©1999 - 2012
Edward D. Reuss
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Civilian emergency managers as well as military or police commanders know the critical importance of the three axioms of command: Unity of Command , Span of Control, and Delegation of Authority.  Command of hundreds and perhaps thousands of police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel requires a commander with both training and empirical knowledge of how to coordinate these groups of dedicated emergency workers.

Unity of Command in large disasters and emergencies has always been the most difficult to accomplish.  Why? For want of a better explanation, one of the most common reasons has been turf protection and inter-service rivalry. Who is in charge? That is the question that has continually caused friction and bad relations between the different emergency services.  It is no secret that in many instances here in New York City, members of the NYPD and FDNY have come to blows during on-going emergency situations.  If you are one of those who would raise your eyebrows in feigned shock and dismay at such an idea, please spare us the hypocrisy.

It is a well-documented fact that inter-agency conflict exists between the police and fire services. The media is well aware of this and reports these incidents with relish whenever they occur. Such conflicts are newsworthy.  Headlines such as "Battle of the Badges" sells newspapers and air- time, but do such reports also encourage inter-service rivalry?

Another possible reason for inter-service rivalry is the annual operating budget that each of the emergency services is allocated for the fiscal year. The police, fire, and emergency services must appear before their various city or town council and present the budget requirements of their agencies. Each agency appears before budget hearings and displays with charts and graphs and statistics how their agency has performed within their annual budget. Budgetary considerations are vital for those who command police, fire, and emergency medical services.  At these hearings, agency heads request additional funding for their departments for new equipment or personnel. What agency head would appear before the budget committee and state that they have no new programs that need funding?   This competition for annual funding can lead to conflict between these vital services.

How does inter-service rivalry manifest itself during emergencies? Disputes between members of the various services occur immediately.  Who is in charge? Who coordinates and controls personnel at the scene? Can a Sergeant of Police give orders to high-ranking fire chiefs or emergency medical service personnel? Can a volunteer fire company officer supervise a police chief? Even with written procedures that specify which agency has jurisdiction in disasters, the conflict between the emergency services remains a problem area in emergency management.

When disasters and emergencies occur, the first on the scene will be "convergent responders".  The convergent responders may not be police, fire, or emergency medical personnel. They may be security personnel or members of public service agencies who happen to be at the location. They may perhaps be co-workers who immediately begin to render first aid to the victims.  In many ways, these "convergent responders" are a valuable resource for the police, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel. In small agencies they can be of vital assistance until reinforcements arrive.

The "first responders" are the police, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel who arrive on the scene. Once the first responders ascertain the nature of the disaster or emergency, Unity of Command must be the critical issue.  The first incident action plan (IAP), usually a verbal transmission by the lead agency on the scene provides the basis for future actions.  In disasters as in military combat situations, the immediate establishment of a command post is of paramount importance. In the past, terms such as "temporary headquarters" or CP (command post) and the like were commonly used. Without such a CP, it is difficult to coordinate and control on the scene operations.  As other units respond to the scene, the CP will serve as a rallying point. This would seem to be common sense.  In routine police or fire emergencies, the need for "inter-agency command centers" is not critical.  However, when the scope of the emergency or the disaster involves many victims, the need for such an "inter-agency command center" becomes obvious. This is when Unity of Command becomes a problem in emergency management. The Police and Fire Departments of the City of New York have in the past been universally recognized as being without peer in rendering emergency services.  The expertise that these agencies have acquired is rarely challenged.  However, even in NYC, the conflict between emergency agencies has been a common problem in the past.

When I was the Duty Captain assigned to Patrol Borough Staten Island, I was ordered to participate in training exercises with the Fire Department and the now defunct Emergency Medical Service (EMS) in a mock disaster scenario.  The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) of the City of New York would be present to observe the coordination between the various agencies. During the mock exercise, a Staten Island Rapid Transit train had been derailed with many victims, I responded as per the predetermined training and as the highest ranking member of the police agency, I established a "Inter-Agency Command Center".  This procedure was mandated by the NYPD.  After placing sufficient personnel at the Command Center, I proceeded to notify the Fire Chief and Emergency Medical personnel of the Command Center's location.  The need for a representative from each agency to be present at the Command Center with radio communication was an obvious requirement.  I met with little or no cooperation. Neither agency committed any personnel to the Command Center. The Fire Chief had established a command center in the rear of one of his fire engines.  He listened politely to me as I informed him of the "Inter-Agency Command Center" without comment.  Each agency acted independently of each other during the course of the exercise. We had no radio communication with each other, nor did we exchange information.  In my opinion, the exercise was a complete failure. Each of the other agencies carried out their mock drill with a sense that they did not need the "Inter-agency Command Center".  After the drill, a critique of the mock exercise was held inside a railcar.  I listened to the responses of those of the other agencies. When I was asked for my opinion, I asked everyone present in the railcar the location of the "Inter-agency Command Center".  None of the fire, EMS, or OEM personnel knew where I had established the command center. There was no Unity of Command during the exercise. In a real disaster, such lack of unity of command would have resulted in chaos and duplication of effort.

The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) recognized the problems that have plagued the emergency services in prior years. But while NYC was coping with these problems, the birth of the Incident Command System (ICS) grew out of firefighting in the western portions of the United States.

Paul M. Maniscalco and Hank T. Christen, authors of "Understanding Terrorism and Managing the Consequences" state:

"In the 1970s, after a disastrous wildfire season, California fire managers recognized the need for change.  In incident after incident, the same problems emerged: lack of interagency coordination.

Specific problems were:

1. Uncommon radio codes - people could not talk to each other;
2. No command system - each agency operated on the personality of its leaders; in some cases, it depended on who was working that day;
3. No common terminology - when agencies did talk, they often misunderstood each other;
4. No method of effectively assigning resources - logistics depended on who got lucky;
5. No clear definition of functions, and how each function related to other elements."

These observations led to the development of the Incident Command System (ICS).

The Incident Command System (also called the Incident Management System) serves as a boilerplate for all emergencies whether small or large.  The use of the terminology and structure of the ICS is adaptable to any incident requiring police, fire, or emergency medical responses.

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It is a simple matter to expand the size and scope of the ICS as the situation requires. The Incident Command System has been adopted by the State of New York.

 See the Governor's executive order:

Courtesy of NY State Emergency Management Office

It has also been adopted by the United States Coast Guard.

One only has to review what occurred in the tragedy of Columbine High School to realize the critical importance of implementing the Incident Command System .  There was none in place during the shootings at Columbine.

Read the chilling official report of the Governor of the State of Colorado:


The bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, 2001 were incidents where the Incident Command System was battle tested under the most extreme conditions.

The Incident Command System has dealt effectively with the inter-agency command problems that have plagued the emergency services. It has been field tested under combat conditions.

Any agency that delays in educating their emergency services will be ill-equipped to deal with future critical incidents.  When the federal government institutes disaster procedures that are now in place, local agencies that have not come on board by training their personnel in the Incident Command System will find themselves standing around with their hands in their pockets watching others do their job for them.  Knowledge is power. Without a working knowledge of the Incident Command System , law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical services, will find themselves sadly undertrained.

The time to get on board is long past.

Copyright © 2002 Edward D. Reuss



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