The Incident Command System
(ICS) is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazard incident management concept in the United States
. It is a management protocol originally designed for emergency
management agencies and later federalized
. ICS is based upon a flexible, scalable response organization providing a common framework within which people can work together effectively. These people may be drawn from multiple agencies that do not routinely work together, and ICS is designed to give standard response and operation procedures to reduce the problems and potential for miscommunication
on such incidents. ICS has been summarized as a "first-on-scene" structure, where the first responder
of a scene has charge of the scene until the incident has been declared resolved, a superior-ranking responder arrives on scene and seizes command, or the Incident Commander appoints another individual Incident Commander.
ICS consists of organizational hierarchy and procedures for the management of the overall incident(s) and the mechanism of controlling personnel, facilities, equipment, and communications. It is a system designed to be used or applied from the time an incident occurs until the requirement for management and operations no longer exist. ICS is interdisciplinary and organizationally flexible to meet the following management challenges:
- Meet the needs of incidents of any kind or complexity (expands or contracts)
- Allow personnel from a variety of agencies to meld rapidly into a common management structure with common terminology
- Provide logistical and administrative support to operational staff.
- Be cost effective by avoiding duplication of efforts.
ICS was originally developed in the 1970s during massive wildfire-fighting efforts in California and following a series of catastrophic fires in California's urban interface. Property damage ran into the millions, and many people died or were injured. Studies determined that response problems often related to communication and management deficiencies rather than lack of resources or failure of tactics.
Weaknesses in incident management were often due to:
- Lack of accountability, including unclear chains of command and supervision.
- Poor communication due to both inefficient uses of available communications systems and conflicting codes and terminology.
- Lack of an orderly, systematic planning process.
- No predefined methods to integrate inter-agency requirements into the management structure and planning process effectively.
Emergency managers determined that the existing management structures — frequently unique to each agency — did not scale to dealing with massive mutual aid responses involving dozens of distinct agencies and when these various agencies worked together their specific training and procedures clashed. As a result, a new command and control paradigm was collaboratively developed to provide a consistent, integrated framework for the management of all incidents from small incidents to large, multi-agency emergencies.
In the United States, ICS has been tested by more than 30 years of emergency and non-emergency applications. All levels of government are required to maintain differing levels of ICS training and private sector organizations regularly use ICS for management of events. ICS is widespread in use from law enforcement to every-day business, as the basic goals of clear communication, accountability, and the efficient use of resources are common to incident and emergency management as well as daily operations. ICS is mandated by law for all Hazardous Materials responses nationally and for many other emergency operations in most states. In practice, virtually all EMS and disaster response agencies utilize ICS, in part after the United States Department of Homeland Security mandated the use of ICS for emergency services throughout the United States as a condition for federal preparedness funding. As part of FEMA's National Response Plan (NRP), the system was expanded and integrated into the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
ICS is widely used in the United Kingdom and the United Nations recommended the use of ICS as an international standard. New Zealand has implemented a similar system, known as the Coordinated Incident Management System, Australia has the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System and British Columbia, Canada, has BCERMS developed by the Provincial Emergency Program.
Incidents are defined within ICS as unplanned situations necessitating a response. Examples of incidents may include:
Events are defined within ICS as planned situations. Incident command is increasingly applied to events both in emergency management and non-emergency management settings. Examples of events may include:
- Parades and other ceremonies
- Fairs and other gatherings
- Training exercises
Unity of Command
Each individual participating in the operation reports to only one supervisor. This eliminates the potential for individuals to receive conflicting orders from a variety of supervisors, thus increasing accountability, preventing freelancing, improving the flow of information, helping with the coordination of operational efforts, and enhancing operational safety. This concept is fundamental to the ICS chain of command structure.
