Incident command policy: Defining system roles and responsibilities

The incident command structure (ICS) is the foundation of firefighting and emergency operations, describing how every emergency response should be handled.

November 8, 2021

Article highlights

The incident command structure (ICS) is the foundation of firefighting and emergency operations. It literally spells out how every fire or emergency response should be handled, regardless of size and scope.

Incident command is built on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) philosophy that lays out the entire command structure, stresses using resources efficiently, and puts people into slots and roles that address the immediate need. The system is the result of decades' worth of lessons learned by different local, state, and federal responses to emergencies. And it has been tested in both emergency and non-emergency use, by both the public and private sectors.

The incident command structure was first created in the 1970s by a group of Southern California fire agencies dedicated to fighting wildfires, and it has grown into a national system that even influenced NIMS' development. The model has proved so effective that the United Kingdom is beginning to embrace incident command themselves, not to mention Australia and the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System.

In this article, we'll discuss the basic definition of the incident command system (and how it relates to NIMS), some of its key elements, incident command policies and procedures, and some tips for ICS policies and procedures.

What is the incident command system?

The Incident Command System is a standardized, all-hazard management approach that's used on the scene of an emergency or crisis. It can be used at a house fire, factory explosion, hazardous chemical spill, bioterrorism attack, or an active shooter response.

Because the ICS is standardized, the setup and implementation will always follow the same steps, no matter what kind of incident it is or where in the United States it's located.

It avoids using jargon, preferring clear, plain English and common terminology. For example, saying "I'm on the scene" instead of the police code "10-23." Or saying, "Assignment completed" rather than "10-24." (The 10-x police codes are especially problematic because they may mean different things to different departments. For example, in Volusia County, Florida, "10-24" means "Trouble, send help.")

In fact, the incident command system was created to overcome several shortcomings of past "joint" responses that were just teams working at the same time rather than working together. Examples include poor on-scene and inter-agency communications; lack of common organization or determining who was in charge (a lot of territory marking); poor joint planning and pre-planning; and a lack of timely intelligence.

In the ICS, the incident commander runs the entire operation, but rather than making all the decisions by himself or herself, there's a command structure in place where information is gathered quickly and given to the commander, so they can make decisions quickly. There's no conflicting information, and everyone immediately understands their role.

Incident command has three major principles, especially in the firefighting world, although it works in other situations as well. Following these principles makes managing an incident much easier to manage, easier to control, and much more effective than letting everyone do whatever they think needs to be done. Even so, the ICS is flexible and can be modified to fit any situation.

The basic ICS principles:

  1. Every incident needs someone to be in charge, an Incident Commander. Without this person, it can be chaotic and contradictory.
  2. The incident commander must be able to break down the incident into small, manageable pieces. (This is why following NIMS is important.)
  3. It's important to stage responding resources and use them efficiently.

Understanding the basics of incident command will help you better understand some of its key elements, how it fits into NIMs, and what the major roles are.

Key elements of an incident command system

Of course, the incident command system is one part of the larger NIMS response model. Incident command may be primarily a fire and emergency function, but it's usable by many other organizations.

In fact, other organizations have to fit into the NIMS structure when responding to a larger incident, including police departments, emergency medical services, healthcare and hospitals, public works, and schools. Even public health emergency responders are required to take NIMS training. For example, emergency response members of the Indiana State Department of Health are required to be NIMS trained, as they would be called upon to act within a larger response to a bio-terrorist attack.

Follow NIMS guidelines

According to the FEMA website

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) guides all levels of government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from incidents.

NIMS provides stakeholders across the whole community with the shared vocabulary, systems, and processes to successfully deliver the capabilities described in the National Preparedness System. NIMS defines operational systems that guide how personnel work together during incidents.

The priorities for incident management include saving lives, stabilizing the incident, and protecting property and the environment. To achieve these priorities, responders are expected to follow the three NIMS guiding principles:

  • Flexibility lets NIMS be applied to incidents of any hazard, geography, climate, as well as a range of demographics, culture, and organizational authorities.
  • Standardization applies to standard organizational structure (i.e., incident command), practices (everyone does the same thing the same way), and common terminology (which fosters effective communication).
  • Unity of Effort means coordinating activities to achieve common objectives.

NIMS Components link together and work in unison to form a comprehensive incident management system. The components used to be a five-point list, but in 2017, FEMA streamlined that down to a simpler three.

  • Resource Management. Standard mechanisms to systematically manage resources, including personnel, equipment, supplies, and facilities.
  • Command and Coordination. Leadership roles, processes, and recommended organizational structures
  • Communications and Information Management. Systems and methods that help ensure that incident personnel have the information and means to make and communicate decisions.

NIMS system roles and responsibilities

There are four categories of roles within the NIMS system:

  • Incident Management Team
  • Incident Commander
  • General Staff
  • Command Staff

The incident management team is the entire response team, which consists of an Incident Commander, Command Staff, and General Staff, plus anyone assigned to other positions.

The incident commander (IC) is the person in charge of the entire operation. In case of a fire, it's the most senior officer available to take command. (In some cases, the first senior officer to arrive on the scene may be involved in the actual firefighting operations.)

