Incident Command: a problem-solving approach By Louis Hayes

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be re-engineering Police Incident Command according to The Illinois Model law enforcement operations system (LEOpSys). Most of the ideas aren't earth-shattering, but they suggest some small adjustments to the nationally-mandated program. These first several posts lay some foundation into our vision of what IC should be. Click on the Incident Command label for all posts in this short series. This is Part Two.

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Incident Command is all about solving problems. Unfortunately, that's an idea that can be lost in complicated policy and systemic bureaucracy. Because public safety "problems" are so diverse, officials have found it to be difficult to apply a singular process in solving them. We contend The Illinois Model LEOpSys is a universal policing system that has effective application as a template for Incident Command for any and all problems.
Police problems come in all shapes and sizes. Most frequently, they require the response of a solo officer - where the single patrol officer is also Incident Commander. Other times a handful or team of officers can solve the problem. In the most serious cases, an Incident Commander oversees hundreds of responders, with several layers or branches of supervision and control. But what all these public safety problems share is these three simple steps:
  1. Identifying the problem(s)
  2. Prioritizing the intended resolution(s)
  3. Assembling the plan(s)
These steps are the foundation to solving problems. They are more important than officer accountability or roles, delegating tasks, establishing command posts, or identifying additional resources. In fact, these three steps are so broad, they can be applied to any problem in any industry or part of life. So how does this generic method get tailored to public safety or law enforcement?
Identifying the problem(s)
At the top of The Illinois Model is the Priority of Life . This tier asks questions about the dangers, threats, situation, or....problem. Essentially, the Priority of Life establishes who is in danger or what is the danger. Some examples:
  • the young Autistic boy who wandered away from home
  • the police officer who was gunned down during a foot chase of an armed robber
  • the students and teachers who have (or will be) shot by the deranged student gunman
  • the strange man walking in residential yards who fled into darkness upon seeing a police car
  • the sweaty, naked man suffering from some sort of delirium
  • the unlicensed driver who won't exit his car to be handcuffed and arrested
  • the juvenile retail thief who pushes the officer away while being escorted out of the store
  • the husband who committed domestic battery, but now locked in a bedroom with a gun
  • the teenaged boy holding a knife to his own throat in a busy park
  • the wife who wants officers to remove her belligerent husband from the home for the night
  • the drug dealer who rarely leaves the house for which the narcotics unit has a search warrant
  • the hooded men who may have done a "hand-to-hand" transaction in the gas station parking lot
  • the family who came home from dinner to a forced-open door and suspected residential burglary
  • the search for the motorist and passenger who fled into the wooded forest on a traffic stop
  • the masked robber who went back inside the bank building to hold hostages
  • the Schizophrenic patient who left the emergency room in a hospital gown
  • the depressed housewife who took some pills and isn't answering her phone
  • the suspected drunk driver who drove home and ran into his home, rather than be stopped
  • the occupants of a car being stopped by officers for displaying a revolver in road rage
  • the pre-teen girl who ran away from a dysfunctional family situation
These are all problems. Some bigger or more serious than others. Some are crimes; some are not. The threats may be to others, self, officers, or a greater public community. But they are all problems, and they're all hungry for a solution.
The Illinois Model LEOpSys
Prioritizing the intended resolution(s)
The next tier on The Illinois Model is Mission-Objective . What "solution" options are available? In plain language; no jargon. Does a person need to go to jail? Does a person need to go to the hospital? Does an area need to be searched for danger? Each of the above listed "problems" come with Search and Seizure issues. Some are clear-cut; some are not. Some of the situations have multiple simultaneous problems. Which problem is more serious? Which is more pressing?
But police officers must consider lawfulness of taking action...in every single incident.
This is really a two-pronged test:
  • Can the officer search (or be, or stand, or open, or look, or go) where s/he is?
  • Can the officer seize (or stop, or arrest, or detain, or restrain) the person?
Not all of the above listed situations rise to the level of Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause to take action. And against what many officers believe, this legal standard still holds for those cases that are NOT criminal in nature!
At this Mission-Objective tier, police officers and Incident Commanders must determine the resolution or the goal of their response. Some of the above situations have very unstable legal footing...which is hard to communicate to other responders.
Assembling the plan(s)
The third tier on The Illinois Model is Strategy-Tactics . Here we see the plans on HOW to achieve the goal(s) from the previous step. One of the first questions to be answered is: How big of a deal is this? This might be better answered with: What is the urgency? Is there a critical time component to the problem? In the case of the officer bleeding from gunshot wounds....time is a very important factor to survival. But in the case of the armed and barricaded man wanted for domestic battery...time is not important. The situation is dangerous, but it is not urgent. Urgency relates to the TIME component.
There are two opposing strategies or plans in policing: Acting and Stabilizing. (Read Police Operational Philosophy for more on this topic.) Simply put, if there is low or no urgency, officers should Stabilize; if there is urgency, officers should Act. We contend that officers should default to Stabilizing strategies unless one can articulate and justify an urgency. This includes reverting back to Stabilizing strategies once the urgency is gone (ex: the officer is rescued, the fleeing vehicle stops/crashes, the resisting arrestee stops fighting, the hostages are safe, etc).
Stabilize --> Act; Slow --> Fast; Less Intrusive --> More Intrusive;
Before any officer or group/team of officers is given a task, role, or responsibility, they must be responding at the same "speed" or within the same strategy. Imagine an active shooter in a shopping mall where some officers stayed outside (stabilize) when the rest of the officers to go inside (act). Or on a barricaded gunman call, imagine some officers deciding to go inside (act) when everyone else is forming a containment (stabilize). Officers have to be acting on the same speed or "level of intrusiveness." Sure there are cases when there are two simultaneous problems, each calling for a different strategy, but we aren't ready to have that discussion.....yet! But we will.
To be a cohesive response, police officers must not only know what their goals are, but also share a common strategy or plan.
Situation Report (SitRep)
In our next part to this series on Incident Command, we will be talking about how to communicate these above issues and steps using a very simple framework called a SitRep. We will talk about not only updates via radio transmissions, but also face-to-face conversations and briefings. Effective and efficient communication is critical to ensuring ALL responders understand:
  1. the problem.
  2. the intended resolution.
  3. the plan.
Once these three foundational issues of dangers, lawfulness, and strategy are communicated, then roles, responsibilities, accountability, and the other various tasks can be discussed. It's in the face of crisis and extreme urgency that conveying the big picture is most needed. Get out the most important information first!
The questions at the top tiers of The Illinois Model are for leaders; as one moves down the tiers, there is more need for managers. In Incident Command, we need leadership and management skills - in that order. This perspective on Incident Command (using The Illinois Model) allows us to properly prioritize the issues for a safe, legal, effective, and community-accepted response to public safety problems.
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Louis Hayes is a co-developer of The Illinois Modellaw enforcement operations system (LEOpSys) and moderates several courses rooted in its theory and concepts. He is a 15-year police officer, currently assigned to a multi-agency tactical unit in Chicagoland. He's doing his best to push out the bureaucratic "forms and checklist" attitude and bring in the crisis thinker and problem-solving mentality. A full compilation of articles on The Illinois Model can be found here.