People around a meeting table wearing identifying vests.

About the author: Dan Heister has been an on-scene coordinator with Superfund in Region 10 since 2000 and joined EPA 13 years before that. Dan’s responses have ranged from fifty gallon oil spills on a small creek to spending seven weeks in a FEMA trailer helping with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

During large scale events (Katrina, the California fires, large oil releases) EPA, implements the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS was developed in the 1970’s by California wildfire agencies in response to some catastrophic fires near Los Angeles. ICS is a command and control structure that is stood up quickly to manage people and resources in a timely and efficient manner.

Command and General Staff officers wear vests that designate their role within the organization. Large patches on the back of the vest have black letters set on a fluorescent background (INCIDENT COMMANDER, OPERATIONS SECTION CHIEF, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER, etc.). The vests facilitate identification within the Command Post so officers can be located, especially in an emergency.

I have donned vests during numerous incidents and have had various titles. I have noticed a curious phenomenon about the vests. A magical thing occurs; middle aged bald guy (me) is transformed and I am called “Sir” or “Mister”, despite my protests. People treat you as though your IQ is 20 to 25 points higher, and they believe you have answers you may not have. It’s humbling to go home where my wife is in charge and my teenage daughter sees me as the fat, stupid person with money. At least I can sleep in my own bed.

In October 2007, Portland was one of three venues for TopOff 4, a week long, national “dirty bomb” exercise. A year earlier my manager called to ask if I would like to be the Incident Commander (IC) in Portland. I said “no”. He took that to mean “yes”.

So there I was the IC, wearing the “heaviest” vest for the entire week. After four long days in the Command Post I arrived the last day at a pay parking lot downtown. My IC vest on, deep in thought I walked toward the Command Post, the sun rising in the east. A late model Mercedes Benz entered the parking lot and drove slowly toward me and stopped. Was this the Mayor? A VIP? The driver’s window came down and the woman inside handed me the keys. “I’m running late, park it for me.” I felt like Rodney Dangerfield. I guess I had it coming.

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