What Is the Role of an Incident Commander?

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Eduardo Messuti

October 03, 2023

What Is the Role of an Incident Commander?

For most businesses, managing major incidents can be intimidating. With a swarm of information coming from different directions, keeping things organized and maintaining clear, effective communication is tough. It only gets worse when there's no defined process to follow. This disorganization confuses everyone, delays responses, and increases the incident escalation rate.

Enter the incident commander (IC). They can cut through the chaos, drive incident resolution, and ensure effective communication throughout the incident life cycle.

An incident commander is a key figure in the incident management process, with responsibilities and qualities that make them invaluable to incident communication and management.

What Is an Incident Commander?

An incident commander or incident manager is a role within the Incident Command System (ICS), a standardized approach used by various emergency response organizations to manage incidents. The incident commander is responsible for effectively managing and leading the response to small-scale and major incidents. The IC ensures that all incident management team members are on the same page and can efficiently collaborate to resolve the incident. They're in charge of:

  • Assembling the right people into an effective incident command structure
  • Driving decision-making during the incident life cycle
  • Developing incident operations
  • Ensuring unified communication

In the ICS, the incident commander is not always one person, and the structure can vary depending on the scale and complexity of the incident. In simpler incidents, there may be a single incident commander with the authority to make decisions. However, a Unified Command structure might be used in larger and more complex incidents involving multiple agencies or jurisdictions. This means that representatives from different agencies share command responsibilities and make decisions collaboratively.

The time spent as an incident commander can vary widely. For smaller incidents, it might be for the entire duration of the incident. In larger incidents that last for days or even weeks, the role might rotate among qualified personnel to prevent burnout.

The type of incident and the services it affects can also influence the structure and duration of the incident commander's role. For instance, incidents involving hazardous materials might require a specialized incident commander with expertise in that area.

Incident Commander's Key Responsibilities

An incident commander wears many hats, dealing with everything from strategic guidance to tactical execution. Here's a closer look at the key roles of an IC.

Establish Incident Command Structure

The Incident Command Structure (ICS) is an organized system that provides a comprehensive framework to manage an incident effectively. The IC will:

  • Set the chain of command: The IC identifies the critical functional areas needed to handle the incident, such as operations, planning, logistics, and finance/administration. Then, they designate team leaders for each area who report directly to them.
  • Assign responsibilities to team members: Next, the IC sets up specialized teams within these functional areas, focusing on specific tasks such as IT, Public Relations, Legal, and more. These teams enable the incident response team to comprehensively address all aspects of the incident. To further solidify the structure, the IC defines roles and responsibilities for each team and team member, so everyone is on the same page about what they're supposed to do.
  • Establish operational procedures: The IC establishes procedures and protocols for team coordination and communication, facilitating effective collaboration.

Assess Incident Severity and Impact

Incident assessment shapes the overall incident response strategy, determining resource allocation, priority levels, and the scale of response required. The incident commander gathers as much information as possible about the incident:

  • Nature of and type of incident
  • Systems or operations affected
  • Potential for escalation
  • Risks associated with the incident
  • Extent of the damage
  • Potential operational and financial impact on the organization

Next, the IC categorizes the incident based on its severity. This categorization often follows an organization's predefined incident classification system, typically divided into minor, moderate, major, and critical incidents. Each category informs the level of response required, the resources required, and the escalation procedures to follow.

Once the IC understands the incident's severity, they can estimate its immediate and long-term impact on the organization's operations, reputation, legal standing, and financial health.

Formulate Incident Response Strategy

The IC has assessed the incident's severity and potential impact. Now, they need a fitting incident response strategy: a comprehensive plan of action designed to manage and mitigate the incident effectively.

They'll start with defining clear incident objectives, such as containing the incident, minimizing its impact, restoring normal operations, and ensuring incident safety.

Next, the incident commander identifies the resources needed to achieve these objectives. This resource management involves determining the personnel, equipment, information, and other assets required and mobilizing them effectively.

The incident commander then develops an Incident Action Plan (IAP), which outlines the tasks the incident team must perform, assigns roles and responsibilities, sets timelines, and establishes communication protocols.

Communicate With Stakeholders

The incident commander maintains a chain of command throughout the incident management process and ensures effective communication among key stakeholders. They keep everyone informed about the incident status, updates in the incident response strategy, and any changes in roles or tasks. The IC also bridges communication between technical teams handling the incident and nontechnical stakeholders, translating technical jargon into understandable language.

