Estimated 13 min reading time.
Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. On this episode, we are discussing the Incident Command System. As you are well aware, ICS is a standardized approach to the command, control and coordination of emergency response. It provides a common hierarchy to help first responders from multiple agencies be effective.
It is now a component of the National Incident Management System, which is NIMS. Our guest, Chief David Downey, has a lot of experience using ICS in large and small events. He’s a 40-year veteran of the fire service, retiring in May of 2019 from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue after 37 years of active service, the last 6 as a fire chief. Chief Downey commanded many incidents throughout his career and has responded to major events locally, nationally and internationally. He was the Incident Commander for numerous large-scale events to include the Miami-Dade College parking garage collapse and the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse. In his current role with the state Fire Marshal’s Office, Chief Downey responded to the collapse of the Champlain Tower South in Surfside, Florida, and has assisted with coordination of all search and rescue operations. Thank you for joining us today, Chief.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Can you explain a little bit about the Incident Command System?
Well, as you said it in your introduction there, it provides us a standardized approach so that we can all kind of be operating off the same sheet of music. The terminology is consistent, and the approach is consistent. So, whether it’s fire-based, EMS-based or law enforcement, we’re working off the same sheet of music.
It’s expandable, it’s contractable, it allows us to work smaller-size incidents all the way to very complex disasters. And, as the disaster begins to scale down, we can also scale the size of the command system.
So, my question is what are the benefits of it? Can you go into more detail about what the benefits of that system are?
The benefit of the Incident Command System is that it provides all of the responders with a manageable span of control. So, everybody is reporting to a function within the emergency response; everybody knows who’s responsible for who; it ensures the safety, the effectiveness and the efficiency of all the responders on the scene.
That’s the largest benefit to the system and — as well as the ability to expand it and contract it.
And I guess also another benefit could possibly be that if everybody’s using it, if you have to pull in agencies from outside your specific area, that it’s not something new they have to learn. They — they kind of know this is the way that it’s set up. This is the way that we’re gonna work.
Exactly, yes. We all use the same terminology now, and we all, regardless of where you’re at in the country, where — you know, whether it’s municipal, county, state or federal — everybody does it the same way, and it’s incredibly helpful. So, there’s no learning curve with specific terminology for an area or for a type of incident.
And can you explain the difference between an incident and an event?
Well, as I reflect on my career and the incidents that I have been involved with, I’ve come to realize over time — and it really kind of set off a lightbulb at the Surfside incident, the building collapse — is that sometimes, you know, we get stuck in the mode of this is how we always do it.
And so, I kind of looked at it as we manage incidents every day, whether it’s a residential structure fire or a multi-vehicle accident or even a mass-casualty incident. And we’re really good at it. And when that type of incident expands to not hours but days or perhaps even weeks, we have to change our mindset.
And so, I kind of coined the phrase of an incident versus an event. When we have an event, something that’s gonna span multiple days, multiple weeks while we’re utilizing the system, we have to change our mindset and take a different approach to how this long-term event is gonna take place.
So, as I mentioned in the intro, you’ve been involved in many high-profile incidents, so I kind of wanted to walk through a couple of ‘em, if that’s OK, and just ask you some of the questions like how did you handle it? What surprised you? What — how did ICS make it easier? Let me go back. Not really easier.
How did ICS help you to walk through this event? So, your first one — I have 3 for you — but the Miami-Dade College parking garage collapse, which was on October 10th, in 2012, where 3 people died and several were injured. And when I was reading up on this, it was also that somebody was missing for an amount of time as well.
So, can you speak to this event and how you handled it?
So, specific to this event, you know, when the initial dispatch came in, at the time I was the chief of operations for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, and I heard the call as it went out. I was actually in the area. And so, as our initial units arrived, and you know, as part of the Incident Command System in our agency as it is most, the units that are arriving early on start the Incident Command System. And so, it was started relatively quickly as the first of the units were arriving on the scene. And when I arrived only a few minutes later, after the first units arrived, we began to just expand the system and look at the system as what are the functional areas that we have to look at?
We know that we have a collapse. We know that we have victims. We know that we have an accountability issue because it was at a community college. So, you know, who was in the parking garage? Where is everybody at? And then we also knew that we had a multidiscipline response. We had a police agency that was for the local community, the city, and we also had the county police agency. So, it was a multidiscipline, multi-incident type of response. So, my role, I took over the role of the Incident Commander early on and then just segmented through the Incident Command System those functional responsibilities to the specific officers that we had.
In Miami-Dade County, it’s well established that if it’s a rescue operation that’s not related to a crime such as, you know, an active shooter event, that the fire department within our jurisdiction — we’re the authority having jurisdiction. And that maintains throughout the incident until we transition to the recovery phase.
And so, we were the responsible entity, and we just have the various responders fill in under that. The only real outside entity besides law enforcement was the representatives of the community college. And with this incident, that it kind of expanded into an event, the victims that were lightly trapped and more significantly trapped were all removed. The location of those that were deceased was identified, and as you said, we had 1 person that was unaccounted for. And so, after we had determined that there were no more life hazards and we weren’t in the rescue mode — I’d say 20 hours into the incident — we transitioned to recovery.
