The Situation

A big winter storm hits. The power is out, roads are inaccessible, and trees are down everywhere – not inconceivable for many winter climates! Well-meaning neighbors jump into action – several clear a tree on the road, one offers shelter to a stranded motorist, and another rescues a loose dog. Unfortunately, one also cuts their leg with a chainsaw and no one notices the partially collapsed roof or 3 children home alone. Many just curl up by the wood stove because they don’t know what else to do. Could this be your neighborhood?

In the good old days, people depended on each other. Nowadays, we wait for someone else to tell us what to do, even while the water rises, the snow deepens, or the fire gets closer. If we’re brave enough to respond, our efforts are uncoordinated, and sometimes unsafe or ineffective. So until trained professionals are on the scene, someone needs to take charge, and the best person might be you!

When I first started learning about emergency response, I realized doctors have skills particularly helpful in emergency coordination – we function well under pressure, we love to boss people around and give orders, we don’t panic easily, we handle large amounts of information, and we think on our feet. Try encouraging medical people in your neighborhood to step into a leadership role – you’ll be surprised at how well they do if asked. Not that medical professionals are the only leaders – business managers, ex-military, first responders, and even some strong-minded mothers might also fill this role. The most important thing is for someone to take command, no matter how weird or egotistical it feels. Emergencies are not the time to act by committee.

The Snow Queen steps into the role of Incident Commander for the winter snow storm event.

Incident Command for the Lay Person

But you have no training for emergency command? Fear not – the Incident Command System (ICS) is a tool for the “command, control, and coordination of emergency response” and can be used by anyone. The first person on the scene (and willing to step up to the plate) becomes the Incident Commander. They stay in charge until the incident resolves or they appoint someone else (with more training). The set-up is simple. Each person has only one supervisor to avoid conflicting orders, with a maximum of 7 people under one supervisor. The Incident Commander is on top, assigning duties, including choosing other supervisors depending on the size of the emergency. The Incident Commander is always  is the final decision maker.

The Incident Commander establishes a Command Post and an Action Plan. These sound like scary military terms, but they really just mean choosing a place to gather and deciding what must be done. The plan states who is responsible for what, how you will communicate, and how to avoid injury to your helpers. The Incident Commander may need to appoint chiefs for specific areas. A Planning Section Chief gathers information about the incident, such as location of volunteers, damaged structures, or lists of victims, helping adjust the action plan as the situation changes. The Operations Chief directs the action, including search and rescue, medical, or communications. The Logistics Chief finds, assigns, and tracks resources, both physical and people (perhaps using “Map Your Neighborhood” information). A Safety Officer monitors safety of the area and your volunteers.

Some of us actually like the concept of taking charge, and others are simply willing to step up if needed. Even if the idea of leadership makes you ill, you should understand how you could fit into the system, particularly if you might volunteer in your neighborhood or community. You  can even take a basic online class on Incident Command offered for free by the FEMA Emergency Management Institute

Step Up to the Plate

The most important thing is to respond. If you witness a car accident, a natural disaster, a fire, or a medical emergency, don’t just stand (or drive) by, assuming someone else will help. Until official emergency responders arrive, you may have valuable leadership skills to offer. Speaking from experience, I can tell you people are waiting for someone to take charge. Even if you just call 911 and provide emotional support, you are needed. After all, if not you, who?

Have you been in an emergency? What did you do? How does the concept of taking charge feel to you? Leave a comment and join the dialog. Better yet, follow my blog, and before long, you’ll feel much more prepared!


  1. […] approach that I actually embrace whole-heartily – see my blog post from 11-5-12 – Who’s In Charge Here? The Incident Command System.). Disaster sites quickly become chaotic, unsafe, and inefficient without structure, so we make […]

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