Incident Management: Who’s in charge? Who SHOULD be in charge?

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Many utility companies use the Incident Command System (ICS) to provide a clear and universally understood chain of command to manage restoration and emergency events – incident management, if you will. They have a group of personnel who effectively manage these types of events on a day-to-day basis. These employees manage 99% of the incidents that happen throughout the year – they have to, or they wouldn’t be in their positions for very long.

In some emergencies a series of cascading events occur that complicates the response and restoration process. At least 1% of incidents become extraordinary, major events, and in some utility companies, senior management decides to take the helm as the Incident Commander or Incident Manager.

Why would senior leadership take over management of that 1% of major events or incidents? What are the factors that drive the decision? Is it because of their corporate responsibilities? Is it the exhilaration of managing the big event, or the potential publicity that will inevitably ensue? Is it because they feel they are better equipped to organize and coordinate the different response assets? Or do they just think that extraordinary threats require extraordinary attention?

Whatever the reason, the model seems wrong. Managers who successfully deal with 99% of emergency events have gained experience and confidence with the Incident Command System. They are the ones who have established relationships with local and state agencies, as well as other utility emergency response managers over the years. They have become proficient at a given set of responsibilities and have had plenty of opportunity to practice and apply their knowledge and skills. The infrequent nature of senior leadership mobilization, along with the frequent movement of personnel into new positions, does not always provide an opportunity for senior leadership to develop strong skill sets in this arena. The senior manager needs to consider: Is a major incident or large restoration event the time for on-the-job training?

Professional sports teams have always used their best players with support from the bench to win that big game. So why do utility companies pull their best players, replacing them with the front office to try to win the big game?

A more effective approach would be the development of a dedicated team of employees with incident management responsibilities. This team should be made up of personnel most qualified to fill the required positions, regardless of their day-to-day positions. And company leadership sould do its part by giving these individuals the appropriate training, authority and decision-making capability to do their emergency jobs.

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