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Incident Leadership & Management: Dispatch in a Post-9/11 Era

Author: Tom Maloney, David Matthew, Don Maynard, & Robert Neamy

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-01-17
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History and the eleven years since the 9/11 attacks have both demonstrated that the successful management of major incidents revolves around teamwork as a central, critical, multi-disciplinary behavior.  This is equally true when milliseconds count as when extended operations are needed to mitigate hazards and keep the public safe.

From strategic planning to meet overarching priorities and incident objectives, through the components of a well informed and guided tactical approach, to the ultimate tasks used to achieve incident objectives, teamwork is a central hub of any response, multidisciplinary or not.  The need for multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional interactions prior to any actual event has been institutionalized into the preparedness culture across America.  Yet, a critical component that needs more focus, attention and practical involvement is our public safety answering points (PSAPs), our communications centers, especially as it pertains to their participation in designing and implementing response protocols and procedures.

Dispatch personnel are critical players that all too often are excluded in preparedness efforts.  A very seasoned Fire Chief in a large metropolitan area has argued against full-scale exercises because they model false behaviors unless all of the response agencies' personnel are involved.  When public safety communication centers and their personnel are not appropriately engaged in planning and preparedness efforts the results are predictable - the planning is incomplete.  The need to achieve effective and efficient communications along with appropriate involvement of public safety communications centers is a constant lesson learned referenced in after actions reports. 

In this article, we will explore the principles and practices of the Incident Command System (ICS) as it relates to dispatch in a post-9/11 era, including professional standards and historic and contemporary models.  As we begin, logic dictates that we look for a framework that embraces emergency management (EM), emergency medical services (EMS), fire, law and public works (PW) PSAPs as integral collaborators and valued resources bound and obliged to fulfill their professional services through paths sculpted by contemporary standards.


Contemporary Standards

As one looks to contemporary standards to form the framework of professional principles and practices, distinctions should be made on both federal and state levels of analysis.  On the federal level are Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD 5), the National Incident Management System (NIMS), Presidential Policy Directive 8 and the National Preparedness Goal.  From California to New York and from Florida to Michigan, the foundation of emergency response systems have grown and matured for all first responder disciplines and emergency management since 9/11.  Those jurisdictions that have had crafted some degree of explicit local guidance embracing federal guidance for incident management guidance are embracing lessons-learned from the past.  Yet whether local explicit guidance has been adopted, all emergency response partners should integrate their practices into a system-of-systems in which decisions are made knowledgably based on the guidance of NIMS.  Integration of an NIMS and the Incident Command system (ICS) model within PSAP protocols and practices, rather than replication of any parallel, standalone systems are also the contemporary standard.

The ancestry of ICS can be traced to collaborative efforts emanating from the 1970s in the fire discipline when it emerged as an emergency command methodology.  With relatively minor modification, the Los Angeles Fire Department has used ICS for nearly 40 years.  Yet ICS was borne of a collaborative effort in fire-based organizations including the United States Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, the California Office of Emergency Services, the Counties of Los Angeles and Ventura and the City of Los Angeles(1).  Despite the organic emergence and development of ICS in the fire discipline, it serves as an overarching strategic management philosophy with widespread application of its principles for all emergency response disciplines and personnel.  Law personnel may refer to a Safety Officer as a cover unit or may refer to the initial Incident Commander as the primary unit, yet the same principles are applied to incident management in both first responder disciplines.  The fourteen principles (presented alphabetically) of ICS are:

Since 9/11, the Federal Government has implemented a series of policies and regulations to address issues of Homeland Security and emergency management. One very salient point drawn from these policies, regulations and directives has been the need for multi-disciplinary collaboration between agencies nationwide. In March of 2004, HSPD 5 established the method for managing incidents nationwide as the NIMS.  NIMS compliance is required by all levels of government in order to improve efficiency of multi-disciplinary emergency operations. NIMS compliance is also requirement to qualify for Federal Homeland Security grant funding and federal disaster assistance and cost-recovery programs.

Following the establishment of the NIMS by HSPD, multi-disciplinary diligent efforts stretched across the nation to comply with the spirit, intention and letter of the federal guidance.  Efforts to develop congruence with NIMS include the incorporation of the principles of ICS into continuing professional training cycles, basic police academy curriculum and integration into daily activities and special operations across the nation.  It has become clear that for NIMS and ICS to become effective on major incidents, it must become incorporated into everyday operations of all first responders(2).

The National Response Framework (NRF) is a guide encompassing how the United States conducts responses to all means of disasters and emergencies; this is referred to as all-hazards preparedness. The NRF incorporates the principals of ICS and describes within its doctrine the achievement of unity of effort through unified command. Response to large-scale incidents requires all first responder disciplines to understand each other’s roles and capabilities and then leverage the fundamentals of a shared philosophy of emergency management and teamwork to maximize effectiveness.

In March 2011, President Barack Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive 8, which was aimed at further defining our National Preparedness.  Building on the work of the prior administration, President Obama directed the development of a national preparedness system, built upon core capabilities to achieve a goal of national preparedness.  The national preparedness system is intended to help guide the domestic efforts of all levels of all levels of government and in the private sector.  In September 2011, the National Preparedness Goal was published as a 26-page document expanding the mission areas to include prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery.  It is clear that the systems involved in setting contemporary standards and principles continue to evolve; we will now review historic and contemporary practices of dispatch services.


