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ICS Is Not Just for Operations

The fire service has an excellent means of organizing resources, providing accountability for them, then allocating them to meet challenges. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a time-proven approach to dealing with emergencies, but we shouldn’t ignore that, at its base, it’s simply a management tool.

Volunteer departments can take a lesson from ICS when evaluating how well they can meet their department’s administrative aspects. There’s no reason we can’t take some of its major principles and apply them outside of operations.

Defined Organizational Structure

Just as the fireground has a clearly defined structure, the organization should as well. Perhaps you use a president as the head of administration, perhaps there’s a board of directors that requires periodic reports. Whatever system works for you, there should be no question who reports to whom and how communication should be conveyed.

Flexible Structure

Because there are innumerable types of incidents the fire service responds to, ICS allows expansion and contraction based on need and resources. In volunteer fire departments, membership can expand or contract based on people coming in or leaving.

To ensure this variance doesn’t adversely affect administrative responsibilities, your organizational foundations, such as bylaws and constitutions, shouldn’t hinder your organization.

Should you place someone who hasn’t done well leading others in such a position just because your bylaws call for a warm body? Keep your organizational structure flexible to allow for this type of variance.

Span of Control and Unity of Command

Two of the more important parts of fireground accountability, span of control and unity of command are important parts of organizational accountability as well. When developing the organizational structure, be sure everyone has one person they’re accountable to (unity of command) and leaders don’t have too many people to supervise (span of control).

On the fireground, when the situation justifies decreasing the span of control, we do so to ensure safety and accountability, such as keeping track of people in smoke- and heat-filled environments compared to watching them on an alarm call.

While the circumstances are different, keeping span of control manageable can prove beneficial for long-term success in organizations as well.

Unified Command System

While it doesn’t happen every day, the ability to work with outside agencies is important when emergencies pose irregular threats to your community. The ability to do the same when working on nonemergencies can make your department shine in the community’s eye.

Imagine tackling the issue of encouraging home sprinklers in your community. Teaming with local builders, building inspectors, real estate brokers and others will prove more effective than building a team of just fire-department personnel.

Management by Objectives

Life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation have been drilled into our heads since introductory classes in the fire service. These strategic objectives guide us through our emergency responses. Our organizations need guiding objectives as well.

Mission, vision and value statements can be the foundation that success is built on. An organization should know its fundamental purpose (mission), what it would like to achieve strategically (vision) and the principles it won’t break to meet these goals (values). Without these as your targets, your department could flounder and be ineffective.

Incident Action Planning

Whether you’re an incident commander on a wildland fire that spans thousands of acres, supported by planning, logistics and finance/administration sections or you’re an incident commander working from a whiteboard in the back of a chief’s buggy on a room-and-contents fire, your incident action plan is an important part of effectively managing that emergency.

Outside of emergencies, organizations should use strategic plans to set priorities, manage resources, work toward common goals and assess and adjust to changes. Many templates and other resources are available to guide leaders through developing a strategic plan. The ability to show your counterparts in local government and business such a document will demonstrate that your department is a professional, business-minded organization.

If you’re someone who’s more confident standing in front of a structure fire than solving administrative woes, you’re not alone. Realize that many of the fireground management techniques we learned in ICS can be applied to the organizational and business aspects of your department. While they can’t solve all issues, they provide a strong foundation towards building a better fire-service organization.

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