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Incident Command System

What is an Incident Command System?

ICS is a standardized on-scene incident management concept designed specifically to allow responders to adopt an integrated organizational structure equal to the complexity and demands of any single incident or multiple incidents without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries.

In the early 1970s, ICS was developed to manage rapidly moving wildfires and to address the following problems:

  • Too many people reporting to one supervisor;
  • Different emergency response organizational structures;
  • Lack of reliable incident information;
  • Inadequate and incompatible communications;
  • Lack of structure for coordinated planning among agencies;
  • Unclear lines of authority;
  • Terminology differences among agencies; and Unclear or unspecified incident objectives.

In 1980, federal officials transitioned ICS into a national program called the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), which became the basis of a response management system for all federal agencies with wildfire management responsibilities. Since then, many federal agencies have endorsed the use of ICS, and several have mandated its use.

An ICS enables integrated communication and planning by establishing a manageable span of control. An ICS divides an emergency response into five manageable functions essential for emergency response operations: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance and Administration. Figure 1 shows a typical ICS structure.

Incident Command Chart
Figure 1 - Incident Command System Structure

The following is a list of the duties generally associated with each ICS function:

Incident Commander/Unified Command

The Incident Commander (IC) or the Unified Command (UC) is responsible for all aspects of the response, including developing incident objectives and managing all incident operations.

The IC is faced with many responsibilities when he/she arrives on scene. Unless specifically assigned to another member of the Command or General Staffs, these responsibilities remain with the IC. Some of the more complex responsibilities include:

  • Establish immediate priorities especially the safety of responders, other emergency workers, bystanders, and people involved in the incident.
  • Stabilize the incident by ensuring life safety and managing resources efficiently and cost effectively.

  • Determine incident objectives and strategy to achieve the objectives.

  • Establish and monitor incident organization.
  • Approve the implementation of the written or oral Incident Action Plan.

  • Ensure adequate health and safety measures are in place.
Fireman performing a rescue
Approval Stamp

Command Staff

The Command Staff is responsible for public affairs, health and safety, and liaison activities within the incident command structure. The IC/UC remains responsible for these activities or may assign individuals to carry out these responsibilities and report directly to the IC/UC.

  • The
    Information Officer's
    role is to develop and release information about the incident to the news media, incident personnel, and other appropriate agencies and organizations.

  • The
    Liaison Officer's
    role is to serve as the point of contact for assisting and coordinating activities between the IC/UC and various agencies and groups. This may include Congressional personnel, local government officials, and criminal investigating organizations and investigators arriving on the scene.

  • Safety InspectorThe
    Safety Officer's
    role is to develop and recommend measures to the IC/UC for assuring personnel health and safety and to assess and/or anticipate hazardous and unsafe situations. The Safety Officer also develops the Site Safety Plan, reviews the Incident Action Plan for safety implications, and provides timely, complete, specific, and accurate assessment of hazards and required controls.

General Staff

The General Staff includes Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administrative responsibilities. These responsibilities remain with the IC until they are assigned to another individual. When the Operations, Planning, Logistics or Finance/Administrative responsibilities are established as separate functions under the IC, they are managed by a section chief and can be supported by other functional units.

  • The
    Staff is responsible for all operations directly applicable to the primary mission of the response.

  • The
    Staff is responsible for collecting, evaluating, and disseminating the tactical information related to the incident, and for preparing and documenting Incident Action Plans (IAP's).

  • The
    Logistics Staff is responsible for providing facilities, services, and materials for the incident response.

  • The
    Finance and Administrative
    Staff is responsible for all financial, administrative, and cost analysis aspects of the incident.
Operations Staff

The following is a list of Command Staff and General Staff responsibilities that either the IC or UC of any response should perform or assign to appropriate members of the Command or General Staffs:

  • Provide response direction;
  • Coordinate effective communication;
  • Coordinate resources;
  • Establish incident priorities;
  • Develop mutually agreed-upon incident objectives and approve response strategies;
  • Assign objectives to the response structure;
  • Review and approve IAP's;
  • Ensure integration of response organizations into the ICS/UC;
  • Establish protocols;
  • Ensure worker and public health and safety; and
  • Inform the media.
Man holding a large hoop

The modular organization of the ICS allows responders to scale their efforts and apply the parts of the ICS structure that best meet the demands of the incident. In other words, there are no hard and fast rules for when or how to expand the ICS organization. Many incidents will never require the activation of Planning, Logistics, or Finance/Administration Sections, while others will require some or all of them to be established. A major advantage of the ICS organization is the ability to fill only those parts of the organization that are required. For some incidents, and in some applications, only a few of the organization's functional elements may be required. However, if there is a need to expand the organization, additional positions exist within the ICS framework to meet virtually any need.

For example, in responses involving responders from a single jurisdiction, the ICS establishes an organization for comprehensive response management. However, when an incident involves more than one agency or jurisdiction, responders can expand the ICS framework to address a multi-jurisdictional incident.

The roles of the ICS participants will also vary depending on the incident and may even vary during the same incident. Staffing considerations are based on the needs of the incident. The number of personnel and the organization structure are dependent on the size and complexity of the incident. There is no absolute standard to follow. However, large-scale incidents will usually require that each component, or section, is set up separately with different staff members managing each section. A basic operating guideline is that the Incident Commander is responsible for all activities until command authority is transferred to another person.

Another key aspect of an ICS that warrants mention is the development of an IAP. A planning cycle is typically established by the Incident Commander and Planning Section Chief, and an IAP is then developed by the Planning Section for the next operational period (usually 12- or 24-hours in length) and submitted to the Incident Commander for approval. Creation of a planning cycle and development of an IAP for a particular operational period help focus available resources on the highest priorities/incident objectives. The planning cycle, if properly practiced, brings together everyone's input and identifies critical shortfalls that need to be addressed to carry out the Incident Commander's objectives for that period.

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