Utilities and the Incident Command Systemby John Kullmann
To improve emergency response operations, utilities across the United States and Canada are increasingly adopting the Incident Command System (ICS). Given what appears to be the increasing severity of weather, the greater number of incidents that result, and instant visibility into events in a wired world, it is no surprise that ICS is gaining in prominence in the utilities industry. Most importantly, ICS is likely to gain even wider adoption because it is a proven approach to coordinated, cost-effective incident management.
To identify trends, best practices, and challenges of ICS in the utilities industry, Macrosoft, Inc. conducted an online survey during August 2013. It encompassed 85 participants, representing investor-owned as well as municipal utilities, drawn for every region of the U.S. (see Figure 1, with customer bases that range from fewer than 100,000 customers to more than three million.
Survey results present a decidedly mixed picture. While much progress has been made, significant obstacles remain. For example, companies are expected to implement ICS but they fail to budget for it, yet this relatively small investment could help them avoid the enormous costs of sub-optimal incident response year after year. Many respondents indicate that during an incident they lack adequate communication with the field or with people they don’t normally work with, pointing up the need for systems that provide fast and effective communication both internally and externally. As with communication, many companies appear to need a technology solution to help guide them through the ICS process. But obstacles can also be opportunities, as the survey results indicate in four critical elements of ICS: adoption, training, execution, and tools and technology.
Ninety-five percent of survey respondents see ICS as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for effective emergency response. About half use ICS every time an incident occurs, followed by a little less than 30 percent who report using ICS ‘sometimes’ when incidents occur, and 20 percent who are not using it but feel they should.
Asked how they currently implement ICS when an incident occurs, almost half (47%) said they follow the National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines, the national blueprint for effective and efficient incident management. But they say also that they customize the guidelines for utility company use. Fourteen percent of respondents use some, but not all, of the guidelines, while 25 percent primarily use their own management system, and 14 percent use none of the guidelines.
Although several respondents said that there is little that is unique about utilities that hinders adoption of ICS, far more cited distinctive industry characteristics. Most utilities, for example, are regionally focused, as opposed to entities that are municipally or nationally focused. Further, utilities work by circuit. An outage in one municipality may require work in another community, a dynamic that local governments sometimes do not understand. Utilities can also be extremely hazardous, requiring a difficult balance between ‘make safe’ and ‘restore.’ In addition, utilities have obligations to certain regulators, agencies, and investors; and although senior management is responsible for operations, during an incident many agencies suddenly feel that the utilities report to them.
The overwhelming agreement about the importance of ICS could eventually mean a ground swell of support within the utility industry for the adoption of the ICS process and the establishing of appropriate forms and tools. At the very least, such agreement suggests that utilities not currently using ICS should begin investigating how it might benefit them to adopt it.
The Challenges of Training
From the survey, the challenges of training emerged as a recurrent theme. For example, while the adoption of standard guidelines may be accelerating, the availability of training to the industry appears to be insufficient. The training that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers remains focused on the community-based first responders – utilities may therefore find it difficult to adopt materials and exercises that are not applicable to utility-response. In addition, some respondents observed that it is difficult to find the time to train an already busy workforce on a second set of responsibilities
How companies train on ICS varies widely:
- 40 percent follow the national guidelines
- 29 percent use in-house, non-FEMA training only
- 23 percent use FEMA online training and in-house training
- 8 percent use FEMA online training only.
As these results indicate, a great deal of in-house, non-FEMA training is currently taking place, but when non-FEMA training is conducted by utilities, industry experts say, it tends to be about ‘organizational incident management’ rather than ICS.
Frequency of training also varies widely. Fifty percent of companies train on ICS annually, about 10 percent train quarterly, and among those who responded ‘other’ several say they train monthly. In addition, a few companies train based on employee turnover or whenever there is a corporate mandate to train.
Regular formal training remains a critical success factor for all ICS functions, no matter how the training is conducted. During an incident, procedures must be followed out of deeply ingrained habit – there is no time to open old training guides. Given this imperative, job aids and just-in-time computer-based training can be a great help. Yet utility companies have not yet automated, standardized and made scalable the processes for its use, some of which disparity may be attributable to the lack of materials suitable for the industry.
Execution: ICS in Action
A number of companies indicated that for them ICS is ‘always on.’ For the other respondents, the trigger points for activating ICS fall into three distinct groups:
- Size of the incident
- Number of outages
- When someone either internally or externally declares that it is time to use it.
