Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 29, 2013

ICS implications of Westgate attack

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 29, 2013

On this blog I have been an advocate for more thoughtful and strategic application of the Incident Command System.  I have also argued that ICS is not fully scalable to theater-size operations (hundreds of square miles).

But today let me highlight how ICS is a fundamental component of emergency operations by offering this excerpt from a long-piece in the Sunday Telegraph:

The first rescuers to respond were a small team of Kenyan-Indians from a local plain-clothes unit that acts as a kind of armed neighbourhood watch for the large local Asian community.

With a handful of armed Kenyan police, they helped hundreds of people escape before pushing the terrorists into a corner on the ground floor, near the supermarket.

“They were returning fire, heavily, but they weren’t moving out from where they were,” said one person involved. “We had them contained. Done properly, we could have ended that thing on Saturday.”

Instead, Kenya’s army, which had taken four hours to group and prepare their assault, crashed in through both the ground and top-floor entrances, without understanding that some men wearing holsters and body armour were not attackers.

No radio contacts were set up between the units. No overall command had been appointed, and different commanders squabbled. A senior policeman was shot dead in a friendly-fire incident. Chaotic gunfire streaked across the mall’s open spaces.

Within 30 minutes, late in the afternoon, both the initial responders and the army had pulled out, leaving the mall to the terrorists and hostages.

There have even been rumors that the “friendly-fire incident” referenced above was the result of an argument over command between two military officers.

So for those readers who have felt my attitude toward ICS has been overly dismissive, here’s your dramatic example of how an effective Incident Command System is essential.

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Comment by Quin

September 30, 2013 @ 10:38 am


I think Beslan was another good example. The anarchy that became of the Russian assault on the school, which can be seen in the videos, was atrocious. To imagine armed parents even rushed into the school. Just an operational nightmare.

In fact a quick google search turned up this:

My bone to pick in this arena isn’t ICS, its the Federal adoption of the Multi-Agency Command System (MACS). That needs plenty of work and reimagining to handle catastrophic events, and to create a preparedness structure to support it.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

I understand there were language problems!

Comment by JD

September 30, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

@ Quin, a compelling old, salient read on Beslan in Esquire Magazine. (ignore the ads)


Comment by Bruce Martin

September 30, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

I am at times puzzled with the discussions around ICS and believe that something was lost in the translation, or perhaps in the implementation or training.

I have read here and elsewhere that ICS is a C3 tool. That is a key point. ICS is a construct to attempt to reduce the fog of war. There are other systems out there. Many local public safety agencies had their “home grown” tool. Those tools work, until they have to work across jurisdictional/discipline borders. Then, in my observation, differences in terminology, organizational structure, staff and line functions, asserted themselves and contributed to confusion. Like it or not, ICS was chosen for use across the land and it can serve rather effectively, I believe, as a tool.

The issues I have seen raised, and this event may fit the bill, usually fall in two areas: (1) agency/discipline policies and procedures, or (2) multi-agency coordination (theater size stuff).

The C3 structure may or may not have contributed to the issues observed in the Telegraph – agencies must commit to working with each other, and plan and train to that end for there to be a coordinated effort. That’s organizational first.

The MAC issues are those of federalism, compounded by absence or presence of commitment to work together. It’s multi-agency coordination, and as we know, in many cases we do not HAVE to coordinate, even though it’s a smart practice.

Having witnessed the implementation of ICS in one state, I expect it will take the nation the same thirty years or so to come to grips with it.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 1, 2013 @ 6:46 am

Bruce and Quin: In my — reasonably limited — experience, the problem with ICS as practiced is largely a matter of training and exercising. As Bruce notes, in itself ICS is just a tool. It is structurally and theoretically a flexible tool. Weirdly… but perhaps predictably… as it morphed from a tool to engage wildland fires into a range of, often urban, incidents, it became less and less open to complexity and more and more fixated on command-and-control. But this is not necessarily the fault of the tool, but the tool-user.

JD and Quin: Thanks for the links to Beslan. So does an ICS case book series exist? Maybe that would be a good way to renew the potential scope-and-scale and flexibility of ICS.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2013 @ 11:37 am

Perhaps C4 not just C3!

Comment by Ed Baldini

October 2, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

ICS is poorly suited for the initial chaotic phase of urban combat. This is rarely, if ever, addressed in formal ICS classes that tend to focus on resource allocation as situation begins to “stabilize”. With the emerging threat, there needs to be an emerging system of decentralized decision making that empowers small unit tactics and not formal titles.

When this rears it head on our shores, many lives could be lost looking for a formal structure to stand-up. Train roles and responsibilities now and know what each department/discipline is going to do for the first hour. Worry about the second hour when you have made it thru the first.

The hardest part will be not over committing to the first phase of the incident. Hard to instill in first responders the concept of NOT RESPONDING all to the first and remaining ready for the second or how to anticipate the next target/phase.


Comment by Bruce Martin

October 3, 2013 @ 12:26 pm


It is agency policy and direction, and training to them, that will set the stage for success in early chaotic incidents, not ICS. We have validated that idea in chaotic wild land interface fires. ICS begins to work in those situations as resources arrive, as the operating picture is developed and disseminated, and as the objectives and commander’s intent is promulgated, either pre-incident through training, policy or at an incident by communication .

Initially, independent action to save lives and contain the problem, under a common objective, is critically necessary. In the early chaotic phase, to wait for a command organization to be built before acting is like waiting at the Maginot Line as the blitzkrieg rolls over. That is the art of command, and not the science of ICS. Both have their place.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 4, 2013 @ 6:36 am

Bruce: I have heard senior law enforcement officials complain that too often an initial response is overly restrained, “instead of fully engaging, as is taught by ICS.” Do I hear you saying this is NOT what ICS (usually) teaches? Are you also saying the resource-management “center of gravity” for ICS makes it ill-suited as a source of doctrine for many crisis situations?

Comment by Bruce Martin

October 4, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

Phil, we ought to define terms, I suspect, as I have had a misunderstanding when I’ve assumed that feds, states and locals have common definitions of “doctrine,” “strategy” and “tactics” for example.

With that caveat, I am saying that, in and of itself, ICS is NOT a source of doctrine (which I define as a way of doing business). One can run an incident in the chaotic early moments and hours offensively, defensively, with or without independent action, and use ICS to organize it as one is able and resources and circumstances allow. Within the organizational system of ICS, operations build from the bottom up based on agency SOPs, policies, protocols, or doctrine. The other ICS sections of Plans, Logs and Finance build from the top down, and command staff is added as the IC sees fit.

I have drafted an article on this notion; I suppose I’ll finish it!

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