Incident Command System

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Even a single-car accident with injured victims, and, perhaps, a vehicle fire, is an incident that can be handled within routine capabilities of the local emergency medical services. When the number of events, be they injuries or poisonings, fires, infrastructure collapse, etc., is beyond the capability of the local organization, it invokes the Incident Command System (ICS), which is a doctrine of emergency management almost universal in North America, and widely used worldwide. ICS extensions are most directly concerned with managing the response of local units that either do not usually work together, or may lack certain relevant skills or equipment. ICS provides a systematic means to ask for assistance from neighboring emergency services all the way up to national-level response (e.g., National Incident Management System (NIMS) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)), and to coherently bring these additional resources into a coherent response under centralized and hierarchical command. Doctrine for incident command under NIMS is spelled out by the Emergency Responder Field Operating Guide, with the somewhat unfortunate abbreviation ERFOG.[1]

Incident Command System

Some of the reasons to use ICS is that it fits into a larger framework of resources outside the immediate area. It is designed

  • Handle incidents of any kind or size, although the command structure evolve the incident becomes more complex
  • Blend personnel, from a variety of agencies, into a common management structure.
  • Provides logistical and administrative support to operational staff.
  • Is cost effective by avoiding duplication of efforts.
  • Predefined mechanisms exist for health and hazardous material (HAZMAT) incidents.

The key things standardized by ICS include:

  • Terminology
  • Command
  • Planning and organizational structure
  • Facilities and resources
  • Communications and Information Management
  • Professionalism

Avoiding confusion

A fundamental starting port is standard terminology for

  • Organizational functions.
  • Incident facilities.
  • Resource descriptions.
  • Position titles.

Communications uses plain English,without departmental codes and jargon that not may be universally understood. "What is your position" is far less ambiguous than "Report your 10-20."


A basic of ICS is that one and only one person in command of a function. Responsibilities will change, but persons above and below the commander always knows current responsibility. At a given level of command, ICS assumes unity of command: only one person is need, certainly with advice, to make a decision. The ultimate commander has a legal basis of authority, and guidance on what can and cannot be delegated.

ICS will not spring into existence at the moment of a disaster. All relevant commanders and agencies will need to be rained on its principles and procedures. *Within that structure, it forms a standardized management tool for meeting the demands of small or large emergency or nonemergency situations.

  • Represents "best practices," and has become the standard for emergency management across the country.
  • May be used for planned events, natural disasters, and acts of terrorism; it scales up to the NIMS level

Transfer of command takes place variously when a more qualified commander arrives, or simply that it is time for the commander to rest. An incident commander is not necessarily the senior officer. For example, the Incident Commander of the Arlington County (Virginia) Fire Department was an Assistant Chief; the Chief determined he could be more effective both running other services in the jurisdiction, and coordinating requests for help outside it.[2]

Standard ICS organization

The basic organizational structure of an ICS response is standard; larger incidents use subcommanders when necessary, always with someone clearly in charge. No commander has more direct reports than is reasonable to manage under stressful condition.

There is no absolutely standard organization for an ICS team, although it tends to build from the bottom up. Some strong rules are that no supervisor can reasonably control more than five to seven subordinates, perhaps with a few additional personal staff. Factors that go into deciding the number of subordinates, or even whether there should be subincident commanders, include: Span of control considerations are influenced by the:

  • Type of incident.
  • Nature of the task.
  • Hazards and safety factors.
  • Distances between personnel and resources.

The Incident Commander is assisted by a personal and a general staff.

Command staff

The standard three personal staff functions deal with public affairs, liaison with other agencies (and with higher command if it exists), and a safety officer concerned with safety of the incident response personnel.

General staff

In a highly technical incident, the Commander might have an adviser (e.g., on radiation). It is also common for commanders to have drivers and aides.

While the model for exerting command is called "general staff", it differs somewhat from the military use of such an organization. In the military, the staff advises the commander, and indeed will handle much of the routine communications. A military commander, however, is apt to have key deputy commanders or task force leaders, to whom he may give direct orders.

Under ICS, the General Staff is a more powerful body. Its basic organization has four or sometimes five sections:

  • Operations
  • Planning
    • Intelligence
  • Logistics
  • Finance & Administration

Operations runs the action incident response, with logistics and F&A supporting their needs, while Planning tries to stay ahead of the situation. Planning may reqyest resources in advance, but it is an absolute rule of ICS that any requested resources report to the chain of command to get their direction.