Individual response agencies develop their protocols separately, and subsequently develop their terminology separately. This can lead to confusions as one word may have a different meaning for each organization. When different organizations are required to work together, the use of common terminology
is an essential element in team cohesion and communications, both internally and with other organizations responding to the incident. The Incident Command System promotes the use of common terminology, and has an associated glossary of terms that help bring consistency to position titles, the description of resources and how they can be organized, the type and names of incident facilities, and a host of other subjects. The use of common terminology is most evident in the titles of command roles, such as Incident Commander
, Safety Officer
or Operations Section Chief
Management by Objective
Incidents are managed by aiming towards specific objectives. Objectives are ranked by priority, should be as specific as possible, must be attainable and if possible given a working time-frame. Objectives are accomplished by first outlining strategies (general plans of action), then determining appropriate tactics (how the strategy will be executed) for the chosen strategy.
Incident Command structure is organized in such a way as to expand and contract as needed by the incident scope, resources and hazards. Command is established in a top-down fashion, with the most important and authoritative positions established first (e.g. Incident Command is established by the first arriving unit). Only positions that are required at the time should be established. In most cases, very few positions within the command structure will need to be activated. Only in the largest and most complex operations would the full ICS organization be staffed.
To limit the number of responsibilities and resources being by any individual, the ICS requires that any single person's span of control should be between three and seven, with five being ideal. In other words, one manager should have no more than seven people working under them at any given time. If more than 7 resources are being managed by an individual, then they are being overloaded and the command structure needs to be expanded by delegating responsibilities (e.g. by defining new sections, divisions, or task forces). If fewer than three, then the postion's authority can probably be absorbed by the next highest rung in the chain of command.
Coordination on any incident or event is possible and effective due to the implementation of the following concepts:
Incident Action Plan
- Incident Action Plans include the measurable strategic operations to be achieved and are prepared around a time frame called an Operational Period. Incident Action Plans may be verbal or written (except for hazardous material incidents where it has to be written), and are prepared by the Planning Section. The IAP insures that everyone is working in concert toward the same goals set for that operational period. The purpose of this plan is to provide all incident supervisory personnel with direction for actions to be implemented during the operational period identified in the plan. Incident Action Plans provide a coherent means of communicating the overall incident objectives in the context of both operational and support activities. The consolidated IAP is a very important component of the ICS that reduces freelancing and ensures a coordinated response. At the simplest level, all Incident Action Plans must have four elements:
- What do we want to do?
- Who is responsible for doing it?
- How do we communicate with each other?
- What is the procedure if someone is injured?
Comprehensive Resource Management
Comprehensive Resource Management
is a key management principle that implies that all assets and personnel during an event need to be tracked and accounted for. It can also include processes for reimbursement for resources, as appropriate.
Resource management includes processes for:
- Categorizing resources.
- Ordering resources.
- Dispatching resources.
- Tracking resources.
- Recovering resources.
Comprehensive Resource Management ensures that visibility is maintained over all resources so they can be moved quickly to support the preparation and response to an incident, and ensuring a graceful demobilization. It also applies to the classification of resources by type and kind, and the categorization of resources by their status.
- Assigned resources are those that are working on a field assignment under the direction of a supervisor.
- Available resources are those that are ready for deployment, but have not been assigned to a field assignment.
- Out-of-service resources are those that are not in either the " available" or "assigned" categories. Resources can be "out-of-service" for a variety of reasons including: resupplying after a sortie (most common), shortfall in staffing, personnel taking a rest, damaged/inoperable.
The use of a common communications plan is essential for ensuring that responders can
communicate with one another during an incident. Communication equipment, procedures, and
systems must operate across jurisdictions (interoperably).
Developing an integrated voice and data communications system, including equipment, systems,
and protocols, must occur prior to an incident.
Effective ICS communications include three elements:
- Modes: The "hardware" systems that transfer information.
- Planning: Planning for the use of all available communications resources.
- Networks: The procedures and processes for transferring information internally and externally.
- Single Incident Commander - Most incidents involve a single Incident Commander. In these incidents a single person commands the incident response and is the decision-making final authority.
