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Incident Command System in a Disaster Situation Essay

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Updated: Dec 11th, 2021


The need for an incident command system (ICS) came into the limelight after the wildfires that rocked south California in late 1970. The fire caused sixteen deaths, 600000 acres of vegetation and more than 700 structures were completely burned. According to Heide, Incident Command System is the organizational structure comprising personnel, procedures, policies, and equipment that are integrated to be able to manage the response operations of any form of emergencies and disasters, irrespective of the magnitude. The incident command system was designed to improve interagency communication and hence offer a platform of joint planning (Irwin 23). Its development was to address the disorganization in planning and operational witnessed at inter agencies level, inadequacy in intelligence, mismanagement of resources, and limitation in the prediction of fire occurrences. This essay will discuss the incident command system, reasons for its establishment, and its various levels of command and devise an appropriate risk assessment and action plan that would have been implemented at Buncefield. The essay will also explore the role of effective liaison with the media in a disaster situation.

According to the National Response Team (NRT), ICS is usually governed by five key functionalities. These functional areas are operations, command, planning, logistics, and financial management. The NRT notes that intelligence must be integrated into the organization depending on the kind of complexity of the disaster or emergency. In the United Kingdom, the incident command system is widely used by the disaster response units in responding to fire tragedies. During the Buncefield fire tragedy, the ICS was widely utilized by the police and the fire brigades drawn up from all over the UK. According to the HPA press, the fire was caused by a succession of explosions in fuel storage tanks in the Hertfordshire oil storage terminal. The facility had a capacity of 275 million liters of oil products which were owned by Total UK limited (BBC). The fire that ensued lasted for several days before it was eventually put off by a contingent of fire brigades and the metropolitan police with the ICS being commanded from the Hertfordshire constabulary (National Environment Research Council par.4).

The command structure employed during the operation was the gold –silver- bronze command structure which is commonly used by the UK emergency services. The London metropolitan services developed a manual on the management of disasters where the titles represent the roles but not the ranks. The gold has the overall command of the response including resources. The silver is the one who devises the tactics to be deployed in the operations of the team while the bronze roles are to control and ensure the resources at hand are distributed equitably to achieve maximum results. This hierarchical framework is similar to the strategic- tactical- operational procedure used in other countries (Heide 147).

Factors that support the formation of an incident command system

Several key factors make it vital for an effective incident command to be devised in the UK to enhance the response and management of large-scale disasters. The factors should enhance proper coordination with a well-arranged chain of command. Proper coordination will ensure that the goals of the operations are met by allowing the flow of communication to the relevant commands and the subsequent distribution to all stakeholders involved in the response (Heide). The design of the whole ICS unit should be standardized to allow its flexibility and proper working. The need for a comprehensive chain of command of supervision to ensure monitoring of the responsibilities at all levels and also aid in the priority setting of the operations.

Communication efficiency and working in synergy with public officials and other agencies are also a prerequisite for the management of catastrophic disasters. The liaison officer will link the response units with the findings of investigating bodies particularly in this era of increased terrorism acts. This will be in tandem with the recommendation made by the task force mandated to look into ways of mitigating the effects of a disaster of the Buncefield nature.

Another reason for the establishment is to create a body that will conduct training and awareness campaigns among various groups. This body will set minimum guidelines on the coordination, response culture and develop a common language that will make dissemination effective. The specialization of several cadres of response units will be well utilized through contacting of the units which are needed depending on the type of the emergency.

Levels of commands in a unified command

The unified command is a structure that brings on board several incidental commanders in one team. The incident commanders retain the duties in their areas of jurisdiction or organizations. The main aim of the integration is to achieve consensus in the implementation decisions. The unified command is mostly applicable when a response encompasses multiple functionalities, different levels of government, cross boundaries, or a constellation of these factors. The unified command involves various officers who have different roles and responsibilities. They include the incident commander, command staff, information officer, liaison officer, safety officer and general staff. The incident commander (IC) is the topmost authority in this hierarchy and is in charge of synthesizing objectives, managing and directing the response operations. He/ she oversees and assigns duties to the other officers. In a disaster scenario, he/she must ensure the safety of the rescue workers, onlookers and the victims. The IC must manage the resources at his disposal efficiently and always make cost-effective in all the undertakings. Other roles include ensuring that the action plans are implemented accordingly after he/she approves them. Determination of strategies and observation of provision of safety measures are other crucial roles the IC must ensure are adhered to.

