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Why law enforcement needs an incident action plan for every event

After years of resistance, law enforcement is coming to realize it needs a proven program management tool to help agencies coordinate response


Planned or spontaneous recent riots and protests have shown they can quickly turn into something much bigger than we initially expected. We must utilize a proven process that all of our public safety partners understand to plan and prepare for events.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Our communities expect all public safety agencies to seamlessly work together. When events go right, no one questions. When something goes wrong, the plan is the first item reviewed for errors.

Every law enforcement agency is bound by its own culture and traditions and, over time, each one develops its own way to prepare for events and respond to incidents. But a narrow agency-centric plan is inadequate if you have to rely on outside organizations for support when they were not part of the planning process.

After years of resistance, law enforcement is coming to realize it needs a proven program management tool to help agencies to coordinate. Because of this, agencies are starting to use an Incident Action Plan (IAP). An IAP helps command staffs create links to assisting agencies and fosters an atmosphere in which a unified command can focus on critical issues, streamline the decision-making process and track resources, allowing people in the field to know their tasks and a degree of freedom to accomplish their jobs.

The IAP is not only for use when responding to emergencies. A good IAP is a necessity for any effective event planning.

Breaking the myth

For years I have been told that the Incident Command System (ICS) and IAPs just involved filling in forms and was a process for managers, not leaders. Experience has taught me nothing could be further from the truth. By utilizing the ICS process, leaders develop comprehensive objectives and strategies to protect the lives of both citizens and officers. The process provides a systematic plan for personnel to follow. The forms do have roles for managers, with the intention of ensuring consistency, enabling effective tracking of resources, and ensuring documentation for future request for reimbursement of funds.

Common operating picture

After every event, command staff must ask two questions:

  1. Did we use a method to plan that relied more upon luck than proper planning?
  2. Did we ignore the warning signs that may have been obvious to outsiders because we used an ineffective process?

Planned or spontaneous recent riots and protests have shown they can quickly turn into something much bigger than we initially expected. We must utilize a proven process that all of our public safety partners understand to plan and prepare for events. Precious time is wasted when outside organizations have to decipher an unrecognizable plan before they can act. This wasted time can be the difference between life and death.

As we prepare for small, medium and large events, we have to effectively coordinate with other law enforcement agencies, public safety organizations and non-governmental organizations. The response team is only complete when all of the public safety pieces come together to develop ICS plans for event response.

The tangible product of the process is the IAP, which is used to foster a high degree of situational awareness and develop an extended common operating picture. The IAP development process facilitates an environment where Unified Commanders can see through the clutter, identify the gaps and take steps to remedy them. Then, they can create all-encompassing objectives, strategies and tactics, and communicate assignments in a standardized way.

When the IAP is presented and used as a document to brief subordinates then no one has to guess what to do. Everyone knows their roles and how they fit into the big picture. The process transforms individuals into a team, all working to make any event a success, but ready to respond if something bad happens.

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We learn from hindsight

For an IAP to be successful – whether it is to be used for an event or responding to a disaster – all public safety entities must be involved throughout the planning.

This process helps break down silos, facilitates communication sharing and builds relationships at all levels.

Law enforcement has traditionally been reluctant to participate in planning with “outside” organizations. One reason is worried concern that tactical plans may be released to the public. This has led many law enforcement organizations to intentionally forgo the formal process used to develop an IAP. They use their own process to create a plan that never gets shared.

In some events, public safety organizations may have competing strategies and objectives. When previously reluctant law enforcement organizations chose to embrace the formal ICS process for developing an IAP, one of two things usually happens:

  1. They were faced with an event that was of such scale they had no choice but to ask for help from organizations who were then able to introduce them to the ICS process. Once they saw the benefits, they decided to adapt the process from that point forward.
  2. A catastrophic event occurred during an event in which they use a process to plan that did not incorporate other disciplines.

Obviously, the goal of law enforcement organizations is to adapt before either of these two things happen.

Breaking down silos and moving forward

The IAP is a pathway for organizations to create response objectives, advance appropriate strategies, increase buy-in and engagement from all stakeholders, and build community resilience.

Learning how to master the IAP process takes time and practice. Planned events of the peaceful variety are perfect opportunities for people to learn the process to develop IAPs and to build strength on their organizational bench. Novices can practice in a low-stress environment where one has time to “what if” situations and develop contingency plans. If something goes wrong, then they have contingency plans already prepared.

So where can organizations look for help to prepare for an event? Many law enforcement agencies are pairing up with other public safety organizations that are already experts in the ICS process to plan for events. They build bonds by allowing non-law enforcement personnel to operate as Planning Section Chief or Logistics Section Chief on events. Meanwhile, the host law enforcement organization places their officers in a shadowing role to learn the positions. As a result, knowledge is shared and a working relationship is formed. Command staff can learn by attending a 305 All Hazards Incident Management course where they are immersed in the IAP developmental process. Another approach could be to reach out to other law enforcement organizations with qualified personnel and request help with learning the process.

The world has changed and we are now reliant on one another to successfully manage events. This article cannot reflect all of the facets of creating an IAP, or why law enforcement agencies must begin to embrace the process. Organizations can send people to classes to learn the process, but the only way to truly learn is to use it. The law enforcement community needs to understand that the process drives the creation of the IAP and not the other way around. It brings law enforcement and other organizations together, ultimately resulting in the creation of one team with one plan. Our communities expect all public safety agencies to work together and an IAP helps meet those expectations.

Lieutenant W. Michael Phibbs has more than 28 years of experience in law enforcement. He is a member of the Central Virginia Type 3 All-Hazard Incident Management Team and is qualified as an Operations Section Chief and an Air Operations Branch Director. He has worked in those roles in national, regional, state and local events and disasters.

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