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Incident Command with a Side of Peanut Butter and Jelly

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and it's sub-component the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS is "a systematic tool used for the command, control, and coordination of emergency response", according to the United States Federal Highway Administration. ICS is based upon a flexible, scalable response organization that provides a common framework within which people can work together effectively.


This past weekend, I was provided with the opportunity to teach an hour and a half long class to the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) about the organization of their group, which is based directly on NIMS and ICS. After going through a slideshow that illustrated all of the basic points and described the roles and responsibilities of each component of ICS, I walked them through a fire that I responded to during my tenure in the training division at the city fire department.

After stepping through the incident and educating the team members about how things worked on a fire ground, as well as who key players in the ICS structure are, I let them know that in their own neighborhoods during a larger scale disaster response, such as a tornado, the fire department may not be able to arrive right away -- which is where they would step in.

CERT is one of five federal programs promoted under the umbrella of Citizen Corps, an organization of volunteer emergency workers who have received specific training in basic disaster response skills and who agree to supplement existing emergency responders in the event of a major incident.

In order for CERT teams to fully be able to integrate with the local public safety agencies, they need to understand the fundamental components of ICS and then apply it. That’s where the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came in. I split the class into three teams, handed them a packet of ICS forms, and let them fill out each role and responsibility. Their simulated task was to make and serve 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a local shelter.  

Teams filled out each ICS form as completely as they could and determined, as a team, how each form applied to the scenario.  As the teams wrapped up their ICS activity, one of the team members told the rest of the group that he never thought that ICS could be applied to something so simple, but knowing that it can be applied to a simple situation helps him think about how he can deploy it to higher impact, lower frequency incidents, successfully.

I then advised the teams that ICS, and its forms, are for so much more than just making sandwiches: when first responders arrive on the scene of an event, in order to complete an effective pass-along, the forms will aid them in ensuring all the information was not only passed along but documented, as well. ICS is useful, and necessary, for all stages and aspects of disasters -- from making PB&J sandwiches for victims to managing wildland firefighters time in the field to recording the details of events for future generations to study and learn from. 

In the fire service, ICS is as familiar as the back of our hand. Our lives, as well as those of the community we serve and protect, depend on it. It’s designed to give standard response and operational procedures to reduce problems and miscommunications during an incident. It’s been summarized as a "first-on-scene" structure, where the first responder to a scene has charge of the scene until an incident is resolved or a more qualified responder arrives and receives command (or appoints another individual Incident Commander). It's imperative for our volunteer organizations to understand ICS fully and apply it to their activities so that, as professionals, we can do our jobs to the utmost of our abilities.

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