The Basics of Incident Command

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The Basics of Incident Command

“ICS got its start back in the 1970s as a result of fires in California”
Rob Vajko 5/1/2009

The Basics of Incident Command
Defining the Terms
The first step in setting up an ICS (Incident Command System) is to identify the terms: Incident – FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) defines an incident as “an occurrence, either caused by humans or natural phenomena, that requires response actions to prevent or minimize loss of life or damage to property and/or the environment.” This would include earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hazardous material spills, search and rescue missions, acts of terrorism, fires, crimes and crime scene investigations and more. The nature of these incidents usually means that there is more than one federal, State or local agency involved. Furthermore, there may be several different departments involved (emergency, fire, medical, police, public works, EMS, DOT, etc…). Private contractors may also be present. Command System – Is exactly what it says it is, namely a system of hierarchy or chain of command designed to make clear who’s in charge and who is to report to whom and to facilitate interdepartmental cooperation. In the words of the Homeland security document it “allows its users to adopt an integrated organizational structure to match the complexities and demands of single or multiple incidents without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries.”

Where ICS got its start
ICS got its start back in the 1970s as a result of fires in California. As they looked at how these fires were handled, it became clear that there was a lot of work to do to help the various organizations involved work together better in the future. “Inadequate Management” was the most serious issue and involved such problems as: 1. Unclear chain of command 2. Poor communication most due to different codes and systems from one department and agency to the next 3. Lack of planning 4. Poor supervision 5. Rigid structures that didn’t allow for the flexibility needed in such situations In 2003, Bush signed the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 which mandated a National Incident Management System (NIMS). At the core of this directive was the implementation of a procedure for handling multi-departmental emergencies. This was primarily a result of the 9/11

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terrorist attacks that necessitated almost every single agency, including the private sector to work together.

The Goals and Purposes of ICS
The ICS was designed to: 1. Provide a means of dealing with any incident regardless of the type and size of the incident. 2. Allow various agencies to work together effectively 3. Provide the logistics and administrative support needed 4. Provide the most cost effective means of dealing with the incident(s)

How ICS goes about attaining their goal
ICS seeks to provide a comprehensive and functional program by following these 14 management characteristics: 1. Common Language - Ban all agency specific codes or jargon. These have been replaced with cross-departmental and cross-agency words, functions and titles. This common terminology applies to organizational functions, resources, facilities and titles. 2. Organization - Create a modular approach to the organization of the personnel on site. This modular approach allows for flexibility. As the complexity of the incident increases, the organization expands from the top down. 3. Manage by objectives – A step by step procedural approach allows all on-site personnel to share goals and objectives. This is done by… Establishing overarching incident objectives. Developing strategies based on overarching incident objectives. Developing and issuing assignments, plans, procedures, and protocols. Establishing specific, measurable tactics or tasks for various incident management functional activities, and directing efforts to accomplish them, in support of defined strategies. e. Documenting results to measure performance and facilitate corrective actions. 1 4. Incident Action Planning (IAP) – The IAP may be written or oral. It must contain the objectives and direction. The purpose of the IAP is to clearly communicate the direction and goals to all personnel involved in the management of the incident. a. b. c. d.


Taken from the ICS Management Characteristics page of the FEMA website at

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5. Manageable Span of Control – This refers to the number of people or resources that a single supervisor can effectively manage. The recommended span of control is one supervisor for five people or resource elements. 6. Incident Facilities and locations necessary for the proper management of the incident are to be clearly identified and communicated. This may include: a. the Incident Command Post (ICP) from which the Incident Commander operates It is identified on the map by this symbol b. the staging area where personnel and resources are temporarily kept pending deployment and assignment It is identified on the map by this symbol c. the base from which logistics and administration functions It is identified on the map by this symbol d. the camp which is a temporary support location which may be necessary if the base is not accessible to everyone It is identified on the map by this symbol e. the Helibase which is the Helicopter central It is identified on the map by this symbol f. the Helispot(s) which identify where helicopters may land to aid in incident management. It is identified on the map by this symbol 7. Resource Management – These are either tactical resources or support resources and it is important to properly track and manage them in order the maximize efficiency without duplication as well as for economic reasons. Resources are either “assigned” (specifically allocated), “Available” (can be used if and when needed) or “Out-of-service” (which are no longer available or have been retired). The process by which these resources are managed are crucial as well. Resources must be categorized, ordered, dispatched, tracked and recovered. 8. Integrated Communications – “interoperability” is a key concept in integrated communications. It is crucial that all departments and agencies be able to communicate with each other and that one set of radios or computers, etc… be able to communicate

