It is uniformly agreed that the Incident Command System has made enormous strides over the past decade. While many of the diverse elements embodied in ICS have evolved, it is clear that the Situation Unit has made some of the greatest advancements. Changes in Information Technology and Data Integration has enabled ICS to move into the cutting edge of the future.
During the infancy of ICS, the Situation Unit typically consisted of personnel trained in mapping fires and presenting their findings as mylar overlays of USGS maps. As such, their efforts were essentially historical or retrograde. While the SITL could build a representation of past events – fire perimeters from the day before or the location of oil spills during previous operational periods or maybe the location of historical events recorded into databases – the products from the Situation Unit always reflected the past. And that rearward view posed a major impediment for Incident Commanders. What Incident Commanders desperately needed was the ability to see their emergency in the present and the future.
In the beginning of the new millennium, a perfect storm of technologies occurred that gave rise to a new kind of Situation Unit. Google Earth, ARC GIS Explorer, and other developers provided free satellite imagery on the internet. Their sites also enabled the use of simple layers and measuring tools that enhanced the ability to “see” the incident location (sans the incident) and its environs. At the same time, federal response agencies began developing software programs to model oil trajectories, fire growth, and accurate weather. Shortly thereafter, developers began to provide “add-ons” to Arc GIS & Google Earth, allowing users to view satellite infrared data, remote weather stations for current weather near incidents, and even earthquakes in real time! The new tools enabled Situation Unit leaders (SITL) & Technical Specialists to better “paint the picture” of an incident in real time, giving Incident Commanders a means to make more sound decisions.
Situation personnel needed only to create predictive (modeling) products and then interface those products with a host “viewer” (internet based program providing satellite imagery). Through Geographic Information System (GIS) sleight of hand, the Situation Unit staff could meld together the diverse various pieces of information to combine past, present, and future incident intelligence in a single location. Intel practitioners and software developers began to discuss building a single platform to house GIS’s historical perspective and the future projection capabilities of computer modeling. Within the past six years, several companies have constructed “common operating picture” “flex-viewers” that provide Incident Commanders with a comprehensive tool box to assess all aspects of an incident (past, present, and future) simultaneously.
The sky is the limit with this new paradigm, but it will take a new generation of Situation Unit leaders to harness its full potential. The SITL of the future will need training in traditional mapping/charting methods, display processing, statistical report writing, as well as current GIS methods, database management, and the utilization of Predictive Service programs. To complete their task, it is advisable that they learn the requisite public speaking skills needed for briefings. It is clear that the new Situation Unit will provide a better vision to Incident Commanders once personnel capabilities catch up with technology’s.