A brief history of Incident Command

The kitchen was the origin for Incident Command

The commonly held opinion on the history of incident command is that it began in the 1970s as a result of several catastrophic wildfires in California. But the true story of incident command goes back much further…

As one might guess, command over a military organization was one of the earliest methods of managing a group of individuals. In the western world, the Catholic Church began organizing a hierarchy related to managing not only members of the church, but important situations that might arise, including public revolt, illness, or events that affected the Papacy.

These organizational values were built around the ability to delegate responsibility, and to motivate large groups of people. In many regards, these early forms of command were indirectly oriented around an “incident,” but were not in any manner similar to what is used today.

Perhaps the first organized method of managing an incident was developed in France in the late 1800s. The origin: the kitchen.

Auguste Escoffier is credited with the development of a complete management system for preparing and delivering food on time and with the proper heat and readiness. As a young man, Escoffier served the French army during the Franco-Prussian war (as a chef). One of his first accomplishments was the development of a canned food system for troops.

After the war, Escoffier opened his own restaurant, but the process of preparing food became a nightmare. Eventually, he and his wife moved to Monte Carlo, where he took control of the kitchen at the Grand Hotel. It was here that he developed a “command system” for managing the proper delivery of food, including a specific org chart.

The org chart for the kitchen Escoffier designed began with the Head Chef – which comes from the Latin caput and is cognate with English “Chief.”

The executive chef could be compared to a police or fire chief in today’s world. It is the role of the chief executive, but one who’s responsibilities are likely more political than operational. The head chef was typically the individual in charge, something similar to an incident commander in today’s complex operation model.

Under the head chef, the operations manager was (and is) referred to as the Sous-Chef. This is the second in command, and the role was defined to fulfill every possible operational activity, including filling in for others who may be missing from the incident management – or the kitchen preparation process.

The Chef de Partie or line cook would report to the Sous-Chef – and there might be multiple individuals in this role. The Expediter takes orders from the dining room and organizes them for distribution, with a food runner reporting to him. A Commis or Chef would be the basic chef in a larger kitchen. In addition to these roles, there were many others, ranging from fish chef to fry chef to roundsman and butcher.

All of these roles were organized into what was called the brigade system, or the brigade de cuisine. And while it clearly took ideas from military management, the key difference was the process of managing a specific incident, with an organizational chart where people reported up, down, and laterally, and their responsibility was structured around a specific mission: deliver food when ready to eat. Even in those days, preparing food was a complex task that required perfect timing to effect an appropriate outcome.

From this organizational structure, the military refined its use of command, beyond the basic (and long pre-existing to Escoffier) chain of command, to the often studied CCC (3C) of Command, Control and Communications as well as the System of Systems (SoS) used by many military organizations today.

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Michael Monroe

Michael Monroe

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