The General Staff cover four categories of function: 

  • Planning: develops the incident action plan
  • Operations: directs the resources to carry out the action plan 
  • Logistics: provides resources, equipment, and personnel to support the plan
  • Finances/Administrative: provides fiscal guidance and monitors related costs

As new personnel arrive on-site, they'll be slotted into one of these four categories. In a fire response, most will go toward Operations. In a more general response, there may be staff sent to other areas. And as agencies and personnel from other cities or counties show up, they'll check in with the Liaison Officer, who is part of the Command Staff.

The Command Staff comprises three roles that don't fit within the General Staff, and so report directly to the IC: Liaison Officer (manages the list of agencies and personnel who show up, relays their capabilities to the IC); Safety Officer (monitors for hazardous situations, has the authority to stop and prevent unsafe acts); and Public Information Officer (develop and release timely information for the media, and conduct periodic press briefings).

What are incident command policies and procedures?

Writing an incident command policy and procedure manual is actually fairly easy since most of the work has already been done over the last four decades. Nearly all emergency responders, especially fire departments, follow the incident command structure, and they have helped hone it down to its present form.

Still, it doesn't hurt to include the incident command policy and procedure in your policy manual. For one thing, this enables you to provide training, both hands-on and virtual, through your policy management software. That's because PowerDMS' policy software can connect to your training content. And since there's already plenty of training content available through FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it's just a matter of incorporating that training into your own training software.

Of course, it won't hurt to ensure that, when adding the incident command structure into your policy manual, you include elements that are specific to your city, state, or mission.

For example, while the incident command structure calls for the highest-ranking officer/personnel to take over the command, fire departments often have high-ranking officers who are involved directly in firefighting operations, which means the second or third highest-ranking officer could end up running the entire incident. Therefore, a fire department's incident command policy may involve the following:

What happens in the first five minutes, including:

  • Establish personnel accountability
    • Do a 360-degree assessment
    • Determine what firefighting strategy will be needed
    • Assign critical tasks
    • Call for additional resources
  • What to do when the IC can't command
  • Process for the transfer of command

How they fit into the ICS

It's important to note that the entire purpose behind the ICS and NIMS is standardization and unity of effort. That is, everyone is doing the same thing the same way and working toward the same purpose.

Not every agency has fully embraced the incident command structure, whether it's fire, law enforcement, or other agencies. Even just a few years ago, some NIMS trainers were still trying to persuade local police departments not to think of ICS as "fire stuff." It's being taught in many police academies, but if a recruit enters a department that doesn't practice ICS, then what good has it done?

A 2014 article in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin tells the story of an earthquake in central Virginia three years earlier that damaged a high-rise building that housed several hundred elderly residents. The police department's incident commander had basic NIMS training, but it wasn't enough to step into or manage the ICS model.

"Instead of creating a unified command with one command post, the police established one on the east side of the building, and the fire department established its own on the west side. At this point priorities were established; however, they were independent of one another. All communications occurred through a dispatcher, instead of face-to-face, making it more difficult to receive and direct necessary resources."

Large-scale, multi-agency responses are not the time for one agency or department to flex its muscles and operate outside the response system. First responders who refuse to, or don't know how to, fit within the ICS system can create chaos, slow down the effective response, and put both civilians and first responders in danger.

Tips for incident command policies and procedures

It's important to note that NIMS does not take away command or authority from state and local authorities. One of NIMS' basic premises is "all incidents begin and end locally." The goal of using NIMS in your incident command policies and procedures is that of Standardization. That is, everyone will be doing the same thing in the same way. For example, medical professionals check a patient's blood pressure using the same methods and equipment; that method has become standardized. NIMS seeks that same level of standardization for emergency response.

Importance of incident command policies

The incident command system is a way for all responders to work together to resolve any kind of incident. Incident command policies should be updated regularly to reflect the latest thinking on the ICS structure and operations.

For example, in October 2017, FEMA revised their 2008 NIMS document and replaced it with new information and procedures. And since many police and fire departments don't regularly update their policies and procedures manuals anyway, there's a good chance many first responders still use the original 2008 NIMS model for their own incident command policies.

Inconsistencies and out-of-date material can create serious safety issues and liability risks for your department. Personnel from a neighboring district may respond, but still be operating on an old system model. That can lead to confusion and injury or death.

Similarly, if your department is still operating on a paper-and-binder format of a policy manual, who knows how many of your employees are operating off an outdated manual and different versions of the same policy?

This is why it's important to not only update your incident command policies but all of your policies. Then, upload them to PowerDMS' policy management software where they can be pushed out to all your agency's employees at once. Unify your policies with your training materials, then offer online training on them whenever possible. Test everyone's comprehension, then capture and track signatures for accreditation compliance.

Key elements

Even if you decide not to fully incorporate the ICS structure and NIMS documentation into your own incident command policies, it's still critical that you have incident command policies in place to govern your incident management efforts and emergency response. 

The policies and procedures should also include how the incident command structure should flow, various command forms and responsibilities, and even checklists of tasks to be done on the scene, including cheat sheets and note cards. 

Your incident command policies should also decide the command structure and determine who is in charge of an incident, especially if the primary incident commander is not available.

And don't forget to create your own training documents related to your own incident command policies. 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, you recognize the importance of the incident command structure in your department, as well as how it can affect the roles your responders play in becoming a part of a larger multi-agency response.

NIMS and ICS can benefit a lot of different agencies, not just fire, police, and EMS. Public health, natural resources, and even transportation can all use ICS in their work on emergencies and crises.

You can learn more about other essential policies for emergency responders by visiting our website.

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