Incident Command System Communications for Next Emergency

February 2018, Vol. 245, No. 2

By Joe Hollier, Editor

In the event of an incident such as a pipeline rupture and fire, it is imperative for a company to communicate quickly and efficiently with not only their own people but with outside entities as well. The Incident Command System (ICS) provides a communications structure for companies to follow in the event of an emergency.

Colonial Pipeline’s Jon Wickersham, emergency response program specialist, and Steve Baker, director of communications; Energy Transfer Partners Gus Borkland, vice president Emergency Response & Security; Larson Communications Principle Terri Larson and  Enterprise’s Brett Steed, lead safety specialist, Emergency Preparedness discuss the ICS in this roundtable with P&GJ.

P&GJ: Discuss the Incident Command System (ICS) structure/format and compare it to other models or systems used previously.

Jon Wickersham and Steve Baker, Colonial Pipeline –  Prior to industry adoption of the ICS, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a generally accepted response model for managing a response.  Most response management was an extension of day-to-day management for planned projects or normal business operations. This may vary among companies.

Using ICS for managing a response brings consistent organization, objectives and activities to a response.  ICS is defined as “a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response providing a common hierarchy within which responders from multiple agencies can be effective.”  Agencies include all stakeholders, both public and private.  ICS allows us to read from the same sheet of music.

Gus Borkland, Energy Transfer Partners – We have used ICS for emergency response management for more than 10 years. We currently follow the ICS Process developed under the National Incident Management System (NIMS). This process is very flexible and scalable and can be used not only in response to an emergency situation (hurricanes, product releases, fires), but also for project management, such as pipeline commissioning and line testing projects (The NYFD uses the ICS Process to manage large scale projects in New York, such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade).

Terri Larson, Larson Communications – ICS is essentially intended to create one response organization in an incident, reporting up one chain of accountability (Incident Command). Prior to our adoption of the full ICS while I was at Enbridge, we used the concept of ICS but, with the exception of offshore U.S. Gulf of Mexico incidents or hurricane responses, primarily for operations personnel and – even then – not in its entirety.

Brett Steed, Enterprise – The ICS model Enterprise uses has remained fundamentally the same over the years. The introduction of the National Incident Management System and its evolution, while not materially affecting our protocols, formalized the administration and reporting components and promoted greater consistency. Contributing to the continuity of our incident command structure in the face of industry advances is the regular training Enterprise’s Emergency response team’s perform at the Texas A&M Emergency Services Training Institute.  This has allowed us to stay on the leading edge of ICS advances on an incremental basis.

 P&GJ: What incident(s) did you use it for and what role did you play?

Gus Borkland, Energy Transfer Partners – We have used the ICS System for product releases, natural disasters and project management. Most recently, it was used in our response to the devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma not only to protect our assets, but to also help our employees in those areas who were affected. Our ICS teams average between 25 and 30 members, depending on the size and complexity of the project.  Our team members fill all roles of the command staff and general staff assignments, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

P&GJ: Did the ICS work as it was intended? Advantages/disadvantages?

Jon Wickersham and Steve Baker, Colonial Pipeline – Yes. Advantages include use of a common language, familiar framework and consistent documentation from event to event and across participating agencies and stakeholders. The ICS strengthens the safety of operations, the accountability of how resources are being deployed and helps provide consistent communications among participants.

It also helps all parties to achieve a greater transparency and to manage a unified list of response objectives. We achieve a greater situational awareness by sticking to consistent meeting cycles during which a common operating picture is established and maintained. There is a clear division of work assignments, chain of command, unity of command and span of control. This helps ensure consistent messaging to external stakeholders. The ICS is flexible and scalable.

Potential disadvantages include the ICS is only as effective as the preparedness, training, exercising and understanding of its proper/intended implementation. If you’re not trained or prepared, ICS will not be effective. There’s also a problem if scope creep occurs. If you do not establish documentation requirements (IAP/plans/etc.), the amount of forms and processes can get overwhelming. Use what you need to be safe and effective.  Make the ICS work for you, don’t work for the sake of the ICS.

Terri Larson, Larson Communications – My role was always as the public information officer, or PIO, and I was part of an ICS organization in several offshore incidents and storm responses but no onshore responses until the Marshall, MI, incident in 2010.

