Latest update to ICS information: 9/26/04
The following description of the Incident Command System (ICS) is a summary for use by Amateur Radio operators working on ARES and RACES activities. This summary is -only- to provide Hams with basic a understanding of terminology and concepts associated with ICS and NOT to replace formal ICS training within your district.
Understand that the structure defined in this document is for large events. In smaller events, a subset of the full structure will likely be used.
As of August 2004 there has been Presidential decree that ALL public service entities implement the National Incident Management System (NIMS) by 2005. In simplest terms NIMS is ICS carried to the Area Command level.
The best way to learn about NIMS is to take the self study course at
Multi-Agency Coordination System (MACS) operates between the ICS and NIMS, normally at the county level. The specific terminology you will need to understand are the Mode Numbers. Modes are numbered from one to four and have the following meanings.
To repeat some VERY important instructions that apply to all ARES/RACES operators:
Everyone MUST insure that all assignments, delegation and hand-overs are done with explicit statement of intent and explicit statement of acceptance. The most likely problems will occur when duties are assigned/accepted implicitly. If ALL assignment, delegation, handovers, acceptance etc. are explicit, the potential mis-understandings are minimized or eliminated.
A good technique to insure understanding is to repeat back
what you understand the order or instruction to be. This will expose
errors before they can become a problem.
Event Check List
The following are YOUR responsibilities for every
emergency and many exercise events. Remember that during an emergency
you will either be part of the solution, or you will become part of
This insures the event staff have full accounting of your safety and location while you work any event.
Incident Command System is a management tool designed to assist anyone who has the responsibility for the successful outcome of an incident. We will define an incident as any planned or unplanned occurrence or event, regardless of the cause, which requires action by emergency service personnel to prevent or minimize loss of life or damage to property and/or natural resources.
Emergency services professionals agree that too often there is considerable confusion in the operational performance at major incidents. On large structure fires, floods, forest fires, hazardous materials spills and tornados, the ability to manage the situation effectively seems to decrease in direct proportion to the number of agencies involved. Problems arise because of different operating procedures, terminology, and/or incompatible equipment. The problem is compounded when different types of agencies such as fire service, law enforcement, rescue groups, health departments, and forest services all become involved at one incident. When several levels of government add to the mix, the potential for confusion is critical.
It is not uncommon for each agency to have a very limited understanding of the procedures and terminology of the other agencies involved, yet the jurisdictions and authority at the scene may overlap extensively. Too often, the person in charge is unable to communicate a strategy or plan of action. As they arrive, the various agencies have difficulty determining their duties and where they fit into the management structure.
The Incident Command System (ICS) is a standardized method of managing emergency incidents. It is based on a common organizational structure, common terminology, and common operating procedures.
ICS will manage small, routine, daily incidents as well as the large, complex multi-jurisdictional disasters everyone dreads. ICS reduces confusion and uncertainty in the early phases of an incident, thereby increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of mutual aid while increasing safety. Within ICS, the transition from a routine incident to a major emergency is orderly and requires a minimum of adjustment for any agency. In its largest application, it may include several thousand people without compromising effective supervision.
ICS does not infringe on the daily routine, responsibilities or authority given each agency by statute. But, if a transfer of authority is necessary as conditions change, ICS smooths the transition since organizational structure and lines of authority are clearly defined. On-scene operations often need coordination from the affected governments. This support includes delegation (and definition) of authority to the Incident Commander, and planning/logistical support from all agencies involved. ICS compliments interagency planning and logistics through the Multi-Agency Coordinating System (MACS).
It is common to have an incident cross-jurisdictional boundaries. Unified Command is the ICS process that allows the multiple jurisdictions to develop unified objectives and strategies for the incident. This is accomplished without any loss of authority, responsibility or accountability.
Under Unified Command:
As the IC fills positions in the organizational structure the positions will fall into five areas of management function:
Each of these functional areas can expand as needed into additional organizational units with further delegation of authority. As positions are filled, the radio designations are replaced with ICS position titles. The ICS organization at any time should reflect only what is required to meet planned tactical objectives. The size of the current organization and that of the next operational period is determined through the incident action planning process. A number of organizational elements may be activated in the various sections without activating sectional chiefs. Each activated element must have a person in charge of it. A single supervisor may initially be in charge of more than one unit. Elements that have been activated and are no longer needed should be deactivated to decrease organizational size.
The greatest challenge for the IC is to maintain control of the resources and to keep open communication both up and down the organizational structure. The principles of Unity of Command, Chain of Command and Span of Control allow this to take place. These three principles are also critical for maintaining the safety of incident personnel.
INCIDENT ACTION PLAN (IAP) is to provide all incident supervisory personnel with direction for future actions. It may be written or verbal but written plans are preferred. It is important to use written IAPs when:
COMMUNICATIONS PLAN can be very simple and given verbally or may be quite complex and form a portion of the written Incident Action Plan. Among other items it lists the frequencies to be used for the incident.