To ensure effective communication, ICs must have an in-depth understanding of their audience's needs and expectations. They should carefully consider the information they share, focusing on its relevance, accuracy, and timeliness.

This is especially critical with higher-level stakeholders and external parties who may not be technically versed in the intricacies of the incident or the response process, making it necessary for ICs to translate complex, technical details into more digestible information.

Coordinate Resources and Teams

The role of the incident commander in coordinating resources and teams involves figuring out what they need and where to get it. And in this case, we're talking about:

  • The teams involved in the incident response (e.g., technical experts, operations staff, PR team)
  • The tools, equipment, and information (like data sets or system access) needed to resolve the incident

Once the incident commander has identified the dream team and gathered all the necessary information and tools, it's time to put on their magic coordinator hat. They assign the right people to the right tasks, make sure the tools and equipment are where they need to be, and keep that information flowing. The incident commander also ensures that everyone clearly understands their roles, responsibilities, and tasks.

Monitor Incident Progress and Updates

The IC is also in charge of keeping tabs on how things are going. The IC ensures that the master incident plan they whipped up stays on track and, if need be, adjusts it in case of any curveballs. They do this by ensuring the team stays on top of deadlines, everyone does their part as planned, and resources are used efficiently.

Moreover, the IC is responsible for checking in with the team regularly. They must track the team's progress, address any hiccups, and keep the communication flowing. It's also important for the IC to stay agile and be ready to adapt and adjust the IAP when new developments arise. These could include escalations, changes in the systems or operations affected, or new risks emerging.

Declare Incident Resolution and Recovery

When all is said and done, and the incident management team addresses and restores normal operations, it's time to make it official. The role of incident commander is to declare incident resolution. This declaration marks the end of the active incident response and the start of the recovery phase.

The IC makes this decision based on the information from the technical teams, confirming that the issue has been effectively resolved and any risks have been adequately mitigated.

But even after incident resolution, there's still work to do. During recovery, the IC must ensure that all systems return to their regular operation status. This may involve coordinating with various teams to replace or repair damaged equipment, retrieving backup data, or implementing necessary changes to prevent future occurrences.

Qualities of an Effective Incident Commander

Being an incident commander isn't for the faint of heart. It takes some serious skills and qualities to own the role of incident commander and handle complex incidents.

Leadership and Decision-Making Skills

As leaders, ICs must inspire confidence and trust among incident response teams, fostering a collaborative environment where everyone works toward a common goal. They are responsible for guiding team members through the complexities of the incident management process, maintaining focus and morale even during high-stress situations.

ICs are also the decision-makers in the thick of it. They must have good judgment, weighing all the options, considering every possible outcome, and making the best call. They also need to know all the risks and have a handle on the organizational structure that governs their response plans. It's a big deal, but a good IC must know how to handle it like a pro.

Clear Communication and Delegation

Effective communication is paramount when it comes to incident management. As such, ICs must be able to communicate clearly and concisely with everyone involved, from tech wizards to big-shot execs. They're masters of translating complicated stuff into everyday language. And they bridge the gap between different departments and levels of the organization, ensuring everyone's on the same wavelength.

ICs also require excellent delegation and coordination skills since they allocate resources and oversee various teams. They must know how to divide the resources and oversee all those teams. They manage the people, the equipment, and the info, ensuring everyone has what they need without any overlap or wasted effort.

Stress Management and Composure

In the thick of an incident, ICs must keep their cool and give clear instructions to the response teams. They must remain calm under pressure, think clearly and strategically, and make effective and quick decisions.

To that end, ICs must develop strong personal resilience and the capacity to motivate others through stressful situations. This involves understanding their stress points and triggers, equipping themselves with the necessary coping skills, and using positive reinforcement to help team members manage their stress.

Enhance Your Incident Commander's Communication With StatusPal

The role of incident commanders is vital, yet it's also complex and demanding. From developing an incident response plan to formulating strategies, coordinating teams, and managing stakeholders—the task at hand can overwhelm even the best.

Say hello to StatusPal! This real-time incident communications platform will make your incident manager feel like a superhero, providing them with the tools for effective communication. Our real-time incident communications platform keeps all stakeholders informed, ensuring transparency and trust. Additionally, StatusPal offers features for streamlining workflow and managing teams, helping ICs resolve incidents swiftly. From assessment to recovery, our powerful platform equips your ICs to manage any incident, ensuring a top-notch customer experience.

Sign up for a free trial today and discover how StatusPal can empower your incident commander.

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