Asked which critical success factor is the biggest challenge during an incident, almost 27 percent selected ‘comprehensive resource management’ (see Figure 2). ‘Action planning’ and ‘manageable span of control’ were each cited by 16percent of respondents as the biggest executional challenge of ICS.
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ICS specifies that any single person’s span of control should be between three and seven individuals. If more than seven resources are being managed by an individual, then that person is being overloaded. To avoid overload, ICS expands the command structure by delegating responsibilities, which can empower otherwise junior employees to make decisions that exceed the authority of their day-to-day jobs. Asked whether junior employees are given greater authority when ICS is activated:
- 56% said ‘sometimes,’
- 20% who said ‘always,’
- 13% who said ‘never’
- 12% who said ‘ideally, but not currently’
Further, said some respondents, even though their companies have adopted ICS and train on it personnel often revert to their normal day-to-day way of doing things when an incident occurs.
As the issues of resource management and span of control suggest, ICS is a management system, not merely a communication system, yet 30 percent of respondents say that when their companies activate ICS it is used only for communication. While the 70 percent who said that their companies use ICS as a management system, is an overwhelming majority, it is sobering to reflect that as many as three in ten companies do not leverage the intended purpose of the system.
One of the great advantages of the system is its ability to scale. Eighty-six percent of companies that use ICS expand and contract it according to the nature of the incident. Surprisingly, however, less than 30 percent of companies always begin preparing for demobilization on day one of an incident and 40 percent never do. Huge cost overruns can be incurred if demobilization is not planned early, resulting, for example, in a parade of bucket trucks all restoring power to the last home. By contrast, effective ICS demobilizes crews once there is a schedule for remedying all disruptions to the system.
Enablers: Tools and Technology
Fifty-six percent of companies have modified ‘standard’ ICS forms and tools to match their requirements. That’s not surprising, since those forms were not designed for electric power companies in the first place, but widespread modification of forms will result in multiple versions of ICS across the industry. However, there are 14 forms that are used either always or sometimes by at least half of utility companies and might provide the starting point for standardization across the industry (see Figure 3).
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A large number of survey participants cited automated systems as a key enabler of an improved ICS process. They also identified the critical requirements of such a system: ease-of-use, ample reporting for senior management, ability to communicate with existing systems, real-time situational awareness, and uniformity across multiple utilities. However, as the survey results indicate, automated systems and uniformity across the industry have a long way to go. In fact, almost two-thirds of companies use ICS solutions that are either paper-based or homegrown.
In addition to the 66 percent of respondents who are using a paper-based or homegrown system, a number who responded ‘other’ identified their systems as a mix of the two. In answer to a related question, 56 percent of respondents indicated that their companies have no software application supporting their ICS process.
These results are worrisome in that paper-based tools are slow and lack search and reporting capability while home-grown tools lack consistency across the industry and are subject to neglect.
Companies also use a wide variety of means to deliver information to the field (see Figure 4). While 37 percent of companies deliver information to the field via email or mobile data terminals, 27 percent do so verbally or via paper. Further, those who responded ‘other’ indicated that they use wide variety of combined communication methods, which may include email, text, cell phone, verbal, and paper. While the use of multiple methods is understandable, the question arises as to whether these combinations of methods are used in a consistent fashion or are merely ad hoc, allowing personnel to use whatever is convenient rather than what is best for the situation and the company.
The Way Forward?
The adoption and implementation of ICS, as with any comprehensive system intended to manage highly complex phenomena, will inevitably encounter obstacles. But those shortcomings – the lack of uniformity, standardization, and automation in ICS adoption, training, execution, and tools – also suggest some concrete steps the industry could take to overcome them.
For example, companies could begin by sharing the ways in which they have modified and customized the most widely used ICS forms. They could then identify best practices and create industry-wide standard forms – preferably ‘smart’ forms that can be passed from shift to shift on a common platform. A widely adopted software application or automated guide to ICS could also significantly help provide a higher level of uniformity, efficiency, and effectiveness than ad hoc and homegrown approaches. The emergence of an automated, industry-wide system could be facilitated by the creation of a standards-body to ensure to ensure uniformity. In addition, utility companies may want to consider further combining their efforts in a development and training institute that might be something like FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. In any case, industry experts observe that the more standardization and commonalities both within the industry and across entities that interface then the more effective ICS will be, benefitting everyone: customers, companies, and the communities they serve.
About the Author
John Kullmann is Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Macrosoft, a New Jersey Technology company. With more than twenty years experience, John is a recognized expert in business development efforts for professional services firms. He is responsible for expanding Macrosoft from its traditional roots as a leading software development and system implementation company into an equally accomplished provider of packaged technology products.