Multiplicity of Command

How many more times does disaster have to strike before responders finally learn the lesson of the need for unified command?  How many times do agencies need to experience a tug-of-war over resources, slow response to needs due to poor inter-agency communication, and lousy coordination all because the "powers that be" refuse to put their egos aside and agree to play nicely together?

As evidenced by disaster after disaster, when jurisdictions experiencing wide-spread disaster fail to work together to coordinate, their problems become exacerbated.

I know there are plenty of responders out there who have their own little bit of heartburn over NIMS.  Sometimes it is a little too clunky, and the feelings have been documented by researchers like Buck, Trainor and Aguirre.  Decision-making in disasters has been a problem for long before we began to study disaster management.  An interesting paper by Thomas Drabek in the 1983 International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, "Alternative  Patterns of Decisionmaking in Emergent Disasters", indicated several qualities found in disasters that influenced decision-making.  The disasters were multi-organizational in that they exceeded the capabilities of locals and thus required outside assistance.  The disasters had a diverse array of resources needed, therefore there was much in the way of technical understanding that needed expert overview.  There were "loose couplings", in that the players often had little to no interaction prior to the event taking place, therefore unfamiliarity with personalities and capabilities.  The organization that emerged from the disaster grew over time, often overwhelming the initial responders.  Finally, the disasters still retained much in the way of local control and for whatever reason, the AHJ maintained that control even when faced with being overwhelmed by the incident.

I found the last point to be an interesting one; while in my opinion it is important that the AHJ retain control over an incident, the incident commander must have the courage and the intelligence to determine when and at what point the incident is overwhelming his/her ability to manage the incident, and to not be afraid of developing a unified command.  With rare exception, local managers are generally lacking in the experience of confronting a managerial problem of this complexity, and instead of riding it out and insisting everything is "just fine", they need to reach out to the assistance being offered from regional and state (and federal authorities, if indicated) to provide advice and resources to bring the suffering of their community to bear.  Failing to do so is tantamount to abandoning your community.

The basics of NIMS are sound; the principal tenets revolving around division of labor and the unity of command are borne out on a daily basis on firegrounds and every other kind of emergency we can think of.  Multiple "commands" at a large, wide-area incident, absent the coordination of a local emergency operations center and a more centralized command structure, will only end up in the waste of valuable resources, time, and patience.  One unified incident command managing several Area Commands works.  Doing so will minimize the confusion and add to the  proper allocation of resources, and insure that the overall incident is managed.

When you don't play the game, you are saying that it is your world, and we're all just living in it.  I realize the intense pressure of having to deal with a rapidly deteriorating condition and the inability, sometimes, to just get your hands around it.  When I have had this happen, I have found that sometimes its best to take a step back, look over the situation, and take it one bite at a time.  But when you have entrenched yourself and refuse to plan in advance for disasters, thinking that you are going to handle everything yourself and that your community doesn't need help from the outside, well, you are setting yourself up for a fall.  And when you stray from the basics of incident management, something will eventually give.

Don't be afraid to let others help, especially in areas where you may not be as experienced.  If you have resources being offered to you to help manage things, consider them a tool to use, not a crutch.  And realize that in the face of a major disaster, it's not just about you; your community has neighbors and they too may need assistance. It's a good idea to work with them ahead of time so you know where everyone is coming from.  Realize that all resources are limited and that's a good reason to be talking with everyone involved, because each of these stakeholders have a lot to contribute, but as stakeholders, they also have a lot to lose.  A unified command at a major incident is definitely the way to go.

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