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Law Enforcement and the Incident Command System: Consider Cultural Bias Issues

(Photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash)


It is well known that of the public safety services, law enforcement has arguably been the service to most resist the implementation of the Incident Command System. I do believe though, even as one of the staunchest ICS advocates, that perhaps other services might consider giving law enforcement a bit of a pass and stop unrealistic changes. Perhaps we should look at ICS and ask, “why is ICS not working for law enforcement,” instead of looking at law enforcement and asking “why is law enforcement not utilizing ICS?”


First, let’s eliminate two basic assumptions that many people make. ICS is not perfect. While I do believe that we should embrace ICS and use it as the tool it is, it was created by humans which means it is fallible and we should always be seeking to change and improve it to create a better process. In fact, it was created by firefighters for firefighters, which leads me to my second assumption. Just because they are both public safety and work closely together on emergencies, the fire service and law enforcement are not the same. They are often lumped together within jurisdictions and within our biased minds because of their commonalities.


There may be good political or governing reasons for this, and perhaps even departments themselves have used the commonalities as leverage in negotiations. But are they really the same? If they are really the same, why do firefighters stay the night at the firehouse while cops go home every eight to 14 hours? If they are really the same, why do cops wear body cameras and firefighters don’t? If they are really the same, why are cops in court regularly and firefighters not as much? Why were there activists seeking to defund the police, but not fire departments? In fact, there may be more differences between the services than there are similarities. This brings me back around to my first point. ICS was made by firefighters for firefighters. More than two decades after 9/11, ICS has been de-smoked quite a bit, but under the ashes are still burning embers that may need to be extinguished before law enforcement can more fully embrace it.


ICS, as with any creation, has systemically embedded unconscious biases within its foundational roots. These (fire) biases may make it more difficult for law enforcement to adopt than perhaps any other service, and it is not a reflection on their desire to use the system as much as it is that the system was not made for them. Law enforcement may need to make cultural changes to truly adopt ICS, and as the great leadership and management coach Peter Drucker stated, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Instead of asking law enforcement to change its culture, perhaps we as emergency managers and public safety change agents need to evaluate just what the inhibitors are and see what kind of changes can be made within ICS that will make ICS more pliable and palatable to law enforcement.


Before I defend law enforcement any further, let me acknowledge that there are definitely some in law enforcement (just like in any other discipline when it comes to change) that are close-minded and who refuse to acknowledge the need for change and the need for ICS. They refuse to make ICS training a priority and refuse to require its use when needed. These people need to change as much as what I propose in the rest of this article.


We could start with the idea that cops do not exactly understand the concept of ICS because in law enforcement, when they arrive to work, they are already operational. In fact, without using the common language and terminology of ICS, they clearly implement an incident management system that is compliant with ISO standards every day. They arrive and have accountability (they check-in). They have a roll call (operational period briefing). They are given instructions much like would be seen within ICS 204s. Then they go out and patrol their precincts, zones, or beats (divisions). Some of them may have specific functional assignments like traffic, investigations, or as school resource officers (groups or even technical specialists). When they report to the PD, they have an established chain of command and a formal way to communicate, filling the void of an ICS 203 and ICS 205 form. After roll call, they are on their operational period.


This differs from fire. Fire shows up for a longer shift and is in more of an administrative posture until the gong goes off and they are off to an incident which begins their operational period. They typically deploy in a team of three/four or more and establish incident command at the incident. Most incidents end within a couple hours and they reset to be prepared for a new incident.


This is where law enforcement can get really confused when being taught ICS. I would like to reiterate; they are already within their operational period and already doing tactical operations. Law enforcement will get a call, and they show up as a single or couple in most cases. It would make no sense to them to establish incident command, first and foremost because incident command was established in roll call, and secondly because when they arrive as a single or couple, they already know who is responsible. Let us also remember that the beginning of their shift was the beginning of their incident or operational period. They are simply responding to “spot fires” as they present themselves in their assigned area.


