Public works and the Incident Command System

Terence M. Henry
Director of Public Works, Retired
County of Volusia, Florida

If you were to ask a random group of public works employees about ICS, you would probably get responses that vary from, "What does ICS stand for?" to "Isn't that the system the firefighters use?" If you were to ask further what role public works plays in ICS you may not get any answers at all.

As a rule, we public works professionals generally do not worry about who's in charge or how they run the show. We are used to responding and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. We start out supporting the initial responders and usually finish by cleaning up after everyone else is gone. We are task oriented and our strength is applying the manpower, equipment and expertise to any situation at hand. Why then should we concern ourselves with understanding or become involved in an Incident Management System?

In truth, we have all probably experienced situations where we responded to a disaster only to wait unnecessarily on the sidelines while we knew there were things we could or should be doing. Worse yet, how often have we responded to find the decision-makers on scene were asking for the wrong equipment or they did not know what public works support was really required? Those situations provide valid reasons for public works to become involved in the Incident Command System. To become involved, however, we must first understand how the system is designed to work. More importantly, we must clearly understand how we can best integrate our talents into the system.

One of the positive features of ICS is the way it builds from the bottom up as a response event grows in scope and intensity. Commitment of public works resources will usually follow a path paralleling an event's escalation. The leader of the public works response forces would logically be expected to coordinate, at least initially, with the on-scene commander of the primary emergency response agency. From there the situation sometimes gets confusing. As the incident grows, the Incident Commander may delegate functions to an operations section and perhaps a planning section. A major sustained event may also include sections to oversee logistics and finance/accounting.

Unfortunately, public works representation in any of the sections is most often overlooked. Likewise, as the operations section expands by adding layers to include divisions or groups depending on a geographic or functional approach to command and control of the response activities, public works forces often wind up getting directions and tasking from multiple sources. The result can be piecemeal application of our resources and less than optimum results from our efforts. As a response event unfolds and public works resources become more and more involved, sound timely guidance on public works capabilities and limitations works to everyone's advantage.

The first step towards full player status in an Incident Command scenario is to ensure the right personnel are trained in the system. That training, which is readily available through virtually all fire service agencies, should be mandatory for all key supervisory personnel in those public works elements usually responding to emergency or disaster events. Additionally, most public works organizations have a wealth of talented people whose normal duties are not routinely associated with emergency response. Given ICS training, these people can provide additional capacity to fill the public works void found in most ICS scenarios. An example may be to use engineering staff personnel to work in the planning or logistics sections during a significant event.

Although the public works director will be primarily involved in overseeing public works functions, his or her staff must be an integral part of the ICS. The most likely place would be to have a principal subordinate in the operations section where the immediate plans for operations are coordinated and executed and resources are committed. The same rationale applies for having public works' representation in the planning section. It is here that recommendations are made for future operations and the corresponding future commitment of resources. Public works presence in the planning section not only ensures that the Incident Commander receives the best and most comprehensive recommendations as to how to proceed, but also gives the public works community advance notice of realistic future requirements.

Should an incident grow from a single ICS command scenario and become multi-jurisdictional where management responsibilities are shared geographically or functionally, command and control is exercised through a Unified Command System. If the incident involves a terrorist act or weapons of mass destruction, federal agencies are likely to become engaged. This then would involve a Joint Operations Command focusing on "crisis management" and "consequence management." Regardless of the Incident Management System level of command and control, public works support will be necessary. Likewise, regardless of the specific Incident Management System in effect, the following ICS basics are common to all levels of command and control in the Incident Management System:

* Manageable span of control
* Common terminology
* Integrated communications
* Unity of command
* Modular expansion
* Comprehensive resource management

We public works professionals will continue not to worry about who's in charge, but by becoming truly involved in ICS we will be able to provide better service and response to our customers-the citizens.

Terence M. Henry serves on national anti-terrorism committees representing the public works industry. He can be reached at 904-761-9202 or at