For large incidents, the Incident Commander, working through the Operations Section, often will have task force leaders. In dealing with a large fire, for example, there might be 3-4 hose/engine teams, but another team has responsibility for their water supply. The safety officer monitors their consumption of air tanks and, working with logistics, makes sure the supply is adequate. There might be an Air Operations unit, perhaps just for observation, or with a larger structure if it takes more direct roles such as rescue or water dumps.


The intelligence section is organized only when needed, which means when sensitive information is being handled (e.g., law enforcement or security in a terrorist attack, or details of a weapon at the heart of a hazardous materials (HAZMAT) incident)


Finance and administration

Facilities and Resources

There will be standardized ways of requesting resources, standardizing ways to receive them at staging areas, and a disciplined way to get them where they are needed.

Information and communications

Systems are verified, prior to an urgent need, that they can work together. Incident locations and facilities

Incident Command/Joint Response

For very large incidents, the Incident Commander runs the on-scene Incident Command Post, but there is, usually not on the incident site, a Joint Command Post, which responsibilities for keeping other agencies informed but not interfering with actions on the site, searching for resources, and perhaps managing resources that are expected to be needed, but cannot yet start their operations.

The response to the Pentagon disaster during the [9-11 attacks]] is often considered an excellent example of how ICS (or, properly, ICS/JC) can work. On-scene command responsibility was with the Arlington County (Virginia) Fire Department. Wisely, the Chief of Department assigned an Assistant Chief to command the onsite response. He, in turn, made sure the other department responsibilities were carried out; people still needed ambulances and fire protection for reasons unrelated to the attack. As is common in such disasters, virtually all local units were dispatched because they were the most accustomed to working together, while units from neighboring jurisdictions, under Mutual Aid Agreements, would backfill the regular firehouses. When needed, neighboring units also responded to the Pentagon, but only when requested by the Incident Commander.

Several miles away, at the military base at Fort Myer, Virginia, the Joint Command Center was organized, which had senior-level representation from many agencies. It was commanded by a senior officer of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who fully understood that the Pentagon was a crime scene, but criminal investigation had to wait for fire and rescue operations to finish. Coincidentally, the JCC commander happened to be a close personal friend of the Incident Commander; it was observed by many that in-place personal relationships among those likely to have command roles can immensely help the job.

ICS/National Response

At certain levels of extremely widespread emergencies, there may need to be multiple Incident Commanders and Joint Commanders, with clear responsibility for their specific areas. When truly major response is needed, additional response control centers will be established at regional or national level.

National response, in the U.S., has had both general structural problems, as well as issues in political leadership. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in response to the 9-11 attacks, which, in terms of visibility, made counterterrorism its highest priority. It did consolidate organizations with overlapping functions, especially in border security. It made a permanent home for some agencies that had been operating on an ad hoc basis, such as the Transportation Security Administration responsible for airline security. It seemed logical to consolidate organizations with a more general emergency management response, but, when the overall DHS budget was concerned, in the event of competition between a terrorism-focused line item and a more general one, terrorism took priority. See Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for changes in ICS/national response capabilities after the national consolidation.

An important lesson learned, under different Administrations, was that while national-level emergency response might not be a day-to-day issue for national leaders, when a disaster did take place, the political leaders would be judged by what was in place. There would be no time to reorganize, find qualified national-level command teams, or create specialized response organization in the midst of a major fire or flood. FEMA top leadership tended to be political generalists, although the difference was visible when experienced emergency managers were in its leadership. No such leadership was present during Hurricane Hugo, hitting South Carolina in 1989, and Hurricane Andrew, affecting Florida in 1992, and this led to much political criticism.

Jurisdictional issues

National level response will differ significantly with the particular political culture of the country. France, for example, is highly centralized, where in the U.S., first-line authority is often at the state or local level, with federal involvement requiring a determination and proclamation under the Stafford Act. Other countries may have no real national response team, but have varying attitudes about accepting external help; more developed countries also have to be able to have teams to send.

This principle applied equally well at the state and local level in the U.S. Where a regional ICS program was in place, and mutual aid agreements existed under it, resources could flow smoothly. When a jurisdiction had neither adequate local planning nor preexisting mutual aid pacts, the population suffered.


  1. National Incident Management System, Federal Emergency Management Agency (Draft, 24 May 2007), Emergency Responder Field Operating Guide (ERFOG)
  2. Fire Department, Arlington, Virginia, Arlington County After-Action Report on the Response to the September 11 Terrorist Attack on the Pentagon