In the Marshall response, ICS did ultimately work. There was a perceived need for the federal agency (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to be seen as separate from the responsible party (Enbridge). The lack of control over decision-making was also difficult for those of us at Enbridge, and something we hadn’t had to face previously. We were essentially learning ICS, its forms, acronyms and processes during a response, which wasn’t optimal.

Gus Borkland, Energy Transfer Partners – For us, yes. The ICS system and process brings organization and structure to a very intense situation, however, the structure can be a bit rigid for smaller less complex projects. One disadvantage can be the vast amount of paperwork that the ICS produces.

That is why for  smaller incidents, perhaps not all the roles of the ICS need to be filled and not all the forms and processes need to be implemented. But again, it does bring organization and structure to a potentially chaotic situation. Additionally, if the regulatory agencies are well versed in the ICS process, it will give them confidence that we know how to manage an emergency.

Brett Steed, Enterprise – Yes, it does work as intended. The ICS management system is designed for maximum flexibility, allowing us to respond quickly and efficiently to developments and changing conditions associated with the incident. During an emergency, especially the early stages, information can be in a state of flux or incomplete. Plans must be flexible enough to change accordingly. We continually evaluate strategies and tactics to ensure our actions are effective and appropriate. Adjustments are made and plans are changed as needed to achieve the desired objectives. One of the advantages of using the NIMS form of ICS is that it promotes that critical information exchange and active involvement of our executive management participating in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

P&GJ: Were there any issues or changes you would have made?

Jon Wickersham and Steve Baker, Colonial Pipeline – You cannot over-train in ICS. Be prepared, practice and ensure competencies throughout the ICS management team. Train and exercise more on managing the proactive (Planning P) lifecycle. Also, establish more descriptive policies regarding the content/documentation required for the Incident Action Plan and associated response support plans.

Know what you want to deliver at a minimum and appropriately manage additional documentation based on the complexity of the event. Establish a baseline IAP and use it consistently before evaluating additional documentation. Don’t fill out forms for forms sake, ensure they support/advance your response. The better you build your organization from the ground-up, the better you can manage your organization and the response.

Terri Larson, Larson Communications – The biggest change I would make would be to provide adequate training for all functions within the company. This begins with identification of functions needed to support a response: logistics, facilities, staffing, mobilizing crews and contractors, demobilizing, housing, food, laundry, finance, community relations/stakeholder engagement, legal, IT, etc. Once all the functions are identified, training beyond basic ICS 100/200 and 300 can be customized to help each group better understand what may be needed during a response.

Brett Steed, Enterprise – We perform critiques after each incident to identify potential improvements and capture best practices that could be used in the future. One example of this constant improvement is the addition of emergency response communications trailers to our incident response capabilities.  Strategically located across our network of assets, the trailers are capable of independently providing a wide variety of communications and technological support for locations where connectivity or services may be remote or damaged.

These mobile trailers can be tied into an existing building or office via fiber or they can operate as a stand-alone communication center. The trailers are prepared for rapid response upon request and have been made available to emergency personnel and law enforcement who are faced with the same communications challenges.

P&GJ: What advice would you give to anyone in the industry who has not adopted using the ICS?

Terri Larson, Larson Communications – Learn it now before you need it in an incident. Begin including all ICS functions in exercises and drills held by field operations – even a phone call to “activate” a function is helpful as this allows that team to then determine how they would respond and whether their response capabilities and training are adequate.

If operations is prepared to respond to a major incident but the support teams are not, then your company is not adequately prepared in a manner that will engender trust from any of your key stakeholders.

Jon Wickersham and Steve Baker, Colonial Pipeline – Start now. Master smaller incidents to prepare for larger ones. Don’t start with ICS with your worst-case scenario. Also, recognize training will take a commitment of time and money to implement. You may be able to have more control over the money, but the time will always be required for training and exercising to improve readiness/competencies.

It is critical this commitment to ICS be supported at the highest levels of an organization. Find a program that most closely fits your time, budget and commitment levels and model upon it as much as possible. You will never be perfect, so be prepared for continuous (time/money/training) improvement.

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