Let’s put it into a wildfire context. A strike team is in the forest cutting line in accordance with their 204 assignment when floating ashes start a small spot fire in front of them. The strike team does not initiate a new incident command structure and establish a new incident commander. This would be the exact same thing as a cop on patrol who comes across a motor vehicle accident. The officer will address the accident just as the strike team will manage the spot fire. In these situations, neither the officer nor the strike team will establish a new command because their command has already been established. If this is the case, how can we expect law enforcement to understand ICS when we are teaching them to establish command when their command is already in place?


Another difference between the services is value of rank. In the ICS world, we teach that rank has no place in ICS and that the more important credential is qualification. It would not be uncommon for a relatively low ranked person within the fire service to have achieved a qualification as a type 2 position within the command and general staff on an Incident Management Team. In fact, I have had the pleasure of working with a 28-year-old type 2 PIO. Law enforcement, on the other hand, as a general rule, does not put rank second to qualification. If anything, qualification is intrinsically tied to and a part of rank, and for good reason. The least of which is that when the press shows up, they are not concerned with qualification. They ask who the senior person on scene is. Attorneys are the same way as they seek the ranking officials in lawsuits. Rank is also a part of the law enforcement qualification process. It requires time and experience. Performing in a lessor rank is law enforcements version of position task books. If officers can perform day in and day out sufficiently enough to get considered for promotion and then can test and be selected, they are now qualified for that next rank.


Rank is the culture in law enforcement far more than in the fire service and when you have a sergeant as an operations section chief that is overseeing more senior sergeants, lieutenants, or even captains, ICS begins to not make sense to the thin blue line. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the culture will need to change, or ICS will need to be more tolerant of rank issues within law enforcement.


Deployments are another rather confusing issue that challenges law enforcement’s ability to adopt ICS. In the fire service, most paid/professional departments have some sort of overnight or 24-hour shift (if not longer). Law enforcement operates with a more acute shift. They will work 8, 10, or 12 hours, but they always head for home after the shift is done. In the wildfire service, deployments are regular with two weeks being standard. It would be a rare occasion for law enforcement to do deployments or even to stay “on the clock” longer than 16 hours. Given this circumstance, it will also be unlikely for law enforcement to get qualified in an ICS position in the manner that fire does, because they simply do not have the opportunity to work and get signatures in position task books on multiple operational periods the way that fire resources do.


Even in the summer of 2020 during the civil disturbances across the nation, law enforcement agencies supported each other mostly with mutual aid on a shift-by-shift basis. Law enforcement strike teams were not deployed to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, or wherever civil unrest was found two weeks at a time. Teams of officers were sent to these requesting cities one day at a time.


There may even be contractual reasons for such acute response policies. Due to cultural differences, we may need to explore contractual changes and union agreement to such changes with regard to ICS implementation. This can be easier said than done, especially since contractual changes will likely have a major impact on budgets, retirement funds, and the authority responsible for jurisdiction fiscal abilities.


These are just a few cursory topics that I have brought forward. Certainly, more in-depth research of ICS and what it takes to adopt ICS will reveal many more social, cultural, financial, and environmental challenges that inhibit law enforcement from integration to an ICS purist’s satisfaction. It is easy to make law enforcement the ICS punching bag, but until we start taking a hard look at ICS inhibitors rather than law enforcement resistance, we are not likely to make any more significant progress than what we have already achieved.


It is easy to say law enforcement must do better at ICS. It makes easier finger pointing at emergency response failures and provides us a great scapegoat. Finger-pointing and blaming does not help with actual change. Actual change will only occur when we start evaluating cultural issues and creating a doctrine that is more law enforcement friendly and embraces the law enforcement culture instead of pushing against it. Change will come when we start meeting law enforcement where they are at and not expecting them to become something they are not.


As emergency managers we are also called to be change agents. Let’s start thinking about change management principles and about active listening. People who blame law enforcement for lack of ICS implementation do not have their listening ears on. Perhaps with active listening and a willingness to find weakness in ICS doctrine, we can find a way to incorporate ICS better and change ICS for an improved doctrine that is de-smoked enough to better suit all disciplines.

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