The command staffs are responsible for operational activities such as public relations, health, and safety and report to the incident commander. The information officer disseminates information to the public through the use of media houses, other agencies or organizations. The liaison officer’s role is to create a link among the various response groups thereby allowing activities to run smoothly. The safety officer advises the IC on the suitable measures to be put in place to safeguard personnel safety. This is after he/she reviews the incidental plans and analyses of the hazardous situations on the site. The general staff is another level of command that is key for a successful incidental action plan. In this category are operations, planning, logistics, and the administration staff. Their responsibilities usually lie with the IC, although sometimes the duties are distributed to departmental heads (National response team 12-14). The planning staff is in charge of managing all information on the progress of the incidental operations while the operations staff oversees the technical functionalities of the response. These include all the activities directed at managing the situation and alleviating human suffering. The logistics staff’s main role is to ensure that equipment, facilities, and any materials needed during the response are available when needed. The financial aspects and the cost analysis of the response are carried out by the finance and administrative officer (Federal emergency management agency par. 5).

Risk assessment plan

The effects of the Buncefield fire could have greatly been reduced if an appropriate risk assessment had taken place before the incident. A risk assessment is useful since it addresses the corrective measures that need to be in place from risks in the workplace. A risk control plan has several elements and procedures which help the assessor to deduce the best mitigation measures for each risk. The plan should have taken into account the hazard to be controlled for each activity and its associated risks. In the case of the Buncefield fire, the assessors should have listed the risks associated with the oil facility. The assessor should have developed a mechanism to control the hazard and identify the person who will be in charge of controlling the hazard if it occurred. Another consideration was to identify the persons or specific groups who would be put at risk by the hazard. The degree of the risk should also have been determined and the mode the harm would affect each individual should as well be documented. The risk posed should be rated as low, medium, or high depending on the likelihood of occurrence and the seriousness of the harm. The mode of harm would be different depending on the location of the workers and the persons at risk. Other factors like the vulnerability of children, pregnant mothers, and persons suffering from respiratory disorders should have been determined. Such information would have helped the response team to take immediate action. The critical limits of the risks should be identified through well-set-up monitoring procedures and equipment. This is significant because the officers on duty will know when to raise an alarm for evacuation purposes and allow full response to begin (Fire Rages after Blasts at Oil Depot 5).

The measures or restrictions the storage facility had put in place could have been reinforced with more advanced mitigation procedures. The inadequacy of control measures is mostly traced when a review of the existing safety and health measures are undertaken in a factory or an industry. At this juncture, the assessor should have come up with the results of the risk assessment and rate the corrective actions against the degree of risk posed. This, in turn, would have helped in the development of an action plan where corrective actions are allocated timelines and assigned to a specific individual for accountability purposes. This is usually cross-checked when another assessment is conducted on the same premises. (Eriksson 69-95)

Structure of an action plan

Effective action plans are a requirement for industries and any processes that may have negative consequences to public health and the environment in general. An ideal incidental action plan should address the risks and control measures to be undertaken to normalize the situation. An action plan must have the aim, objectives, planning, implementation, evaluation, and debriefing aspect in its structure as elaborated below (National Response Team 20).

Aim: To mitigate the consequences of a fire outbreak and oil spills in the Buncefield oil storage facility


  1. To comply with the laid down regulations by the health and safety executive
  2. To carry out a response operation based according to laid down regulations.
  3. To establish firefighting equipment and underground water storage tanks, oil sucking equipment, and lagoons in the premises.
  4. To control the fire within the least time possible and limit it to the facility premises
  5. To avail information to the various agencies by posting updates on the print media, public notice boards, and on the company’s website.

Planning: Adequate resources in terms of logistics, personnel, and finance are set aside for emergency operations. The various stakeholders in the unified command will arrive at the scene of the incident. The first to arrive will take charge and assign duties depending on the priorities of the moment. The arrival of the other units will result in the specialization of activities.