INCIDENT COMMANDER (IC)
Each person within the ICS structure is charged with accomplishing
specific tasks in support of the overall effort.
These tasks, for incident managers are:
INCIDENT COMMANDER - (IC)
Etc. etc. etc. - The remainder of the objectives will not normally be of interest to ARES/RACES and so have been omitted from this document.
The Incident Command System (ICS) was developed as a result of wildland fires in California in the 70's. Many agencies at the local, state and federal level were tasked with responding and providing some level of assistance to this type of incident, and it became painfully evident that differences in terminology and the lack of a unified command structure created confusion, and prevented a coordinated approach to managing the incident. A Federal/State/Local task force was created to develop a system for the management of these wildfires, and it expanded to include any incident. A few years later, ICS was formalized. Over the past two decades, it has been implemented throughout the US and Canada and today is the standard emergency response framework for managing incidents of any size.
The primary components of ICS are:
As Amateur Radio groups continue to work more closely with the different Public Service Agencies, they may be asked to function within the ICS structure. It is incumbent upon Amateur Radio leadership, and, to a lesser degree, all Amateur Radio operators to understand how Amateur Radio fits into ICS.
ICS does not seek to alter the way any unit (including Amateur Radio) performs its internal function. ICS does not dictate how the police does its policing, how firefighters fight fires, nor how Amateur Radio units accomplish their tasks. Existing Amateur Radio methods and procedures remain unchanged. ICS does provide an organization and reporting structure, with a clearly defined chain of command and span of control.
While the ICS structure might look a bit daunting at first, it should be noted that this structure allows for the management of any incident, regardless of size. All tasks may not be needed at every incident. ICS allows for the expansion of the organization as needs dictate, to maintain a span of control between 3 and 7 (optimal of 5) subordinates per supervisor.
The primary area of interest to Amateur Radio participants is the Logistics Section, Services Branch, Communication Unit. Typically, the primary contact at the served agency will notify the primary Amateur Radio leadership individual to advise the nature of the incident, and where to report. This may be a staging area, or to the Command Post area, usually to either the Logistics Section Chief, the Services Branch Director, or the Communications Unit Leader. One individual may be serving in all three capacities, so Amateur Radio operators serving at a command post need to understand the specific nature of the incident. The command post may be identified by a green light or a green flag. An Amateur Radio operator may be assigned to the Communications officer or they may be assigned as a Technical Specialist in another area.
Amateur Radio operators may be requested to perform non-ham radio activities and could conceivably be assigned anywhere. If an operator is assigned to a non-ham unit, operators need to comply with the directions of the unit supervisor, understand the mission and report actions back to that unit supervisor.
Amateur radio groups deployed as units should be structured into groups of 3 to 5 hams under one Amateur Radio unit supervisor. For example: If a unit has 20 members, the leadership needs to break the unit down into 4 or 5 units. This could be based upon geography (where the units will be deployed), time of day (shifts), specific function (HQ unit, field unit 1, field unit 2, etc), or any other reasonable, manageable division of labor. Then, instead of one Amateur Radio leader needing to get status or provide direction to 20 members, the 1 leader interacts with 4, and those four with 3 to 5 each. This allows for a much quicker and more manageable method of communications and control. Smaller units are also able to be re-assigned and moved more quickly than large units, so the smaller units also allow Incident Command more flexibility in the utilization of overall resources.
Everyone MUST insure that all assignments, delegation and hand-overs are done with explicit statement of intent and explicit statement of acceptance. The most likely problems will occur when duties are assigned/accepted implicitly.
If ALL assignment, delegation, handovers, acceptance etc. are explicit, the potential mis-understandings are minimized or eliminated. A good technique to insure understanding is to repeat back what you understand the order or instruction to be. This will expose errors before they can become a problem.
Amateur Radio leadership with the likelihood of serving in supervisory roles for an incident should familiarize themselves with the ICS structure, forms, methods and procedures. The 'higher up' the pyramid an individual Amateur Radio operator serves, the more important ICS training becomes. It would be mandatory for an Amateur Radio operator assigned to a served agency command post as the Amateur Radio liaison to be fully trained in the Incident Command System. Each Amateur Radio Emergency Services group within Colorado should have a cadre of individuals "fully trained" in ICS.
ICS training is provided by served agencies throughout the United States; check with your local OEM, Sheriff's Office, or Fire agency for local information.
In addition, ICS courses are available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the web at:
As previously mentioned, the methods and procedures used by Amateur Radio operators: use of nets, methods such as packet or ATV, and other training such as Damage Assessment, Fire (Red Card) or Fire Weather training-- are items that remain in place, in use, and unaffected by ICS-- except for the nature of how information is reported up the chain and how commands are given down the chain. Amateur Radio operators should continue to receive training in these areas-- and add ICS to the already valuable skills used to serve the public via Amateur Radio.
ICS Definitions will explain the terms and definitions used within ICS that are most relevant to ARES/RACES.
ICS Glossary are the definitions of
many other ICS terms that should help minimize confusion.