The Buncefield Incident: Command Management

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The existence of human society has always been associated with considerable dangers. Natural disasters troubled humanity at the dawn of its development, while the later stages became characterized by numerous technological incidents that damaged the property and took the lives of numerous people. Accordingly, to fight the risks of such disasters the mankind has developed a set of rules and techniques united under a joint generalized notion of incident command management. At the same time, the incidents like the one that happened on December 11, 2005, at the Buncefield oil storage and transfer depot prove that considerable improvements should be made to the incident command systems, especially when it concerns large-scale incidents with potentially large-scale consequences, property damages, and human victims.

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Proper Incident Command System Needed

General Notions

The first point that should be considered by any agency that has the potential of dealing with an incident, especially the large-scale one, is to establish a proper incident command system. According to Haddow, Bullock, and Coppola (2007), the incident command system is a vital element of any organizational design as its main function is “to establish a set of planning and management systems that would help the agencies responding to a disaster to work together in a coordinated and systematic approach” (p. 111). Thus, an adequate incident command system is the basis that allows the agencies to prepare for preventing incidents, facing them, and eliminating their effects through the short reaction time and cost-effective funding of the process. It should also be noted that an efficient incident command system is based on the collaboration of many agencies, such as fire-fighting departments, emergency services, environmental organizations, etc. Each of them must receive specific guidelines that would enable them to coordinate their efforts; otherwise, the effectiveness of this system will diminish. Most importantly, before the development of such a model, one should carefully examine the best practices of incident management. Only in this way, it will be possible to rule out the probability of delay, lack of coordination, and other pitfalls. Still, at first, it is necessary to explain the rationale of the adoption of the incident command system.

Implications for Buncefield Incident

Needless to say, the Buncefield incident would have also had many moderate effects in case if there were a proper incident command system in place for the agencies that dealt with the explosions. As a rather large-scale incident that injured 43 people, conditioned the evacuation of 2000 more people, and destroyed 23 oil storage tanks, the effects of the Buncefield case could have been reduced if there were a coordinated action plan designed with the help of the incident command system. At least, the respective agencies could have stopped the fire from burning five days and causing such damages as it did. Moreover, the spreading of the smoke after the fire could have been stopped if adequate measures were taken timely.

Overall, the Buncefield incident eloquently demonstrated that the agencies, which were responsible for moderating the consequences of this technological disaster, did not have an adequate action plan. Partly, it can be ascribed to the fact that they never faced similar incidents before. Nonetheless, this does not seem to be the only reason. First, they were not fully aware of each others tasks and as a result, their timing was far from perfect. Another factor that contributed to such an outcome was a rather slow exchange of information between them as it subsequently gave rise to procrastination. Each of these drawbacks could have been avoided if there had been a well-designed command system.

Large-Scale Incidents’ Command Levels

In more detail, the Buncefield incident effects could have been moderated by the specific usage of the three main levels of command traditionally implemented while dealing with large-scale incidents like this. The three levels are strategic, tactical, and task levels, with each of them defining the people charged with their conduct and their respective responsibilities (Ward, 2005, p. 295). This is the so-called hierarchy of instructions, which ranges from the most general strategies of all agencies to the most specific activities of each member of the organization that is supposed to deal with an emergency. The key objective is to ensure that each rescuer has detailed instructions for behaving in such situations. But, at the same time, he/she must know about the functions carried out by others. Sometimes, this goal is rather difficult to attain without appropriate training, which is also an important component of an incident command system.

The strategic level of incident command is the one at which the organizational leader operates. The tactical level is the analysis of ways to achieve strategic level goals, while the task level is the level of specific actions taken based on tactical objectives to reach strategic goals (Ward, 2005, p. 295). For the Buncefield incident, the strategic goal for the command could have been to stop the fire or prevent further explosions of close tankers in the depot. The actions taken at the tactical level could have included the coordination of work with fire fighting agencies and emergency services. Finally, the task level of the Buncefield incident command system might have been focused on using communicational devices to report the emergency case to respective agencies and to obtain timely help.

Dynamic Risk Assessment

Use at Buncefield Scene

Further on, the dynamic risk assessment methods might have helped reduce the effects and the scale of the incident at Buncefield. The appropriate set of dynamic risk assessment steps is suggested by Bostrom (2008, p. 209) and Glendon et al. (2006, p. 408). These steps include the assessment of:

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  • Rules regarding work safety;
  • Commitment of managers to the safety rules;
  • Safety-oriented behavior of employees;
  • Communication between various layers of the organizational structure and between Buncefield and safety agencies;
  • Working conditions and competence of both ordinary employees and specialists charged with safety tasks.