Implementation: The formation of a unified command run from a location near the Buncefield depot. The unified command would bring together the metropolitan department, Buncefield facility management, the fire brigade, the British Red Cross society, and other public agencies. The incidental commander in the national emergency response team will be the overall supervisor and will oversee the operations of the command. Under him will be the liaison officer, information officer, command staff, safety officer, and general staff. Each officer will be in charge of activities of his/her docket and will report to the immediate supervisor to enhance communication and coordination.

Evaluation: A regular and comprehensive monitoring and evaluation will be conducted throughout operations. This will be in tandem with the regulations spelled in the report presented by the task force appointed to look into the aftermath of Buncefield.

Debriefing: The response mission will be called off after the fire has been contained and no signs of resurgence. The unified will carry an audit of the whole operation and the information disseminated to all relevant stakeholders (Irwin 10).

Public agencies that ought to have been involved in Buncefield

The public agencies that would have been involved include the environmental agency, department of commerce, department of defense, and the British Geological Survey. The environmental agency should have been involved in the assessment of the level of groundwater pollution resulting from the oil spillage. Contamination of other surface waters could also have occurred owing to the massive quantities of oil in the storage facility. The Department of Defense has some of the most sophisticated firefighting equipment in the United Kingdom. Their involvement would have reduced considerably the time spent in extinguishing the fire. The geology department should have carried an evaluation of the impact of the emissions on the atmosphere in aspects of pollution and effects on weather and advice the public on the appropriate mitigation measures. The department of commerce should have been consulted considering the significant economic losses emanating from the damages caused by the explosion (British Geological Survey 8).

Role of effective liaison with the media and other public agencies

The role of constructive reporting by the media cannot be overlooked particularly in the era of the digital revolution. On this basis, the disaster response units should ensure accurate, reliable, and regular information on the operations of the disaster is communicated to relevant stakeholders. Bhavan notes that communication relayed through mass media about imminent disasters is pivotal in awakening the community into action. Bhavan asserts the media is the only communication tool that can play the greatest role in forewarning and enlightening the masses on ways of mitigating themselves from the effects of disasters. Relief agencies and government authorities rely on information from the media to plan evacuation procedures and distribution of basic commodities. Accurate information relied upon through the news media is known to lower possible psychological effects that result from the passage of incorrect information. Media coverage has also enhanced the conveyance of information from disaster-prone areas which in turn is used for response preparation. The independence enjoyed by the media industry, qualified journalists and the massive investment has enabled objectivity to prevail in the reporting of global events (par 4).

The Buncefield response team lacked a well-established framework to enable proper liaison between it and other agencies. This occasioned an upsurge of theories of the possible cause of the explosion. Some media houses reported that the explosion was an act of terrorism thus causing panic within the United Kingdom. There also lacked proper coordination of the rescue operations owing to a lack of concerted liaison efforts among the stakeholders. This also impacted the duration spent by the rescue mission to put off the fire. Information on the disaster should have been relayed from one command to ensure uniformity in the reporting. News agencies should have been warned about speculation and inaccurate reporting until the investigation bodies unearthed the cause. This would have reduced panicking particularly in areas where evacuation was supposed to take place (Lessons from the Buncefield Fire 2)


Although no fatalities occurred in the Buncefield fire tragedy, it still remains one of the worst disasters of recent times. The lessons learnt helped the UK government to set the minimum standards for possible intervention in times of disasters emphasizing largely on emergency preparedness and timely response. There is every reason for all stakeholders to have adequate resources needed during emergencies so that loss of lives and destruction of properties can be reduced.

Works Cited

Bhavan, Vijay. Disaster communication and early warning systems. Disaster Management congress of India. 2009.

British Geological Survey. “Hemel Hempstead Area”. 2005. Web.

Erickson, Paul. Emergency response planning for corporate and municipal Managers. San Diego. Harcourt and Brace Company. 1999.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. National Incident Management System: Incident Command System. Washington. 2008. Web.

Fire Rages after Blasts at Oil Depot”. Sky News. 2005. Web.

Heidi, Erik. Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Coordination. Mosby. St. Louis. 1989.

Lessons from the Buncefield Fire”. HPA Press Office. 2006. Web.

Irwin, R. Principles of Disasters and Emergencies. St Louis. Mosby. 1990.

Massive blaze rages at fuel depot“. BBC News. 2005. Web.

National Response Team. ICS/UC Technical Assistance Document. 1990. Web.

Natural Environment Research Council. Oil depot explosion update. 2006. Web.

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