What Is ICS and Why Use It?

C2C Disaster Prep. Coordinator, Lyn Triplett, functions as the Incident Commander during fire recovery workshops.

C2C Disaster Prep. Coordinator, Lyn Triplett, functions as the Incident Commander during fire recovery workshops.

During hands-on practice at our fire recovery workshops, we try to implement the Incident Command System (ICS) and assign section chief and team leader roles to coordinators and participants. To explain why it’s an important structure for cultural heritage practitioners to understand, we’ve posted some excerpts below from archivist David W. Carmicheal’s great book, Implementing the Incident Command System at the Institutional Level: A Handbook for Libraries, Archives, Museums, and other Cultural Institutions.  The Connecting to Collections online community also featured this topic in a webinar last spring. Click here to view the archived version.

ICS is of particular interest to libraries, archives, and museums because any disaster can have disproportionate consequences for cultural institutions. ICS provides a standardized way to manage incidents, regardless of how large or small, even if responders approach the incident from many different jurisdictions and disciplines.

In simple terms, what ICS does is create an organization chart that supersedes the organization charts of all the responding agencies. Instead, the people who respond fill positions that don’t exist in their normal day-to-day administration; positions such as Incident Commander, or Operations Section Chief, or Liaison Officer. Each ICS position has clearly defined responsibilities, meaning that if someone who is conversant with ICS arrives at the scene of the incident and is asked to assume the role of Planning Section Chief, she—and everyone else—knows exactly what her responsibilities and authority will be. ICS has spelled them out in advance.

In addition to positions, ICS spells out facilities that will be used to respond to the incident—places like the “Incident Command Post” and “staging areas.” All the responders who have been trained in ICS arrive on the scene already knowing that the building with the symbol on it is the Incident Command Post, and they know what is going on inside that building. They already know, too, how to fill out the forms that will be used during the incident. They know how information is distributed, and they know that they should report certain information to their supervisor alone and no one else. ICS is important for those who work in cultural heritage repositories to understand because it is:

  • Standardized – Everyone learns to operate within the same structure; one that supersedes the hierarchies and plans that the responding teams bring with them. No matter what their day-to-day management structure looks like, all responders understand how assignments, resources, and information flow within the ICS, and they adopt that structure until the crisis passes. Because ICS is standardized, everyone discards acronyms and “insider” lingo for the duration of the response. Everyone needs to speak the same language. And because it is standardized, anyone can learn ICS: firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, even librarians, archivists, and museum curators.
  • Scalable – The ICS can be applied to incidents large and small, from hurricanes that carry a multi-state wallop down to a single broken pipe that floods one level of a collections storage area.
  • Used “on scene”– Management of the incident takes place as the crisis unfolds, right at the scene of the incident, or very close to it. Managers have timely information on which to base decisions. Commands don’t come from bureaucrats operating from Washington, D.C. or the state capital.
  • Multi-jurisdictional – ICS provides a single management  structure for responders from multiple jurisdictions (different fire districts, counties, or states, for instance) and, as a result, is effective at managing a response by people who report to different bosses, have different equipment, or possess different skills. This means it works when response must be coordinated across multiple departments on a college campus, for instance, or among several divisions within a museum.  In addition, it eases coordination between the staff of the affected museum and those who may respond to the incident from outside the institution, such as firefighters.
  • Applicable – It is effective for not only fires, floods or terrorism but for all hazards, natural and human caused, large or small, urban or rural.

As soon as an incident occurs and the response is initiated a command structure begins to grow, beginning with the Incident Commander and unfolding downward. The ICS has its own rigid hierarchy, and a unique feature is that ranks and responsibilities within ICS may differ markedly from familiar hierarchies. During a crisis, the day-today way of doing things must give way to special management. Not only does knowing ICS make interaction with outside responders easier, ICS also helps a cultural institution break out of its own hierarchy during times of crisis, a step that may be essential to success. ICS starts at the top, with the Incident Commander.

Implementing the Incident Command System at the Institutional Level is available for purchase or via inter-library loan from the State Library of NC. It explains how libraries, archives, and museums can adopt ICS as a temporary management structure whenever ‘business as usual’ won’t get the job done. ICS is a proven tool that helps safeguard lives, property, and priceless collections. Familiarize yourself with it for the benefit of your repository.

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on June 24, 2014, in Connecting to Collections, disaster preparedness, workshops and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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