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with another. The ICS 205 form is designed to facilitate the development of such as system. You can download it from the NIMS (National Incident Management System) website at 9. Establishment and transfer of Command – From the very onset, it is crucial that there be no question about who is in charge onsite and, if that jurisdiction authority has to change for whatever reason it is mandated that the transfer be accurately documented and handled in such a manner as to make sure that effective operations are maintained at all times. 10. Chain of Command and Unity of Command. Refers to the line of authority and the need for every person present to have someone to report to. The chain of command and the unity of command avoids conflicts in the different departments and makes sure that there is no redundancy or holes in what needs to be done. The command may take one of two forms: a. A Single Command – where one person is in charge of the incident b. A Unified Command – where multiple agencies and/or departments share command. 11. Unified Command Unified commands are needed when… a. There multiple jurisdictions involved b. There are more than one agency involved c. A combination of both multiple jurisdictions and agencies In a unified command the Incident Action Plan directs the incident activities. 12. Accountability: It is essential that all agencies and all departments be held accountable for their use of the resources, the way that they spend their time and for the actions that they take during the length of the incident response. Among the essential guidelines for which they will be held accountable are the following:
• • •

• •

Check-In/Check-Out – All responders must check-in and check-out in order to be assigned their duties and/or resources Incident Action Planning – Individuals, departments and agencies will be held accountable for the degree to which they adhere to the IAP. Unity of Command – Was the unity of command adhered to? Did every individual have a single supervisor? Did each responder know who their supervisor was? Span of Control – Did all supervisors feel that the number of responders under them was adequate and not too large to be controlled effectively? Resource Tracking – Were all resources tracked and recorded accurately?

13. Mobilization - Dispatch/Deployment – It is crucial during a response that resources and personnel only respond or are deployed when requested by the appropriate chain of

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command. Individual initiatives can be a burden to properly allocated resources and unified commands. 14. Information and Intelligence Management: As crucial as resources or personnel, it is vital that information be properly shared, analyzed and managed.

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ICS Structures, organizations and functions
Regardless of the incident, there is always an incident commander whose function it is to oversee all operations, objective and who job it is to set priorities. Under the Incident Commander, there are four sections: 1. 2. 3. 4. Operations Planning Logistics Finance/Administration

It can be shown like this:

While all five sections are required for every incident, not all five will necessarily be staffed. Only the Incident Commander will always be staffed. If this position is the only one staffed, for example, the incident commander would also assume responsibility for the four sections outlined above. This is the basic structure. This structure can expand to meet the specific need of the incident with additional sections and position titles added. We will look at each of them now. As additional personnel are needed additional titles and positions are assigned in order to maintain the span of control. As a result, the structure may look more like this:

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Taken from the Wikipedia website at Any change or transfer of the Incident Commander requires a briefing for the incoming Incident Commander as well as clear communication to all personnel as to the transfer. Above the four sections we mentioned earlier there can be three officers who together make up the Command Staff. There are: 1. The Public Information Officer who job it is to communicate about the incident to all outside agencies, including media. 2. The Safety Officer who is responsible to monitor the safety of all personnel involved in the incident. 3. The Liaison Officer whose’ main function is to provide support and effective communications between the various agencies. Now, let’s look at the different sections

The Operations Section
This is where the resources are assigned and the fieldwork is done. Under this section, in order to keep the span of control there may be further sub sections called:

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1. Divisions - divisions are based on geography. The leader of a division is called a Supervisor. Divisions are most commonly assigned a letter of the alphabet to differential them. Groups - groups are based on areas of operation. Again, as in divisions, the leader is called a Supervisor. Groups are most commonly labeled according to the types of work that group is doing (i.e. electrical group, evacuation group, etc…) Branches - branches can be either geographic or functional and are primarily used when the number of groups or divisions exceeds the span of control. Branch leaders are called Directors.



Task Forces, Strike Teams and Single Resources are additional divisions that may be used. This chart from the OSHA website, outlines the recommendations for the various sections of Operations, based on the size of the incident.

SIZE OF INCIDENT (NUMBER OF DIVISIONS) UNIT POSITION 2 5 10 15 25 Operations Section Chief One Per Operational Period Branch Director 2 3 4 6 Division/Group Supervisor 2 5 10 15 25 Strike Team Leaders As Needed Task Force Leaders As Needed Air Operations Director 1 1 1 1 Air Tactical Group Supervisor 1 1 1 1 1 Air Tanker/Fixed Wing Coordinator As Needed Helicopter Coordinator As Needed Air Support Group Supervisor 1 1 1 1 1 Helibase Manager One Per Helibase Helispot Manager One Per Helispot Fixed Wing Support Leader One Per Airport Staging Area Manager One Per Staging Area For a more in-depth understanding of these various divisions and responsibilities visit the OSHA website and download the various requirements for each position in a PDF format:

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The Planning Section
The Planning Section “is responsible for the collection, evaluation, dissemination and use of information about the development of the incident and the status of resources.” Under the Planning Section are the following: 1. Resources Unit – this unit is responsible for all check-in and check-out activities as well as tracking the status of resources. They will also be very involved in the ICP. 2. Situation Unit – This unit is primarily responsible for information. They will be the ones to create the maps and to keep the maps up-to-date. 3. Documentation Unit – Responsible for copying, updating and archiving all relevant documents. 4. Demobilization Unit- This unit is responsible to the resources, making sure that they are distributed as needed. 5. Technical Specialists – This unit may be needed if the incident requires special technical expertise.