Historic & Contemporary Models

While many espouse that integrated incident communications are critical to a successful operational outcome, this integration is frequently mistaken to include only hardware and software infrastructure.  Inclusion of human systems, especially the full participation of communications personnel, has become clearly as crucial to successful event outcomes as virtually any piece of technology.  In both catastrophic and day to day events, communications personnel need be integrated and layered throughout the response network long before shots are fired and buildings burn.  PSAP personnel are clearly an integral part of the systems of first responders.  This is especially true bearing in mind the deep understanding that are developed of the tactics and strategies of the law, fire, EMS and PW entities with whom they work.

On the law-side of managing communications operations, these human dispatch systems were first integrated as Tactical Dispatchers.  Tactical dispatch personnel work closely with and accompany Special Weapons and Tactic Teams and Hostage Negotiation Units in field operations.  Some may debate the origins of these elements, yet they largely serve to improve communications among tactical operators, tactical operations bases and command posts.  There is a 40-hour course in California to prepare dispatchers for the specialized nature of this assignment(3).

On the fire-side of managing communications operations, dispatch personnel formed into Incident Dispatch Teams (IDTs).  Generally, the IDT is a unit that provides communications resource status, and documentation support at an incident scene of certain multi-alarm fires.  An additional job they are likely to be filling is tracking of the arrival time of units on-scene.  National Fire Protection

Right: An incident dispatcher managing communications for an incident in San Mateo County, CA.

Association (NFPA) standards require incident commanders to be notified every 15 minutes from time on scene for critical examination of the initial tactics implemented can be assessed.  Minimum required training for the IDT memberships vary, with some consisting of completing approved ICS-200 and ICS-300 courses, along with the California Fire Chiefs’ Association (Communications Section) Incident Dispatcher course(4).
(For more information on Tactical and Incident Dispatch Teams, see the Incident Dispatch Resource Center)

In the United States since the tragic events of 9/11 and in the sense of NIMS, dispatch personnel might be appropriately categorized as Technical Specialists.  These technical specialists fall under the direction of a Communication Unit Leader, who assigns an Incident Communications Manager and Lead Incident Dispatcher as needed.  Responsibilities include assessing communications systems/frequencies in use; advising on communications capabilities/limitations; developing and implementing effective communications procedures (flow) internal and external to the incident/Incident Command Post; and preparation and implementation an Incident Communications Plan.  These responsibilities include preparation of a variety of ICS forms such as the 205 (Incident Radio Communications Plan), 205a (Communications List) and 214 (Activity Log).  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Emergency Management Institute (EMI) has an on-line resource center with listings of job aids, forms, checklists and training available(5)

This evolution provides strong evidence that the inclusion of communications personnel in standing operational and training meetings provides an avenue for more than education and familiarization.  To be appropriately inclusive builds a foundation for ongoing operational input and leads to clarity in roles, expectations, responsibilities and builds a strong incident management structure.  In addition, the appropriate integration of Incident (Fire) and Tactical (Law) Dispatchers into response management methodologies further facilitates cross discipline understanding, as does the inclusion of law or fire liaison representatives in the Communications Center during large incidents that do not merit a field response by PSAP personnel.

Sample ICS Organizational Chart:(6)


Under times of distress, people revert to what they know and practice; those in the first responder disciplines sometimes know this old adage all too well.  Frequent dialogue by law and fire supervisors and managers with communications managers and dispatchers enables cultural and operational understanding across all emergency service disciplines, thereby smoothing the operational process and creating opportunities to examine and understand the larger operational picture.  Ultimately, while there are multiple goals to be achieved in emergencies, our own organizations must realize a higher level of intra disciplinary trust and the recognition of interdependence upon one another to guarantee more outcomes that are successful. 

When considering the increase in events and incidents requiring a unified command incident management structure that have surfaced in the post-9/11 environment in America, teamwork must be a central, critical multidisciplinary behavior.  Increasing the involvement of dispatch personnel as critical players and collaborators in preparedness efforts can only serve to strengthen those very planning and preparedness efforts!  Response capabilities in America have grown and matured considerably in the era since the tragic events of 9/11.  Yet, as professionals we can continue to improve our core capabilities and in the delivery of services such as prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery by maintaining effective and efficient public safety communications centers ready to support the successful management of major incidents by simply planning, training and working together.

Tom Maloney, MA, retired from San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, after 31 years of public service, to found Maloney & Associates, LLC in 2007.
David Matthew is a graduate of the Homeland Security Program at NPS, currently the Deputy Fire Chief for the City of South San Francisco.
Don Maynard is a 26-year emergency dispatch veteran and is the Fire Operations Manager for San Mateo County (CA) Public Safety Communications (NAED-ACE).
Robert Neamy served for 33 years with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, retiring as deputy chief of operations.

Related Stories:
Baker County Oregon Incident Dispatcher Team Assists With Arrest of Homicide Suspect
Dispatch ICS: Managing Major Incidents in the PSAP Using an ICS Model
Tactical Dispatching: Stand-Off in Susquehanna


(1) Neamy, R. & Neville, W. (2011). “From FIRESCOPE to NIMS: How NIMS developed out of the earlier FIRESCOPE program” in FireRescue, August 2011.

(2) National Incident Management Consortium (

(3) California Emergency Dispatcher Association (n.d.), website (

(4) Communications Procedure Manual (2008).  San Jose, California Fire Department.


(6) ICS-300 Incident Command System document (n.d.).  United States Department of Agriculture website (



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