ICS advocate pushes collaboration, preparation before a large-scale incident
LAS VEGAS — Public-safety leadership must cross jurisdictional lines and partner with statewide agencies to conduct incident-command communications exercises prior to a large-scale incident. To do otherwise can lead to misallocation of regional resources and a sloppier response to such incidents, said Michael Paulette, a retired CAL FIRE battalion chief, during a session at the International Wireless Communications Expo. Paulette, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is considered by some to be the father of the Incident Command System. He was part of the fire service that was commissioned in 1970 by then–California Gov. Ronald Regan to improve communications between fire and other public safety agencies throughout the state after the tragic Laguna Fire in September 1970.
“After that fire is when the realization came about that we need to get a more finely tuned organizational structure, including local incident command and regional and state coordination and support,” he said in an interview.
Now, more than 40 years later, Paulette still advocates pre-planned incident responses, including hosting tabletop exercises and using the Incident Command System. While he admits that he has found many fire departments and other public safety agencies throughout the U.S. don’t use the National Incident Management System or the ICS forms to prepare for disasters, many fire chiefs and others in leadership do use it in an informal way.
“I really emphasize that you don’t need the forms,” he said. “The most commonly used ICS form also is known as a blank piece of paper. If [leadership] screws it up, they can just flip it over and there’s another one on the other side.”
Regardless of how it is done, Paulette said it is essential documentation starts at the beginning — not the end — of an incident. He said public-safety incident commanders must develop a communication plan early, from the very beginning, when the first boot hits the ground.
“Here’s the problem with these incidents. They have a beginning and an end. Unfortunately, people start to realize how important the documentation is after it ends,” he said. “So documentation has to be collected, archived and made available for future follow up from the onset.”
In addition, such incident communication plans must expand as incident commanders bring in more people, more agencies and other jurisdictions or disciplines, Paulette said. He advised commanders to develop an organization chart to the division and group level and make each of those groups a line item on their communication plan.
“You start with your command, assign a frequency, then assign a frequency to law enforcement, then fire, then EMS … that’s how things start. You have to figure out how these people talk to each other,” he said. “I like to use interop channels has … that work all over the country. It keeps it simple.”
Finally, incident commanders must break down the barriers between agencies that may be possessive of their specific jurisdictions. Paulette said agencies should train together regularly to help build an attitude of teamwork across different jurisdictions.
“Work together as a team because you all are going to show up to the incident and the key to success is working together as a team,” he said. “Get out there and train together and you’ll respond [well] together. Do it ahead time. Because once you get to the incident, it is too late.”