It didn’t change our place at the scene, but it changed the responsibility where Miami-Dade Police became the authority having jurisdiction and fire supported their operation. And we stayed there for 8 days until we recovered that last victim. And so, the Incident Command System was in place a lot more scaled down for a period of 8 days.
On the FIU pedestrian bridge collapse on March 15th, 2018, and there were 6 people that lost their lives and 10 that were injured in that collapse. Again, how did you handle this and what were some of your lessons learned?
Sure. This was in some respects very similar to the parking garage collapse in that it was a construction site. This was a little bit more complex because you had a lot of different entities responsible. You had the university, Florida International University, that had some jurisdictional responsibilities for the construction.
You had a municipality on the other side of the bridge that had some responsibilities, and then you had the state of Florida, which had some responsibilities. All in all, though, the authority having jurisdiction was the fire department. So, one of the big lessons learned out of this incident, or really what I learned out of the first collapse, is that we need to measure how we make the transition. You know, when there are still people missing, we have to make sure that we have identified any possibility of a survivor.
Because, you know, it’s an impact to the loved ones and those that are waiting for word on their loved ones. So, you know, at the parking garage collapse, we were fairly confident after we removed the last entrapped victim that we had accounted for everybody that could have survived based on the type of collapse and the void spaces that were available.
At the bridge collapse, you know, part of the challenge, because it collapsed on an active roadway, was identifying how many vehicles were under that and where, you know, how many people were in each vehicle. So, it took a lot longer because it took almost 3 days to recover all the vehicles. Have we done a good job accounting for everybody?
So, the big takeaway in both of these incidents is that, you know, the Incident Command System, part of that needs to focus on accountability and victim accountability and making sure that we do a good job of identifying who is gonna be in there, who is in there, and where would they most likely have been located. And we learned a lot out of the parking garage collapse, and that transitioned into the bridge collapse.
Our partners at Miami-Dade Police and FIU did a phenomenal job in helping us early on determine, you know, how many victims and the numbers we really have. So, if we located a vehicle, we knew there was only 1 occupant or 2 occupants in the vehicle.
So, the other one that, I mean, it was really big, I remember it really clearly, and it wasn’t that long ago. And for us, I think for people watching the news, it was surprising, but maybe not for people around who knew the area. But the Champlain Tower South in Surfside, Florida, on June 24th, 2021, the collapse of that — at least partial collapse — of that building and that 98 people were killed.
So, you know, first and foremost again, you know, I can’t say enough about the responders, those first responders that really put into motion the events that — that transpired over the next almost 30 days, 28 days. And we talk a lot about that, you know, those initial actions by those first-in units.
What they say, what they do really can set in motion the help that’s needed early on and the resources that were needed. When that incident took place, I had been retired from Miami-Dade Fire, but obviously know the area, know the responders. Once again, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue was the lead agency and the authority having jurisdiction.
My role now, under the State Fire Marshal’s office, was to coordinate the state resources for Urban Search and Rescue and to work with the local incident command structure. And so, unlike the previous collapses in Miami-Dade that I had been a part of, this was not a building under construction.
This was an active structure that was occupied, as you said. And so once again, though, one of the largest issues we had was accountability. And this was even, you know, much more complicated because in South Florida we have what we affectionately call the snowbirds. And so, we have a lot of transient residents that are only here part of the year.
And an incident that happens in the height of the summer, who isn’t staying there at that period of time? So, it took many, many hours, many days to really get a number on who’s missing. As far as the incident response goes, it started as any other incident. And when I say that you start your Incident Command System, you build out your Incident Command System to your needs. What really changed in my mind was that — and again, I use a quote all the time — that we’re only as good as our last emergency. And I’m not saying that negatively, but we get caught in that mindset of we do it this way all the time. And so, when we do incident command even for a multiple-alarm fire, number 1, we know that it’s gonna be over within a few hours.
Number 2, any help that we need, we’re gonna have that help within minutes because it’s coming locally. When an incident like this transitions into what I call an event, we have to change our mindset. If we’re gonna need additional help, in this case, maybe Urban Search and Rescue or heavy equipment, there’s an incredibly longer reflex time.
Now we’re talking about hours, even potentially days, to get those resources out there. So, the Incident Commander has to stay in front of the incident. They cannot be stuck in the mindset of, well, I’ll just call for it and it’ll be here in a couple minutes, like an additional fire engine or EMS unit or police unit.
And so, 1 of the lessons learned that I try to talk about coming out of Surfside is for those Incident Commanders to realize that, 1, we’re gonna be here for a long time. So, we need to build the depth of our command structure. You know, 1 person is not gonna be able to manage that incident or 2 people for 28 days.
And, number 2, making sure that we realize that if we think we need something, and even if we think we may need it in a couple days, let’s get the resource request rolling so that we can bring in those resources when we need ‘em. Like any incident, I’d rather have ‘em sitting in a parking lot ready to come to work than be a distance away.
