Responsibility for the Selection and Development of Incident Strategies: Command or Operations?

Incidents using the Incident Command System require a set of objectives, a strategy or strategies to accomplish these objectives and a series of tactical work assignments directing resources to accomplish these strategies.  It is well understood that the Incident Commander or Unified Command creates and establishes Incident Objectives.  It is also well understood that the Operations Section Chief develops tactical work assignments to accomplish and meet these objectives.  But whose responsibility is it to determine incident strategy?  Who determines “how will these objectives be accomplished?”

There may be some incidents of a highly technical nature that lead us to only one strategy-based contingency plan, i.e., “if this happens, this is what we do;” however, on most incidents there are a whole range of strategies that can be selected to meet the Incident Commander’s direction.  The person with the expertise to select the best strategy is the Operations Section Chief (OSC).  But can the OSC select any option?  Or does the OSC have limits in strategy selection?

If we think of the incident operations as a “sandbox,” then Command restricts the OSC to a series of strategic alternatives that fall within that box.  These boundaries are based on Command’s Limitations and Constraints.  So, for the OSC to make a selection, he/she must understand these limits, making it imperative all restrictions are clearly communicated by Command.

The OSC is considering three strategies and Command has, through the development of Limitations and Constraints, defined the sandbox.  First, let’s assume that all three strategies are within Command’s range of acceptable political/ethical concerns and weather limitations.  Strategy 1 is within the constraints as defined by Command but is more expensive than Strategy 2 and has a lower probability of success than either Strategy 2 or 3.  Strategy 3 has the highest probability of success but exceeds cost limitations.  Strategy 2 has a relatively low cost but a lower probability of success than Strategy 3.

The OSC now has a choice: choose Strategy 2 which appears to have the least cost and a reasonable probability of success, or opt to combine the best attributes of Strategy 2 and 3, creating a fourth alternative which falls within the limits of the sandbox.  Finally, the OSC has the option of discussing these various options, particularly Strategy 3, with Command, and revisiting the cost limits established by Command.

Incident Commanders are most likely to be successful when their Operations Section Chief is allowed the greatest leeway (largest sandbox) to select a strategy that will have the greatest chance for success.