As in the Operations section, OSHA has a similar chart for the planning section, as shown below:

UNIT POSITION Planning Section Chief Resources Unit Leader Status Recorders Check-In Recorders Volunteer Coordinator Technical Specialists Situation Unit Leader Field Observer Weather Observer Display/Report Processor Aerial/Ortho Photo Analyst IR Equipment Operators Computer Terminal Operator Photographer Environmental Unit Leader Documentation Unit Leader Demobilization Unit Leader Staging Area Manager

SIZE OF INCIDENT (NUMBER OF DIVISIONS) 2 5 10 15 25 One Per Incident 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 3 3 3 As Needed As Needed As Needed 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 3 As Needed 1 1 1 2 As Needed Two (If Needed) 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 One Per Staging Area

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Again, as in the Operations Section, OSHA has a downloadable description of the various duties involved for each of these positions. They are available at

The Logistics Section
The logistics section is responsible for all support and services (equipment, food services, facilities, transportation, communications, medical,etc…) Logistics can have two branches with three units under each as follows:
Support Branch

1. Supply Unit – Takes care of supplies needed 2. Facilities Unit – Manages Incident Base and Camps. 3. Ground Support Unit – Arranges transportation
Service Branch

1. Communication Unit – Manages and implements the Incident Communication Plan. 2. Medical Unit – Takes care of the Medical Plan and First Aid 3. Food Unit – Provides food and drink for all personnel during the incident.
Again, as in the Operations Section and the Planning Section, OSHA has a downloadable description of the various duties involved for each of these positions. They are available at

The OSHA chart for the logistics section is shown below:

SIZE OF INCIDENT (NUMBER OF DIVISIONS) UNIT POSITION 2 5 10 15 25 Logistics Section Chief One Per Incident Service Branch Director As Needed Communications Unit Leader 1 1 1 1 1 Incident Communications Manager 1 1 1 1 1 Incident Dispatcher 1 2 3 3 4 Message Center Operator 1 1 2 2 Messenger 1 2 2 2

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Communications Technician Medical Unit Leader Medical Unit Leader Assistant Responder Rehabilitation Manager Food Unit Leader Food Unit Assistant (each camp) Cook Assistant Cook Helper Support Branch Director Supply Unit Leader Camp Supply Assistant (each camp) Ordering Manager Receiving/Distribution Manager Tool/Equipment Specialist Recorders Helpers Facility Unit Leader Base Manager Camp Manager (each camp) Facility Maintenance Specialist Security Manager Helpers Ground Support Unit Leader Equipment Manager Assistants Equipment Timekeeper Mechanics Drivers Operators Vessel Support Unit Leader 1 1 2 1 4 1 4 1

1 As Needed As Needed As Needed

1 1 2 8 As Needed 1 As Needed 1 1 2 1 1 As Needed 1 1 6 1 1 1 1

1 1 2 8 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 6 1 1 1 3

1 2 6 16 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 1 1 12 1 1 1 5

1 2 12 24 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 1 1 12 1 1 1 7

1 As Needed 1 As Needed As Needed As Needed

The Finance/Administration Section
The Finance/Administration section is responsible for “responsible for all financial, administrative, and cost analysis aspects of the incident” (cost analysis, compensation, timekeeping, contract negotiations). There are four units under the Finance/Administration Section:

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1. 2. 3. 4. Procurement Unit – Deals with contracts, leases and other financial matters. Time Unit – Tracks and monitors timekeeping for all personnel. Cost Unit – Cost analyses, estimates and recommendations Compensation/Claims Unit – Handles all compensation claims for injuries and claims pertaining to the incident.

Again, as in the other Section, OSHA has a downloadable description of the various duties involved for each of these positions. They are available at

The OSHA chart for the Finance/Administration section is shown below:

UNIT POSITION Finance/Administration Section One Per Incident Chief Time Unit Leader 1 Time Recorder, Personnel 1 Time Recorder, Equipment 1 Procurement Unit Leader 1 Compensation/Claims Unit Leader 1 Compensation Specialist As Needed Claims Specialist As Needed Cost Unit Leader 1 Cost Analyst


1 3 2 1 1

1 3 2 1 1

1 5 3 1 1

1 1

1 1

1 1

Conclusion: I have referred readers to the OSHA website several times in the course of this article. It is the best place to get all the necessary information that is not covered in the very condensed overview of the Incident Command System. If you are going to be a part of the Incident Command System, you will need to learn about certification, understand your particular position thoroughly and a lot more. The OSHA website is the best place to start.

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Additional Note about Incident Command Vests:
One of the keys to the ICS is being able to identify all personnel on site. Because of this there are special needs with regards to Incident Command Vests. M. L. Kishigo has an extremely versatile system that allows for interchangeable labels on the vests.

3700 Series Incident Command Vests

4700 Incident Command Vests Additionally, Public Safety Vests are available specifically for Police, Fire, EMS, Sheriff and Security in two configurations

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PSV Pro 200 Series

PSV Pro 300 Series Read more about any of these vests at

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Description: This is an article covering the basics of the incident command system (ICS) established for emergency management with multi-jurisdictional issues.