And then the last issue that is related to that is just the sheer number. While we had, you know, the focus on the Champlain Towers South collapse was the search and rescue personnel. And that was a very robust part of the Incident Command System with over 500 rescuers just focused on that function.
There was a lot of other things going on, and so incident command has to be able to expand and deal with the logistical support that’s needed. The financial documentation of where the costs are being incurred. We had some fire incidents early on. We had the EMS support of the rescuers.
We had the political issues that you’re always gonna deal with, whether it’s local, state or federal. And in this incident, we even had international response. And so being able to manage all of those facets under the idea that we still have to have a manageable span of control to ensure the effectiveness and the efficiency.
So, I have a question, and it might be a rookie question. When I was reading about these incidents, some of them happen like for FEMA response to natural disasters. So, they happen. But some of these, there’s a criminal aspect to it, like people are going to be charged.
How does that factor in? I mean, does that change how you move forward? Because I’m assuming there’s gonna have to be evidence collection and that type of thing. And so, maybe that part of the system is that you bring in the law enforcement that can do that type, but does it change the way that you’re working a scene or you’re dealing with it because, you know, there could be criminal action in the future?
Absolutely. Any of these large-scale incidents or events, you have to establish a unified command. And while fire rescue may be the authority having jurisdiction, all the partners have to have a seat at the table so that you are making sure that you are covering all your bases. In the case of all of the incidents that we’ve already spoke of, we had police always in the room with us. The medical examiner always in the room with us. The local elected officials always in the room with us.
So, it can become a very crowded room, but it’s critically important that as a firefighter, I don’t think like a law enforcement officer. I need that law enforcement officer to tell me, listen, this is what we need to do with what you find. You know, in the case of the Champlain Towers, we were finding a lot of, obviously, personal artifacts, and how do we catalog those?
That’s the job, in our case, of law enforcement. And so, you’re absolutely correct that you have to bring all those parties in. And, you know, another big thing of mine is this all has to be done under blue skies. This cannot be done at 1 o’clock in the morning when a building just collapsed or a bridge just collapsed.
These partnerships have to be developed early on, and, you know, another quote I use all the time is that in my experience, disasters never create new problems. All they do is amplify the problems that are already there. So, if you don’t have a good relationship with your partners and first responders on a good day, it’s not gonna be any better during a crisis. And so, having those partners have a seat at the table is critically important. And I was very fortunate during my time at Miami-Dade that over the years, post-September 11th especially, that we developed a very strong relationship with our law enforcement partners, and we sat right next to each other, and the transitions were seamless.
And so, you know, you hit the nail right on the head. You have to have those entities there because it may be a crime scene, it may not be a crime scene, but early on we don’t have a clue. You know, those early hours of the Champlain Towers collapse, we didn’t know if it was an act of terrorism. We didn’t know if it was a gas leak.
Everybody was scratching their heads saying, how does a building just fall down? And so, you have to make sure that you involve all those entities.
To keep your system strong, do you have meetings with these partners on a — like a quarterly basis or bimonthly basis just so that you are talking to each other and sharing information, not knowing if something’s gonna happen?
Well, I think you have to have the open dialogue. Again, for us in South Florida, we have the benefit, if you want to call it that, of constantly having to operate under the possibility of hurricanes from June ‘til November. And so, we annually exercise our hurricane response.
And that is when a lot of the partners are brought together. Also, in the state of Florida, post-September 11th, we created regional domestic security task forces, and that’s where every entity that could be responsible for a response, in this case to terrorism, has a seat at the table, and we meet quarterly.
And so, you know who your counterpart is. You know, I mean, OK, it’s good that I know who the police chief is. But that’s not gonna be the person that’s there at 1 o’clock in the morning. So, I need to make sure that my Incident Commanders know who their counterpart will be in law enforcement, and if you have a separate EMS or any of those entities. These regional domestic task forces, and I don’t know if it’s something commonplace in all 50 states, but it’s been very successful here in Florida just because we know who our counterparts are and that’s not just the local law enforcement. It’s everything. The school police and the state police and the marine patrol and all the various entities that, quite frankly, I didn’t know existed when I first started at this. And so, that helps us tremendously so that at 1 o’clock in the morning you recognize each other, you know each other, and you know what each other’s responsibilities are.
So, is there anything else you would like to add? Anything that you would like to share about ICS?
Well, I think that for ICS to be successful, it has to be utilized every day. And it has to be utilized across all of the disciplines. I’m biased because I’m a firefighter, but I believe that the fire service does a good job with ICS, and we need to make sure that we embrace all of our partners and that everybody embraces the Incident Command System.
Because for it to be successful, you have to have the players in the right place at the right time. We have to train constantly, and we have to look at our after-action and how we can improve in the future. I think that that is gonna lead to a successful outcome in any incident.
Thank you for being our guest today, and I just wanna thank the audience for listening to the USFA Podcast. If you want to learn more about ICS, you can go to training.fema.gov/nims, N-I-M-S. And if you have a topic or a speaker you would like us to interview, please email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.