Arlington Implements Flexible Incident Command System

Nov. 25, 2002
After the devastating attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Arlington County (Virginia) found itself a key player in a complex, first responder crisis.

During its initial response to the Pentagon crisis, Arlington County's emergency responders established an Incident Command System (ICS) consistent with what they thought a best practice should be. Having never responded to a crisis of such magnitude in terms of both casualties and national security implications, County Police Chief Edward A. Flynn and Deputy Chief Stephen Holl soon discovered that their ICS was lacking an important function.

In the case of the Pentagon crisis, first responders needed to not only respond to the need for search, rescue and cleanup operations, but also needed to handle site visits from dignitaries, politicians and victims' families.

On the fourth day of operations, Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) officials added an ICS function involving a combination of public relations, protocol and interagency courtesy. They titled their new ICS function "Diplomacy."

"We had to utilize the ICS structure in a way that allowed us to integrate this important function," said Flynn. "By allowing for flexibility for ICS, we could accommodate a variety of unforeseen functions."

The expansion of the basic ICS structure allowed Arlington County officials to better handle the unique situation they faced at the Pentagon site. Visiting dignitaries and chiefs of mutual aid departments and other responder organizations were met, briefed on response operations and escorted through the site.

Flynn also wanted to ensure the extended "family" - the families of the first responders - was taken care of. ACPD arranged a special day for families with lectures on critical incident stress and recognition of the critical roles played by families of first responders. ACPD offered free babysitting, so everyone could attend.

By adapting the ICS structure to the needs of the situation, the incident commanders were better able to manage the recovery operation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently launched an initiative to gather and share the smart practices of state and local emergency managers and responders on a weekly basis. The agency hopes the shared information benefits the national emergency response community by improving state and local preparation and response plans for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. Arlington County's efforts were recently recognized by FEMA.

"FEMA's effort to prepare the nation includes highlighting the smart practice of state and local emergency managers and first responders to strengthen their preparedness and response capabilities," FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh said. "By collecting and sharing the best ideas from the state and local level, FEMA can help communities improve their emergency preparedness and response-related activities for effective programs."

Visit to read about the efforts of Arlington County's first responders and to view other smart practices.

To submit a smart practice idea to share with other emergency managers and responders or to subscribe to the weekly Spotlight on Smart Practices, e-mail a request to [email protected].

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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