The Incident Command System

Since the school shootings of the 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island, the California mudslides, Western wildfires other tragic events, most people are aware of the importance of mitigation and emergency preparedness, especially those of us who are responsible for the safety and security of our park and recreation users.

Setting the Stage

I'm assuming that the reader has gone through some of the first steps of Emergency Response Plan (ERP) development such as forming an emergency planning team made up of key staff and local first responders, conducting an assessment of local hazards and mitigating as many of these as possible, establishing multiple off-site evacuation areas and collecting the supplies needed to conduct an effective response.

I have seen many ERPs fail when they were put into action, either during an actual event or through drills and exercises. Plans that may look good on paper and seem to cover any foreseeable event many times are found wanting when needed the most. Either they are too bulky to be of use in the chaos of an emergency, or personnel are unaware of the roles they are expected to perform.

Through the use of a system of management called The Incident Command System (ICS) personnel can alleviate some of these problems and better coordinate their actions with the first responders and the community at large.

I wish to make it clear that this is a quick overview of ICS. For more information you should ask local emergency management, fire or police personnel for training opportunities and guidance.

Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers many no-cost independent study courses in the field of emergency management, including basic ICS, at

Very simply, all emergencies and disasters have common themes that run through them. It doesn't matter if a tornado, wildfire, earthquake, mudslide or an armed intruder impacts you -- though some of the initial response actions may differ -- your overall concerns and possible impacts are the same.

With any of these scenarios you may have deaths, injuries, damage to your structures, problems accounting for and taking care of users and staff, difficulties communicating within and outside of your facility, or perhaps the need to abandon the facility or area altogether for a safer location.

Any one or all of these may confront a director within a matter of minutes or over the course of hours. In either case, factual information must be collected and analyzed, responders must be notified, users must be cared for and the media and relatives are going to want information.

Commanding the System

The Incident Command System was born out of the wildfires in the western United States. These fires can envelope large areas of land that necessitate the use of fire crews and equipment from many jurisdictions.

Some of the problems that confront firefighters are: Who's in command and responsible for direction and control? What's the overall plan? What equipment is needed and where do we find it? How do we feed and care for the fire crews? And, of course, how much does all this cost? These and other problems have largely been mitigated by the adoption of ICS.

The eight primary elements of ICS are:

Common Terminology: When organizations and agencies have different meanings for terms, it can lead to confusion. For example, most response agencies have done away with "ten codes" and recommend plain English to avoid confusion.

Modular Organization: ICS organizational structure is from the top down. At the very least, every event will have the Command function established. As the event's needs dictate, additional functional areas may be assigned.

Integrated Communications: Effective two-way communications is critical. Under ICS a common communications plan is used.

A Unified Command Structure: Unified command is a sharing of overall incident management during a multi-agency incident.

Consolidated Actions Plans: Either written or verbal, every event needs an action plan. Action plans should cover all goals, objectives and support activities needed.

A Manageable Span of Control: The bottom line is to delegate. No one should direct any more that seven people, three to five being easier to control, and no one should report to more than one person.

Designated Facilities: Facilities should be clearly defined. A Command Post or a staging area may be established based on the incident requirements.

Resource Management: Usually performed at a staging area, resource management can maximize resource use, reduce the load on communications, provide accountability, consolidate control of a large, single resource, and reduce the chance of people freelancing.

There are five functional areas that may be implemented as needed to respond to an incident. They are:

Command: Sets objectives and priorities, has overall responsibility at the incident or event.

Operations: Conducts tactical actions to carry out the plan and develops the tactical objectives, organization and directs all resources.

Planning: Develops the Action Plan to accomplish the objectives, collects and evaluates information, maintains resource status and documents the incident.

Logistics: Provides support to meet incident needs, provides resources and all other services needed to support the incident.

Finance and Administration: Monitors costs related to the incident. Provides accounting, procurement, time recording and cost analysis.

