Man-Caused Incidents - New Challenges & Systems

By all estimates, major emergencies and disasters are likely to continue to increase in frequency for the foreseeable future.  Moreover, the severity of such disasters seems to be intensifying.  Since the 1980s, most preparedness efforts throughout the United States have focused on an all-hazards approach that minimizes any distinctions between natural and man-caused incidents.  However, although the all-hazards philosophy provides a consistent baseline for planning, those responsible for operations, emergency management, and response resources must also base their strategic and tactical decisions on incident factors that reflect the cause, if only because inclusion of that information may help significantly in determining how best to act.

Historically, the impacts – both economic and psychological – from natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes have been far greater than the losses and impacts from man-caused disasters.  Man-caused emergencies, however, present challenges that are significantly different from those posed by natural disasters – which almost always have a clearly identifiable cause.  A hurricane, for example, is characterized by high winds, flooding, storm surge, and other effects.

In addition, and with only a few exceptions, the impact of a natural disaster can often be forecast or predicted in advance. In contrast, the occurrence and cumulative effects of man-caused disasters are usually more speculative than predictive.

Precipitating Conditions, Factual Projections & Intended Dangers

When planning for man-caused incidents, decision makers can build hazard, risk, and vulnerability assessments using a formulary similar to those used in planning for natural disasters. For example, planners can often (but not always) project such factors as the size of the population likely to be affected and/or the potential economic impact. However, unlike natural incidents, the precipitating conditions (such as weather systems) usually cannot be accurately predicted. The answers to the “when,” “where,” “what,” and “how” questions, therefore, are frequently more a matter of guesswork than of factual projections.

Perhaps of much greater importance when confronted with a man-caused incident, response managers and operational personnel must quickly determine whether the emergency is incidental (i.e., accidental) or if it is intentional.  In the case of an intentional act, the urgency of response actions must be tempered by a recognition that the precipitating event may be only one of several intended dangers. There have been, in fact, a number of incidents documented in recent years in which more than one intentional action was coupled with one or more additional or secondary hostile actions.  For example, a terrorist may detonate an explosive device or cause a disturbance that would generate an initial emergency response.  The first emergency responders arriving at the scene of the incident may be subjected to danger from another device and/or potentially exposed to other and sometimes greater hazards.  For that reason alone, the planning for and responding to a man-caused incident must reflect a very careful initial assessment and, in most cases, include additional precautions.

This “just in case” added requirement obviously increases the urgency of accurately, and completely, defining and categorizing both the nature and the scope of any man-caused incident.  When planning for such incidents, therefore, responders and incident commanders must do everything possible to identify the potential for secondary actions and/or “cascading events” – which can be described as situations in which one problem leads to another, and then another, etc., in what could be a long series.

Still and Always the Highest Priority: Saving Lives

Fortunately, incident-response priorities never change. Those priorities will always remain: (1) The safety of human life; (2) Stabilization of the incident scene; and (3) Preservation of the on-scene property and other material resources and assets. Focusing on those priorities, in that order, provides a consistent baseline that planners and incident commanders are able to use in establishing their decision-making guidelines.  However, the strategies and subsequent tactical decisions derived from those priorities will almost assuredly be based on the identified incident conditions – including a determination of whether the obvious hazards are the sole concern or if other risks also must be considered and additional precautions implemented.  Clearly, ensuring life safety must remain the highest priority in any case.

Incident response strategies will be developed based on whether the circumstances are incidental (accidental), and/or whether the incident was intentional. Similarly, the operational tactics selected should reflect any concerns about additional – particularly intentional – hazards and risks likely to be encountered.  For example, the traditional, and time-honored, emergency responder mindset of initiating aggressive intervention operations just as soon as possible must be tempered by a recognition of potential additional hazards or intended cascading events.

Among the other factors that also must rapidly be assessed is determining whether the incident involves simple negligence or willful negligence. Simple negligence typically results from unintentionally omitting or ignoring a step in a process, and that omission results in an undesirable outcome. Willful negligence is generally characterized by situations in which the responsible party intentionally and knowingly disregards important procedures or processes.  A key distinction between the two is that willful negligence, if properly documented, is more subject to criminal and/or civil prosecution.  For the incident commander at a man-caused incident, this means that the preservation of evidence that can assist in these determinations is of critical importance.  For that reason, the strategies and tactics recommended – or mandated – in the planning process may well include the actions needed not only to properly document and preserve evidence but also to establish a valid “custody chain” for later prosecution.

The Recognition and Growing Importance of I&I

All of these determinations drive the need for relatively new considerations when establishing the command guidelines for a man-caused incident.  When the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was conceived in 2003, a conceptual component was added to the core functions of the Incident Command System (ICS). That component was initially titled “Information and Intelligence” but in 2007 was revised to “Intelligence and Investigations” (I&I).

The purpose of the I&I function was, and is, to create the organizational and functional capabilities needed to collect intelligence data and conduct investigations into the cause, origin, and intent of the perpetrator or originator of a man-caused incident.  In practice, this means that the incident commander must not only determine what has happened but also who may have caused it and what his or her intent was. The incident command/unified command also must: (a) determine whether man-caused incidents are accidental or intentional; and (b) help assess the potential of such incidents to cause greater risk, harm, or loss. 

There are many additional benefits provided by proper and effective use of the I&I function, but the principal value of I&I is usually that it gives the incident command organization an effective tool to support decision-making that is based upon identification of the incident’s cause, intent, and intended outcome.

The I&I function has historically been considered to be “part and parcel” of the planning section. Fundamentally, this was based on the notion that planning must be based on information, or intelligence, gathered for each incident operational period. The NIMS concepts expanded the options for the incident commander (IC) to include the designation of I&I as: (1) a new Command Staff Position; or (2) a discrete branch within the Operations Section; or (3) a separate (fifth) general staff function – along with Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administration.

Ultimately, though, the determination of whether the I&I function is needed and in what capacity it will be assigned rests largely with the incident commander.  However, under NIMS, the incident commander has several options to choose from, and these will usually be based on the incident factors identified. (The graph accompanying this article shows the various options available for incorporating the Intelligence and Investigations Function within an incident-command organization.)

First Answer the Questions, Then Make the Determinations

In summary, when confronted with a man-caused incident, the incident management organization must rapidly make a number of determinations.  Prominent among the many questions that must be asked before making those determinations are the following:Is the situation incidental (accidental) or was it intentional?

  1. Is there a potential for cascading events or multiple occurrences?
  2. If cascading events or multiple dangers do exist, what are they likely to be, and what additional precautions are needed?
  3. Who or what caused the incident? (The answer to this question may be of critical importance if criminal or civil prosecution seems likely in the post-incident phase of operations.)
  4. Is it necessary to carry out investigative actions, preserve evidence, and establish a valid chain of custody for evidence – and, if so, how will these actions be performed?
  5. What changes to current strategies and tactics should be made?
  6. What is the most suitable framework within which to incorporate measures for gathering incident intelligence and/or conducting investigations? (Note: The I&I function may initially be established in one configuration but later adjusted to another – if, as, and when necessary.)


In addition to the preceding steps required to establish an effective incident command of any type, officials confronted with a man-caused emergency must assess these factors to determine how to support the command process through establishment of an Intelligence & Investigations function.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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