Incident Command System

Incident Command System (ICS)

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

This is strongly recommended for everyone.


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.

  1. Mode One: Jurisdiction(s) having authority responds and handles the incident without requesting outside resources.
  2. Mode Two: Jurisdiction(s) having authority requests outside resources including mutual aid but retains incident command authority.
  3. Mode Three: Jurisdiction(s) having authority requests transfer of incident command management authority to the County EOC or to a unified command structure.
  4. Mode Four: County agency, or unified command requests that the incident management authority be transferred to the state or federal level.

ICS Duties for ARES and RACES

ICS Overview

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.

What does ICS do?

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).

ICS Structure

The Incident Command System has two halves. These halves are interrelated and both are critical to the successful outcome of the incident.

  1. Management by Objectives
    Four essential steps used in every incident, regardless of the size or complexity are:
    1. Understand policy, procedures and statutes
    2. Establish incident objectives
    3. Select appropriate strategy
    4. Apply tactics most likely to accomplish objectives (assign correct resources and monitor results)
    The complexity of the incident will determine how formally the management by objectives portion will be handled. In a small, simple incident, the process can be handled by verbal communication between appropriate people. As the incident becomes more complex many of the differences in individual objectives will be resolved by documentation of the incident objectives. The ICS 201 document describes the process that allows this to happen in a systematic way.

  2. Organizational Structure
    The ICS structure begins with the Incident Commander (IC). The person designated IC is responsible for the management of the incident and starts the process by setting incident objectives. This person may do all functions without aid but will usually delegate responsibilities to others in the organization. The IC still has overall responsibility for the incident, regardless of duties delegated.

    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:

    1. There is one IC for any event. There is not an "IC for ........ and an IC for .........".
      There is ONE Incident Commander.
    2. The incident will be handled under a single coordinated Incident Action Plan (IAP).
    3. One operations Section Chief will have responsibility for implementing the Incident Action Plan (IAP).
    4. One Incident Command Post (ICP) will be established.

    As the IC fills positions in the organizational structure the positions will fall into five areas of management function:

    1. Command - The IC is responsible for all incident or event activity. The incident size/complexity will determine which other management functions will be filled. The command staff assists the IC and reports directly to the IC.

    2. Operations - Operations is responsible for directing the tactical actions to meet incident objectives. There is only one Operations Chief (if activated by the IC) per operational period but that position may have deputies as needed. The Operations Section commonly uses Branches, Divisions, Groups, Task Forces and Strike Teams to maintain unity, chain of command and span of control.

    3. Planning - Responsible for collection, evaluation and display of incident information. It also maintains status of resources, preparing the IAP and incident related documentation.

    4. Logistics - Is responsible for providing adequate services and support to meet all incident or event needs.

    5. Finance/Administration - Responsible for tracking incident related costs, personnel and equipment records and administering procurement contracts associated with the incident or event.

    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.

    1. UNITY OF COMMAND means that every individual has one designated supervisor, knows who that person is and how to contact them.
    2. CHAIN OF COMMAND means that there is an orderly line of authority within the ranks of the organization with lower levels subordinate to and connected to higher levels. In most incidents, chain of command will consist of:
      • Command
      • Resource
      As incidents expand, the chain of command expands through an organizational structure that can consist of several layers. For example:
      • Command
      • Sections
      • Branches
      • Division/Group
      • Units
      • Resource
    3. SPAN OF CONTROL relates to the number of individuals one supervisor can effectively manage. In ICS the span of control for any supervisor falls in the range of three to seven, with five being considered optimal. Span of control is accomplished through timely use of delegations and good resource management.

Incident Documentation

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:

  1. Two or more jurisdictions are involved
  2. The incident will overlap major changes in personnel or go into a new operational period
  3. There is extensive or full activation of the ICS organization

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.

ICS Command Structure Outline


    Reporting to the IC are:
  1. Command Staff
    1. Safety Officer
    2. Liaison Officer
    3. Public Information Officer
  2. Logistics Chief
    1. Service Branch
      1. Communications
        *** This is where Amateur Radio fits in ICS when there is need for the full ICS structure.***
        Understand then that each incident will be structured as needs dictate.
        As an ARES or RACES member, your job is to supplement Served Agency communications. Therefore we will be assigned where the Incident Commander (IC) needs us.
        The following is the breakdown for Communications. Please note: Not all of these positions will be filled in every incident.
        • Communications Unit Leader (ComL)
          • Communications Technician (ComTech)
            • Incident Communications Center Manager (INCM)
              • Radio Operator (Rado)
      2. Medical Unit
      3. Food Unit
    2. Support Branch
      1. Supply Unit
      2. Facilities Unit

  3. Operations Chief
    1. Staging Area Manager
      1. Fire
      2. Law Enforcement
      3. Emergency Medical Service
      4. Public Works
    2. Emergency Medical Service Branch
      1. Triage Group
      2. Treatment Group
      3. Transportation Group
    3. Fire Service Branch
      1. Suppression Group
      2. Rescue Group
      3. Rehabilitation Group
    4. Law Enforcement Branch
      1. Investigations Group
        1. Interviews
        2. Crime Scene
      2. Perimeter Group
        1. North
        2. East
        3. West
        4. South
      3. Search Division
        1. Team 1
        2. Team 2
        3. Team 3
        4. Tactical Response
    5. Public Works Branch
      1. Diking
      2. Debris Clearance / Street repairs
      3. Utilities, Electrical
      4. Utilities, Gas
      5. Utilities, Water
      6. Telephone

  4. Planning Chief
    1. Resources Unit
    2. Situation Unit
    3. Documentation Unit
    4. Demobilization Unit
    5. Technical Specialists

  5. Finance Chief
    1. Time Unit
    2. Procurement Unit
    3. Compensation Unit
    4. Cost Unit

Position Objectives

Each person within the ICS structure is charged with accomplishing specific tasks in support of the overall effort.
These tasks, for incident managers are:


  1. Assess the situation
  2. Establish incident objectives and overall plan
    1. For the first hour
    2. For hours two - eight
    3. For extended operations
  3. Fill necessary ICS functions
  4. Brief staff
  5. Monitor staff and revise plans as necessary
  6. Handle requests for additional resources and release resources

Incident Command System and Amateur Radio

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.

Where we fit in ICS

We fit nowhere in the organization until asked. There is no position within the ICS for "walk-on" operators! If you wish to help in any event, contact your local ARES Emergency Coordinator or RACES officer and volunteer with that person. DO NOT just show up to work.

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: and

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

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.