On the whole, this assessment will serve two purposes: on the one hand, the local authorities will identity the drawbacks of the safety management system within the organization, answerable for the preservation of oil storage. In the long run, this may minimize the risk of such incidents. Although the cause of the explosion has yet to be ascertained, it is quite probable that they were due to the inobservance of fire safety rules. Secondly, this assessment will help to determine whether each of the governmental agencies is fully ready for such situations. Later, it will lay the ground for an action plan.

Action Plan

Based on the above suggestions by Bostrom (2008, p. 209) and Glendon et al. (2006, p. 408), it is possible to design an action plan for the adequate dynamic risk assessment at the set of the Buncefield incident. Such an effective action plan would include:

  • To review the safety regulations present in the organizational documents of Buncefield depot;
  • To study, through both interviews and outside assessments, the levels to which Buncefield managers follow the established safety rules;
  • To carry out interviews and objective assessments of how employees follow safety rules;
  • To review and assess the quality of communication inside of Buncefield depot and between it and safety agencies like Fire Fighting or Emergency services;
  • To study how safety rules are followed at Buncefield, who is responsible for this, and what the risks of potential deviations from those rules might be.

Distribution of Roles

Naturally, various public agencies should have taken part in the handling of the Buncefield incident (Walsh, 2005, p. 94). These agencies and their respective functions are identified in the following list:

  • Fire fighting department – to obtain the information about the explosions and the fire and take steps to stop their development to the nearby territories and objects;
  • Police department – to investigate the explosion incident and find out its causes, whether these are ordinary violations of working safety rules or some illegal activities;
  • Emergency services – to provide urgent medical help and deal with the first damages and injuries that the incident caused to objects and people;
  • Department of Public Health – to present qualified, timely, and permanent health care service and urgent medical help to the incident victims and to assess potential long-term health care effects of the Buncefield incident;
  • Environmental safety agencies – to study the effects of the Buncefield incident on the environment, to research the potential effects of the smoke produced by the explosions and fire on the environment, and to take steps to eliminate or reduce those effects.

The above list of the public agencies involved in the handling of the Buncefield incident presents the functions and duties each of the agencies should have had in the process. At the same time, it is possible to assume that they fulfilled their duties in reality, but the fact that, for example, the fire at Buncefield burnt for 5 days after the last explosion took place, allows claiming that at least some of the agencies did not perform well. As it has been mentioned before this case illustrated that the level of readiness left much to be desired and some remedial measures had to be taken.

Information Use during the Incident

Finally, incident command management requires a proper liaison with the various media to be established for information communication and analysis (Haddow, Bullock, and Coppola, 2007, p. 134). Moreover, Ward (2005) argues that in the bulk of emergency agencies and other organizations potentially involved in incident management, there is a position of a liaison officer, who functions as “the incident command’s point of contact for representatives from outside agencies” (p. 301).

Drawing from this, it could have benefited the Buncefield depot much if it had a proper liaison with the media and other public agencies it was associated with. The liaison officer of Buncefield would have communicated the data about the incident at once when it started, which would have provided police, fire fighting, and emergency agencies with the needed to react, arrive at the incident site and take steps in moderating its consequences. The liaison with the media would have also been helpful to Buncefield, as the timely reports about the incident in the media might have involved the community in fighting the disaster. As well, ordinary people might have got ready for evacuation faster and the process of fire fighting might have taken less time than it did. At present, practically no one underestimates the role of mass media, but its resources are seldom utilized by those organizations which prevent natural disasters or minimize their effects. For example, the role of mass media is essential if the government wants to organize a fundraising campaign for the victims of natural disasters. They raise peoples awareness about this incident and this may alleviate the burden of public agencies.


Thus, it is obvious that the proper incident command system is vital for any organization that can potentially face incidents of either natural or technological origin. The Buncefield incident illustrates the situation when the organization either did not have or could not implement properly its incident command system, which resulted in considerable damages, human injuries, and explosions and fires lasting for five days on the incident site. The analysis presented above allows seeing how the incident could have been managed more efficiently if all the necessary strategies and plans were in place at Buncefield. Most importantly, this analysis proves the idea that the development of an incident command system is instrumental for the prevention of natural disasters.

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Works Cited

Bostrom, Anne et al. Risk assessment, modeling and decision support: strategic decisions. NY: Springer, 2008. Print.

Glendon, Ian et al. Human safety and risk management. Florida: CRC Press, 2006. Print.

Haddow, George, Jane Bullock, and Damon Coppola. Introduction to Emergency Management. London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007. Print.

Walsh, Donald. National incident management system: principles and practice. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2005. Print.

Ward, Michael. Fire Officer: Principles and Practice. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2005. Print.

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