- Unified Command - A Unified Command is used on larger incidents usually when multiple agencies are involved. A Unified Command typically includes a command representative from major involved agencies and one from that group to act as the spokesman, though not designated as an Incident Commander. A Unified Command acts as a single entity.
- Area Command - During multiple-incident situations, an Area Command may be established to provide for Incident Commanders at separate locations. Generally, an Area Commander will be assigned - a single person - and the Area Command will operate as a logistical and administrative support. Area Commands usually do not include an Operations function.
- Safety Officer - The Safety Officer monitors safety conditions and develops measures for assuring the safety of all assigned personnel.
- Public Information Officer - The Public Information Officer serves as the conduit for information to internal and external stakeholders, including the media or other organizations seeking information directly from the incident or event.
- Liaison - A Liaison serves as the primary contact for supporting agencies assisting at an incident.
- Operations Section Chief - The Operations Section Chief is tasked with directing all actions to meet the incident objectives.
- Planning Section Chief - The Planning Section Chief is tasked with the collection and display of incident information, primarily consisting of the status of all resources and overall status of the incident.
- Finance/Administration Section Chief - The Finance/Admin. Section Chief is tasked with tracking incident related costs, personnel records, requisitions, and administrating procurement contracts required by Logistics.
- Logistics Section Chief - The Logistics Section Chief is tasked with providing all resources, services, and support required by the incident.
At the ICS 200 level, the function of Information and Intelligence is added to the standard ICS staff as an option. This role is unique in ICS as it can be arranged in multiple ways based on the judgement of the Incident Commander and needs of the incident. The three possible arrangements are:
- Information & Intelligence Officer, a position on the command staff.
- Information & Intelligence Section, a section headed by an Information & Intelligence Section Chief, a General Staff position.
- Information & Intelligence Branch, headed by an Information & Intelligence Branch Director, this branch is a part of the Planning Section.
At the ICS 400 level, advanced arrangements are trained for use on exceptionally large or complex incidents. Some of these options include the following:
- Dual Operations Section Chiefs.
- Dual Logistics Section Chiefs.
ICS is organized by levels, with the supervisor of each level holding a unique title (e.g. only a person in charge of a Section is labeled "Chief"; a "Director" is exclusively the person in charge of a Branch). Levels (supervising person's title) are:
- * Incident Commander
- * Section (Chief)
- * Branch (Director)
- * Division (Supervisor) - A Division is a unit arranged by geography, along jurisdictional lines if necessary, and not based on the makeup of the resources within the Division.
- * Group (Supervisor) - A Group is a unit arranged for a purpose, along agency lines if necessary, or based on the makeup of the resources within the Group.
- * Unit, Team, or Force (Leader) - Such as "Communications Unit," "Medical Strike Team," or a "Reconnaissance Task Force." A Strike Team is composed of same resources (four ambulances, for instance) while a Task Force is composed of different types of resources (one ambulance, two fire trucks, and a police car, for instance).
- * Individual Resource. This is the smallest level within ICS and usually refers to a single person or piece of equipment. It can refer to a piece of equipment and operator, and less often to multiple people working together.
ICS uses a standard set of facility nomenclature. ICS facilities include:
Pre-Designated Incident Facilities:
Response operations can form a complex structure that must be held together by response personnel working at different and often widely separate incident facilities. These facilities can include:
- Incident Command Post (ICP): The ICP is the location where the Incident Commander operates during response operations. There is only one ICP for each incident or event, but it may change locations during the event. Every incident or event must have some form of an Incident Command Post. The ICP may be located in a vehicle, trailer, tent, or within a building. The ICP will be positioned outside of the present and potential hazard zone but close enough to the incident to maintain command. The ICP will be designated by the name of the incident, e.g., Trail Creek ICP.
- Staging Area: Can be a location at or near an incident scene where tactical response resources are stored while they await assignment. Resources in staging area are under the control of the Logistics Section and are always in available status. Staging Areas should be located close enough to the incident for a timely response, but far enough away to be out of the immediate impact zone. There may be more than one Staging Area at an incident. Staging Areas can be collocated with the ICP, Bases, Camps, Helibases, or Helispots.
