ICS Key Concepts:

  • 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.

  • Common Terminology - 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. ICS promotes the use of a 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.

  • Flexible and Modular Organization - The ICS 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. For example, 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. For example, a single fire truck at a dumpster fire will have the officer filling the role of Incident Commander (IC) with no other roles required. As more trucks get added to a larger incident, more roles will be delegated to other officers and the role will probably be handed to a more qualified individual. Only in the largest and most complex operations would the full ICS organization be staffed. Conversely, as an incident scales down, roles will be merged back up the tree until there is just the IC role remaining.

  • Span of Control - To limit the number of responsibilities and resources being managed by any individual, the ICS requires that any single person's span of control should be between three and seven individuals, with five being ideal. One manager should have no more than seven people working under them at any given time. If more than seven 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 position's authority can probably be absorbed by the next highest rung in the chain of command.

  • Coordination - One of the benefits of the ICS is that it allows a way to coordinate a set of organizations who may otherwise work together sporadically. While much training material emphasizes the hierarchical aspects of the ICS, it can also be seen as an inter-organizational network of responders. These network qualities allow the ICS flexibility and expertise of a range of organizations. Coordination on any incident or event is facilitated with the implementation of the following concepts:  

  • Incident Action Plans - Incident Action Plans (IAPs) ensure that everyone is working in concert toward the same goals set for that operational period by providing all incident supervisory personnel with direction for actions to be taken during the operational period identified in the plan. Incident Action Plans provide a coherent means of communicating the overall incident objectives for both operational and support activities. They include measurable strategic objectives to be achieved in a time frame called an Operational Period. They may be verbal or written except for hazardous material incidents where it must be written, and are prepared by the Planning Section. The consolidated IAP is a very important component of ICS that reduces freelancing and ensures a coordinated response. At the simplest level, all Incident Action Plans must have three elements: What do we want to do?; Who is responsible for doing it?; How do we communicate with each other?; and How do we do it safely?

  • 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. 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. It can also include processes for reimbursement for resources, as appropriate. Resource management includes processes for:

    • Categorizing resources.

    • Ordering resources.

    • Dispatching resources.

    • Assigning resources

    • Tracking resources.

    • Recovering resources.

    • Integrated Communications - 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 (interoperable). Developing an integrated voice and data communications system, including equipment, systems, and protocols, must occur prior to an incident.

ICS Overview


The Incident Command System (ICS) is a management system designed to enable effective and efficient management of domestic incident of any size including planned events by integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure. ICS is normally structured to facilitate activities in five major functional areas: command, operations, planning, logistics, Intelligence & Investigations, finance and administration. It is a fundamental form of management, with the purpose of enabling incident managers to identify the key concerns associated with the incident—often under urgent conditions—without sacrificing attention to any component of the command system. In 2003, President Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive #5 (HSPD-5) which mandated all emergency response within the U.S. be managed using ICS as the command component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

ICS Structure

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