You will notice the three positions under the Incident Commander. These are called the Command Staff and consist of the following positions...

Information Officer: Point of contact for the media and other people or organizations seeking information.

Safety Officer: Monitors safety conditions and develops measures for assuring the safety of all personnel.

Liaison Officer: Point of contact for other agency representatives involved in the incident or event, aids in coordinating their involvement.

Depending on the size of your organization you may activate some or all of these positions. But any task not assigned is the responsibility of the Incident Commander. I would recommend always assigning someone the position of Information Officer. The importance of collecting accurate information for dissemination to the media or even to your staff and facility users cannot be underscored enough.

You will notice in the Facility ICS chart there are several positions under Operations that you may wish to establish. They are...

Site Check and Security: If necessary these individuals would assess damage, cordon off unsafe areas and direct first responders when they arrive.

Crisis Team: These individuals would handle any psychological issues experienced by the users or staff during the response or recovery phase of the incident.

Medical Team: These individual would address any medical needs.

Care: These individuals account for, supervise and reassure the facility users. They should occupy them with activities, but also be aware of any signs of stress or injuries.

Reunion Team: These individuals are responsible for reuniting any children with an authorized adult.

Each of these teams would have a team leader with simple-to-follow one- or two-page guidelines. Each team member would also have his or her own sheet of guidelines. And every position would have whatever supporting job aids and equipment needed to accomplish their task.

Don't think that the positions I've used as examples are written in stone. You may chose to not have a Crisis Team, because of the lack of need or qualified personnel. Or, you may have personnel qualified and the need to conduct search and rescue operations, in which case you might form a Search and Rescue Team.

One of the strengths of ICS is its flexibility. In fact, when beginning the planning process, I recommend starting with, at least, the Facility Commander, Information Officer, Medical Team, Care Team and Reunion Team. With these initially in place, you should be able to respond to most situations.

There are a couple of other terms that I believe are important in understanding ICS...

Command Post: Pretty much self-explanatory, the CP is where the Incident Commander and his or her staff are located and the primary command functions are performed. All events must have one CP.

Unified Command: When an event has several major players, those in charge of the different organizations share the decision-making process. Usually one has the final say.

ICS can also be useful as an aid during plan development. For example, the Medical Team Leader and several of his or her team members should work with local Emergency Medical personnel in the development of the Medical Team's guidelines and predetermining possible triage areas. In other words, delegate the planning process by using ICS.

Another important point about ICS is that it's a toolbox. You only activate those areas needed. For example, if there are no injuries you will not need the medical team… so they're not activated. Or, another situation may only warrant the activation of the Commander, Information Officer and one person in Planning, the bottom line… use ICS for the small events, then when there is a large one you should be able to handle it by expanding into those functions needed.

I have just barely scratched the surface of The Incident Command System and it's much more difficult to explain than to implement. I hope I've done well enough for you to feel comfortable in contacting your local emergency responders. With their expertise and guidance you'll create a safer environment for your users and staff.

By basing your plan on ICS, regardless of the size of your facility or the extent of the emergency, you will be able to better control the situation and coordinate your actions with your local first responders.

Gregg Champlin is the Natural Hazards Specialist with the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Management, primarily responsible for the agency's earthquake and hurricane programs. He also serves as interim public information officer and has done extensive work in news media relations, public outreach and disaster public information during emergencies. He served with the US Coast Guard for five years, specializing in hazardous materials security, and vessel and port inspection for two years. He has also been a volunteer firefighter and has managed and owned several businesses. Gregg can be reached at or (603) 223-3629.


Quick Reference

Keys to Emergency Planning

• Form an Emergency Planning Team (include local responders!)

• Conduct a hazard and risk assessment

• Mitigate as many hazards as you can

• Utilize the Incident Command System (ICS)

• Identify training needs and receive training

• Develop procedures for each position (under ICS)

• Gather needed supplies

• Conduct drills

• Have multiple off-site evacuation areas

• Exercise, train and exercise and train some more!