The Incident Command System: A 25-year Evaluation by California Practitioners

This page may contain links to non-U.S. government websites. What this means to you »

By Dana Cole

Few innovations in recent years have had more impact on emergency services than the introduction and widespread adoption of the Incident Command System (ICS) for managing emergencies of all types. The problem addressed by this research is that, despite the emergence of ICS as the world's leading management system for the command, control, and coordination of emergency scenes, there has never been a comprehensive performance evaluation of the system.

The purpose of this research project was to provide the beginnings of a such an evaluation of ICS at the end of its first quarter-century of use in California. To accomplish this a system performance audit was conducted using information provided by Command and General Staff members of California's 17 standing major incident teams, most of whom have used ICS since its very inception in California in the 1970s.

An evaluative research methodology was applied using an approach called a "SWOT" analysis (the acronym standing for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the primary strengths of ICS?
  2. What are the primary weaknesses of ICS?
  3. What strategic opportunities and threats are suggested by the analysis of ICS strengths and weaknesses?

To conduct the evaluation a 21-item survey instrument was distributed via electronic mail to 206 current and past Command and General Staff members of California's major incident teams, which consist of representatives from local, state, and federal government agencies. Respondents rated 16 attributes of ICS on a 10-point scale. A 60 percent response rate allowed for rigorous statistical analysis of the results. A rank order listing of the attribute ratings is presented in Table 2, but perhaps the most significant result was that none of the ICS attributes received a mean rating in the lower half of the 10-point scale. Thus, statistically speaking, none of the ICS attributes was considered an absolute weakness by the sample population. Even the lowest-rated attribute, with a mean rating of 6.23, was rated significantly greater (at the 95 percent confidence level) than the statistical midpoint of the 10-point scale used.

Using statistical confidence intervals, the author stratified the 16 attributes into three mutually-exclusive tiers of statistical significance. The highest rated of these, or "first tier strengths," represent the essence of what California's veteran ICS practitioners most value about the system, which the author describes as predetermined internal alignment. The second and third tier attributes were also evaluated, and "opportunity targets" for improving ICS were identified, primarily in the area of improving the system's external alignment with non-ICS users.

Based on the performance evaluation by California's veteran ICS practitioners, the author offers three recommendations for improving the Incident Command System. The first of these is to establish a formalized national systems management process. Second, develop a strategy for promoting ICS as the standardized model for emergency management. And third, institutionalize an ongoing national systems evaluation process.