The Incident Command System: A Proven Tool For The Management Of Emergency Operations2013-08-28T17:04:45-04:00

By: Ernest G. Vendrell, CPP, CPO, CEM
June 2001
Reprint Protection News


Each year emergencies and disasters take their toll on government and industry. The devastating effects of these critical events in terms of lives lost, injuries, property damage, and lost business can have serious consequences for organizations and communities.

However, government and industry can limit the effects of emergencies and disasters, and be in a better position to resume normal operations, by planning ahead. This can be accomplished by developing a comprehensive emergency response plan that provides the necessary structure for managing critical incidents. Besides helping to save lives and reduce property loss, a well thought out emergency response plan can serve to lessen an organization’s potential liability.

Incident Command System

Clearly, the need to effectively communicate and manage resources during a crisis situation is of vital importance to any organization. Someone must be in charge and priorities must be established. Direction and control is essential in order to avoid conflict and confusion and establish order out of chaos.

Fortunately, there exists a recognized system with a predetermined chain-of-command, as well as a proven structure, for an organized response to a critical incident. Referred to as the Incident Command System (ICS), it uses common terminology that is descriptive and decisive, yet not difficult to understand, in order to control personnel, resources, and communications at the scene of a critical incident.

ICS was developed in the early 1970’s after a series of major wildland fires in Southern California resulted in a number of recurring problems among emergency responders. Some of these included: nonstandard terminology, nonstandard and nonintegrated communications, unmanageable span of control, and lack of the capability to expand and contract as required by the situation.

Although originally a fire service control system, ICS has since been adopted by a wide variety of local, state, and national emergency management and law enforcement organizations due to its many documented successes. Today, it serves as a model all-risk, all-agency emergency management system. ICS principles have been proven over time in government, business, and industry. In fact, ICS has been endorsed by the International Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the American Public Works Association (APWA).

There is also a legal requirement for using ICS since there are federal laws that mandate its use by individuals responding to hazardous materials incidents. Specifically, OSHA rule 1910.120, which became effective March 6, 1990, requires that all organizations that handle hazardous materials use ICS. Non-OSHA states are also required by the Environmental Protection Agency to use ICS when responding to hazardous materials incidents.

In essence, ICS is a well organized team approach for managing critical incidents. It uses common terminology, has a modular organization (which means that it can expand/shrink according to the needs of the situation), has a manageable span of control (the number of subordinates one supervisor can manage effectively; usually 3-7, the optimum is 5), and uses clear reporting and documentation procedures. In effect, emergency response personnel can view ICS as an incident management toolbox. Not every tool in the toolbox will be used for every situation, but the tools are available should they become necessary. Additionally, it is important to note that ICS can be used for all types of incidents regardless of size. However, it is essential that all emergency responders understand their specific roles when using ICS.

The ICS structure is built around 5 major management activities or functional areas5:

COMMAND - Sets priorities and objectives and is responsible for overall command of the incident.

OPERATIONS - Has responsibility for all tactical operations necessary to carry out the plan.

PLANNING - Responsible for the collection, evaluation, and dissemination of information concerning incident development as well as the status of all available resources.

LOGISTICS - Responsible for providing the necessary support (facilities, services, and materials) to meet incident needs.

FINANCE - Responsible for monitoring and documenting all costs. Provides the necessary financial support related to the incident.

Figure 1. Basic Incident Command System organizational structure.

These five management activities or functional areas form the foundation of the ICS organizational structure. The activities can be managed by one individual in the event of a small incident. Or a fully staffed ICS structure, addressing all five functional areas, may be needed to manage larger or more complex events. In both cases, it is important to note that the Incident Commander is the individual in charge at the scene of a critical incident until properly relieved. The Incident Commander is also responsible for assigning personnel to the other functional areas (Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance) as needed.


ICS organizational structure and procedures enable emergency response personnel to work safely together to take control of a critical incident. It can also assist organizations to effectively and efficiently manage the aftermath of a critical incident.

To learn more about ICS, contact your local or state office of emergency management. These offices usually make training available to government and industry.


  1. L. Dezelan, Incident Management System. Law and Order, vol. 44, No. 8.; B. Woodworth, The Incident Command System: A Tool for Business Recovery. Disaster Resource Guide, 1998 Edition.
  2. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Incident Command System Instructor Guide (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Woodworth, supra note 1; M. Arata, Jr., Finding Order Amidst the Chaos. Security Management, vol. 39, No. 9, pp. 48-53; Ibid.
  5. Federal Emergency Management Agency, supra note 2.