called in a helicopter with FLIR (forward looking infrared) to assist. With a couple of near misses, we were only able to locate some prize deer and elk. We established a perimeter and resolved to search the next morning. Very quickly, things ramped up.

When you have your arms around an incident but realize you need more resources, ICS can help. I quickly learned I was in New Mexico, where my deputies and I had no authority. I established a unified command with a sergeant from the state police and a chief from a tribal agency. The following day, 50 officers came to the scene. There were trackers, helicopters, SWAT teams, K-9, and a fugitive team from Colorado deployed to assist in our efforts.

Luckily this severe of an incident was not a frequent event in the county. However, had I not studied ICS, I would not have been able to assist with its management. Coordinating, directing, keeping track of, and feeding that many people is a daunting task. ICS made it practicable. Within a short time, we located one suspect. He made a fatal decision which resulted in an officer-involved shooting. This was yet another issue to manage. The following morning, we apprehended the other suspect — he received a long prison sentence after trial.

Considerations for this event seemed endless: managing and tracking objectives, emergency communications, multiple investigations, coordination with aircraft, logistics, press releases, reverse 911 to the community at risk, and of course, documentation of everything. Without ICS, I would have been overwhelmed with an incident that rapidly increased in complexity.

As guardians of our jurisdictions, we owe it to the people we serve to be at our best. In dark times of extreme need, ICS can be the lamp that lights our path back to safety and sanity. Implementation and use of the incident command system not only helps you efficiently resolve crises, it makes your agency a progressive asset for your community.

Sean Curtis is a law enforcement professional with over two decades of experience, serving with SWAT, diving and swift water rescue teams in Colorado. He has also served in wildland fire, search and rescue, EMS and emergency management.