- A Base is the location from which primary logistics and administrative functions are coordinated and administered. The Base may be collocated with the Incident Command Post. There is only one Base per incident, and it is designated by the incident name. The Base is established and managed by the Logistics Section. The resources in the Base are always out-of-service.
- Camps: Locations, often temporary, within the general incident area that are equipped and staffed to provide sleeping, food, water, sanitation, and other services to response personnel that are too far away to use base facilities. Other resources may also be kept at a camp to support incident operations if a Base is not accessible to all resources. Camps are designated by geographic location or number. Multiple Camps may be used, but not all incidents will have Camps.
- A Helibase is the location from which helicopter-centered air operations are conducted. Helibases are generally used on a more long-term basis and include such services as fueling and maintenance. The Helibase is usually designated by the name of the incident, e.g. Trail Creek Helibase.
- Helispots are more temporary locations at the incident, where helicopters can safely land and take off. Multiple Helispots may be used.
Each facility has unique location, space, equipment, materials, and supplies requirements that are often difficult to address, particularly at the outset of response operations. For this reason, responders should identify, pre-designate and pre-plan the layout of these facilities, whenever possible.
On large or multi-level incidents, higher-level support facilities may be activated. These could include:
- Joint Information Center (JIC):
- Emergency Coordination Center (ECC):
- Multiple Agency Coordination Center (MACC): Also known as an Emergency Operations Center, the MACC is a central command and control facility responsible for the strategic, or "big picture" of the disaster. Personnel within the MACC use Multi-agency Coordination to guide their operations. The MACC coordinates activities between multiple agencies and does not normally directly control field assets, but makes strategic decisions and leaves tactical decisions to individual agencies. The common functions of all EOC's is to collect, gather and analyze data; make decisions that protect life and property, maintain continuity of the government or corporation, within the scope of applicable laws; and disseminate those decisions to all concerned agencies and individuals.
ICS uses a standard set of equipment nomenclature. ICS equipment include:
- Tanker - This is an aircraft that carries fuel (Fuel Tanker) or water (Water Tanker).
- Tender - Like a tanker, but a ground vehicle, also carrying fuel (Fuel Tender) or water (Water Tender).
Type and kind
The "type" of resource describes the size or capability of a resource. For instance, a 50 kW (for a generator) or a 3-ton (for a truck). Types are designed to be categorized as "Type 1" through "Type 5" formally, but in live incidents more specific information may be used.
The "kind" of resource describes what the resource is. For instance, generator or a truck. The "type" of resource describes a performance capability for a kind of resource for instance,
In both type and kind, the objective must be included in the resource request. This is done to widen the potential resourse response. As an example, a resource request for a small aircraft for arial reconnaissance of a search and rescue scene may be satisfied by a National Guard OH-58 Kiowa helicopter (Type & Kind: Rotary-wing aircraft, Type II/III) or by a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182 (Type & Kind: Fixed-wing aircraft, Type I). In this example, requesting only a fixed-wing or a rotary-wing, or requesting by type may prevent the other resource's availability from being known.
A role of responsibility can be transferred during an incident for several reasons: As the incident grows a more qualified person is required to take over as Incident Commander to handle the ever-growing needs of the incident, or in reverse where as an incident reduces in size command can be passed down to a less qualified person (but still qualified to run the now-smaller incident) to free up highly-qualified resources for other tasks or incidents. Other reasons to transfer command include jurisdictional change if the incident moves locations or area of responsibility, or normal turnover of personnel due to extended incidents. The transfer of command process always includes a transfer of command briefing, which may be oral, written, or a combination of both.
Training resource material
O'Neill, Brian, "A Model Assessment Tool for the Incident Command System: A Case Study of the San Antonio Fire Department" (2008). Applied Research Projects Texas State University. Paper 270. http://ecommons.txstate.edu/arp/270
Media resource material