Go Big and Go Home

Nov 25, 2022

One of ICS' key features is the ability to expand and contract resources according to demand. Looks easy enough in the classroom but when you're in the hotseat being asked to decide whether to scale up resources for an incident? It can be scary. In fact, I'd like to bet that most people err on less rather than more when resourcing up. This is a key decision point in the evolution of an incident.

There are different techniques that we can use to assess an incident to figure out its scale and complexity - we can talk about these in another post. If you are facing a situation that has a lot of unknowns, go big. Expand your ICS structure early, do it quickly and add more people than you think you'll need.

Imagine you're dealing with a flood in an office building. 2 offices and 4 cubicles on the first floor are being drenched due to a fire sprinkler malfunction. The building has four floors and the other areas are unaffected. You are appointed to be the Incident Commander. 6 people are being impacted. How many people do you need to deal with it?

The exact details are not important. There will be a dozen different answers depending on the business, the people involved etc etc.

What happens next is important. As you've probably guessed, the sprinkler malfunction gets worse, impacting all of the first floor and part of the second. Now you've got nearly 100 people who are wet, displaced and all needing the spare laptop from IT.

Depending on how you decided to staff initial ICS structure, you may be able to cope with this escalation, but you'll be busy.

Now things get interesting. Building maintenance manage to shut down the building's sprinkler system but not before the torrent of water flows through the electrical fittings in the ceiling of the first floor. The Health and Safety person informs you that people cannot be in the building without a functional sprinkler system and there is a significant electrical hazard on the first floor. Floors 3, 4 and the remainder of 2 all need to be evacuated. This includes senior leadership offices on the 4th floor.

Now you need to manage the flood damage, a large-scale building evacuation, lock off unsafe areas, arrange for fire safety, electricians and damage remediation companies to attend, put your business continuity plan (that I know you have) into action and brief the senior management from the fourth floor on what happened and how long they will be out of their offices. And… you need to expand your ICS organization to cope with it.

Likelihood is that your ability as Incident Commander to maintain positive control over this incident, making good, safe and timely decisions, is going to be significantly challenged unless you had sufficient people to fill main command staff positions early on.

Bringing people into the ICS team for an incident takes time, even if the team is well practiced. Each person will need to know what's going on, at least for their area of responsibility, and what objectives they're working towards.

In the early stages of an incident, focus on effectiveness, not efficiency. Expand to deal with the situation at hand and the curveballs that you know will be coming your way. This has an efficiency all of its own as you respond and recover from an incident faster than if you try to minimize the number of people and resources that you use.

That's why we need to 'go big' when resourcing in the early stages of an incident. With sufficient people early on, this situation could be handled by the end of the working day with a solid plan for how staff are going to return to work the next day. Too few people or slowly adding people throughout the day, you'll be working long into the night and possibly into the next day before you address all that's needed to get things back on track. If it turns out you don't need the resources, you can always collapse the ICS structure back down. Good practice.

Go big and go home. Wait until you're overwhelmed and you'll stay that way.

Incident Command