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Leadership webinar #2: Adapting incident command systems to humanitarian response

Thursday 12 February 2015

The audio of this webinar is also available below.

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Interest is emerging among humanitarians in Incident Command Systems, approaches used by civil defence organisations in many countries, but relatively unknown in the humanitarian world. This webinar considers the possibilities of applying elements of ICS in humanitarian response, including questions such as: How can ICS be adapted by humanitarians? Has anyone tried? What challenges/solutions did they come across? What would they do differently? Are there signs this has improved the response?

This webinar explores the experiences of World Vision and MSF, who have both considered the use of ICS within their own humanitarian responses. It is the second in a series of webinars presented by ALNAP exploring the potential relevance of Incident Command/Unified Command Systems for humanitarian response contexts. This webinar series emerged as part of ALNAP’s ongoing research on humanitarian leadership (, which suggests that humanitarian organisations should focus on improving their organisational structures and procedures to allow individual leaders, and leadership teams, to carry out their functions effectively.

The first webinar in the series (available at was an introduction to the topic of ICS led by two leading experts on ICS/IMS, Arnold Howitt of Harvard University and Joseph Pfeifer, Head of the FDNY’s Center for Terrorism and Emergency Preparedness. The third webinar will introduce Unified Command Systems (UCS) and is scheduled for 1 April 2015. The fourth webinar will explore the potential relevance of UCS given existing humanitarian architecture, and is currently planned for mid-June.

World Vision ICS key lessons:
• ICS gave clear roles and responsibilities within organisation.
• ICS helped answer the question: who needs to know what to be able to respond?
• ICS helped to unite humanitarian and development groups within the organisation by introducing a common language
• Rapid onset emergencies lend themselves well to ICS.
• You can make ICS adaptable to your organisations’ needs. ICS in World Vision known as Emergency Management System.
• EMS principles: management by objective, unity of command, flexible and temporary structure, span of control, common terminology, competency-based staffing.
• Factors contributing to the application of EMS/ICS in Haiyan response included investment in capacity and response experience, provide objective framework for principle-based discussions, placing ‘people on the same page’, commitment and experience with EMS in response leadership, which provided a framework to delegate operational responsibilities to zonal leadership

MSF, lessons learnt:
• Guiding principles of EMS: unity of command, management by objective, functional management, span of control, scalability, adaptability
• Not so much viewing ICS as a new system to implement, but as a tool to use to strengthen existing decision-making structures. Pick and mix approach
• Role clarity – key aspect of ICS
• ICS in its totality may not be appropriate for every organisation, but there is something every organisation can take from ICS to improve their coordination structures
• Timescale issues: ICS mainly designed for short term, rapid onset disasters. Questions over whether it can be used in more protracted disaster situations.
• MSF Suggested exercise: what is different about the way domestic emergency responders act that is distinct in the emergencies or settings that your organisation works in?

Q&A Snapshot:

How applicable is ICS to different contexts (rapid vs. slow onset/protracted/complex emergencies)?

JN: I would say yes [it is applicable to different contexts]. It is not really about whether it is slow or rapid – it is about what is the objective? But as someone with much experience in rapid onset emergencies, I can see how it does easily apply, but this is not to say it is not possible in other contexts.

SH: Some of the things will work in protracted disasters. There are a number of things that are still valuable. Greater role clarity is one of the cornerstones of ICS and I think is applicable in any disaster situation. Similarly, the core idea that you build your structures from guiding principles and keep going back to them is applicable whatever the circumstance.

Are there any occasions when a top-down, HQ approach is best?
SH: Our own organisational culture doesn’t have much of a problem with top down, we just think that in places where we don’t really need to do it and we can have a more collaborative approach and a more shared approach, we should do so. From our point of view, it is not that certain types of approaches should be taken on principle, it is very much ‘what will improve the operation at this particular point or particular time?’ And sometimes yes, that involves a greater degree of direction.

What one recommendation would you make to other organisations interested in using some form of ICS?

SH: I think one of the best things we did was to sit with some of our domestic emergency responders and have them explain the way they function to us. Us laying out our problems to them and having them comment on them was a really valuable experience.

JN: Based on the experience that we had 2012-12, was very painful, but it paid off during Haiyan. We invested a lot in awareness raising on ICS; having discussions on ICS across the organisation.


Alexandra Levaditis


World Vision International

Jimmy Nadapdap

Senior Relief Coordinator

World Vision International

Sean Healy

Humanitarian adviser


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