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Industrial Outlook: September 2012

The concept of unified command within an incident-management system is often misunderstood during major emergencies or disasters

September 7, 2012 
By Mike Burzek

The concept of unified command within an incident-management system is often misunderstood during major emergencies or disasters. This is especially true where multiple jurisdictions representing specific interests or stakeholders have various roles and levels of responsibility or accountability. Who, or what agency, is in charge? Who makes the decisions when lives are at stake? A lot of precious time can be wasted while agencies sort out cross-jurisdictional issues and hang-ups. Every emergency-response professional out there appreciates how any delay in response can lead to undesirable outcomes. In fact, there is nothing more frustrating to response personnel than having to wait for government bureaucrats or corporate leads to decide on the appropriate action plan while the responders’ hands are tied.

Understandably, the decisions that need to be made during a major emergency can be complicated and sensitive. But as difficult and painful as these decisions are to make, someone has to do it. What helps in making these critical decisions is a team approach where the final decision does not rest squarely on the shoulders of one individual. Arguably, better decisions are made when key stakeholders are involved in the process. Sadly, in every jurisdiction across Canada, there have been major emergencies or disasters during which critical decisions have been delayed due to the lack of a unified-command structure.

Emergency responders would agree that an organized structure for managing disasters and major crises is vital. Several versions of incident-command/management systems have been developed. Indeed, the key principle is to maintain a chain of command in which ultimately one individual, the incident commander, has the final say. This person is responsible for assigning various roles and delegating responsibilities to maintain a reasonable span of control. But what happens if there are multiple jurisdictions and would-be incident commanders?

The solution is simple: implementing a unified-command structure will ensure decision making is a team process. Such a structure will provide the right mechanism for agencies with primary roles and responsibilities to establish a common set of objectives and priorities during the emergency. Essentially, multiple jurisdictions can be morphed into one structure in which every agency having jurisdictional or functional responsibility can work as a team while being part of the incident-command function.


As with any organizational or management system, there will be occasional hiccups, but there are some basic rules for consideration in order to keep the machine running smoothly. These include:

  1. Incident command personnel must co-ordinate and operate under a single action plan.
  2. Delegation has to be given to one individual in charge of operations to implement the action plan.
  3. The incident-command team must be based at one incident command post, the location of which is mutually agreed upon.

Once these rules are determined and communicated, the management of the emergency is just like any other operating under an incident-command/management system.

Additionally, unified command extends beyond the joint development of response action plans. It will likely include the sharing of tactical operations, supply and services, and financial management. The decision about which agency or department should assume the roles of general command staff and the various section chiefs is mutually agreed upon. Clearly, the No. 1 objective is to fully integrate functional elements such as police, fire and ambulance with jurisdictional elements such as infrastructure protection and communications into one team.

Assigned roles and responsibilities should be based on the level of jurisdictional involvement, individual qualifications and accountability. The most vital priority for those in the unified command role is to establish a mutually satisfactory incident-management organization, one that reflects all interests, resources, skills and knowledge of the stakeholders.

Once agencies and corporate leads understand the concept and purpose of a unified command approach, it becomes very apparent that it does add incredible value in the event of a major emergency. It is effective in many ways. For one, it solves the challenges of traditional or bureaucratic boundaries including municipal, provincial or federal boundaries. It also facilitates information sharing in a collaborative way and, more importantly, provides a mechanism for communicating critical information to the personnel in the field. Other benefits include resource sharing, common response goals and objectives, more efficient management and better results. There is strength in numbers, but there is greater strength in organized numbers.

Mike Burzek is the director of public protection and safety for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in emergency response and public safety, including nine years as a paramedic. He teaches courses, including fire suppression, emergency management and confined-space rescue. He lives in Dawson Creek, B.C., and can be reached at

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