How the US Forest Service Improved Utility Emergency Response

US forest service

I just read a great article describing how the US Forest Service developed the organizational model used by all utilities during emergency response – the Incident Command Structure, or ICS.  Let’s go back in time for a brief history lesson of how this came to be.

Why the US Forest Service Created the ICS Structure

The US Forest Service was formed in 1905 to protect the nation’s forests.  The organization operated without incident for decades, until it encountered a huge Southern California forest fire in 1970.  The event was massive, so much so that the mitigation effort was plagued by inefficient communication and coordination between the Forest Service and the various federal, state, county and local responding agencies.  The effort was so problematic that afterward Congress tasked the Forest Service with developing a new and improved emergency management organizational structure.

The result was the development of the ICS structure, which provides a unified command and control organization that utilizes common terminology, chains of command, and roles and responsibilities.  ICS is a temporary management structure designed for incidents that involve multiple jurisdictions, as it enables external parties to quickly and efficiently collaborate on recovery efforts.

The ICS structure was so successful that it was rolled into the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 1982.  NIMS is the federal standard for incident management, and more than 20 countries have adopted it.  Here in the US, nearly every electric utility utilizes the ICS structure during emergency response due to its proven effectiveness.

There is little doubt that emergency response has improved thanks to the widespread adoption of the ICS structure developed by the US Forest Service.  Every utility emergency plan should incorporate a section on ICS, including an overview of the various roles and an org chart to show functional hierarchy.  This way, all recovery personnel can be on the same page when temporarily organizing for incident response.

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