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Incident Command System (ICS) Overview
The following description of the Incident Command System (ICS) is a summary for use by Amateur Radio operators working on ARES activities. This summary is -only- to provide Hams with a basic understanding of terminology and concepts associated with ICS and NOT to replace formal ICS training.

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.

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 smoothes 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.

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.

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:

  • There is one IC for any event. There is not an "IC for ........ and an IC for .........".There is ONE Incident Commander.
  • The incident will be handled under a single coordinated Incident Action Plan (IAP). 
  • One operations Section Chief will have responsibility for implementing the Incident Action Plan (IAP). 
  • 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: 

    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.

    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.

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

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

    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 filed, 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.

  • UNITY OF COMMAND means that every individual has one designated supervisor, knows who that person is and how to contact them. 
  • 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.
  • Command 
  • Sections 
  • Branches
  • Division/Group
  • Units 
  • Resource 
  • 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 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:
  • Two or more jurisdictions are involved
  • The incident will overlap major changes in personnel or go into a new operational period
  • 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:

    Reporting are:

    • Command Staff 
      • Safety Officer
      • Liaison Officer
      • Public Information Officer
    • Logistics Chief 
      • Service Branch 
        • 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  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) 
        • Medical Unit
        • Food Unit
        • Support Branch 
          • Supply Unit
          • Facilities Unit
    • Operations Chief 
      • Staging Area Manager 
        • Fire
        • Law Enforcement
        • Emergency Medical Service
        • Public Works
      • Emergency Medical Service Branch 
        • Triage Group
        • Treatment Group
        • Transportation Group
      • Fire Service Branch 
        • Suppression Group
        • Rescue Group
        • Rehabilitation Group
      • Law Enforcement Branch 
        • Investigations Group 
          • Interviews
          • Crime Scene
        • Perimeter Group 
          • North
          • East
          • West
          • South
        • Search Division 
          • Team 1
          • Team 2
          • Team 3
          • Tactical Response
      • Public Works Branch 
        • Diking
        • Debris Clearance/Street repairs
        • Utilities, Electrical
        • Utilities, Gas
        • Utilities, Water
        • Telephone
    • Planning Chief 
      • Resources Unit
      • Situation Unit
      • Documentation Unit
      • Demobilization Unit
      • Technical Specialists
    • Finance Chief 
      • Time Unit
      • Procurement Unit
      • Compensation Unit
      • 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:

    Incident Commander(IC)

    • Assess the situation 
      • Establish incident objectives and overall plan
      • For the first hour
      • For hours two - eight
      • For extended operations
    • Fill necessary ICS functions
    • Brief staff
    • Monitor staff and revise plans as necessary
    • Handle requests for additional resources and release resources
  • Obtain briefing from IC 
  • Establish operational objectives per incident plan 
  • For the first hour 
  • For hours two - eight 
  • For extended operations
  • Develop tactics to accomplish objectives 
  • Divide incident by geographic reference and/or function 
  • Appoint and brief Branch/Division/Group leaders 
  • Supervise operations 
  • Determine and acquire resources from Branch/Division/Group leader input




  • Determine location of staging area
  • Establish staging area layout
  • Determine support/service needs for staging area
  • Report status of equipment and personnel in staging area to the Operations Chief
  • Dispatch personnel and equipment from staging area to the incident as necessary B.
  • Assess the situation
  • Establish incident objectives for Branch/Division/Group 
  • For the first hour
  • For hours two - eight
  • For extended operations
  • Develop tactical plan to accomplish objectives
  • Determine time and resource requirements
  • Determine logistical requirements
  • Requests needs from Operations Chief
  • Obtain briefing from IC
  • Establish necessary positions within function
  • Supervise preparation of Incident Action Plan (IAP)
  • Develop alternative strategies
  • Provide periodic predictions on incident potential
  • Supervise planning section units
      • Compile incident situation information
      • Display incident status on maps, boards, etc.
      • Compile incident resource information
      • Display resource utilization/availability
      • Check in resources as they arrive
      • Document complete incident
  • Obtain briefing from IC
  • Establish logistics section positions as necessary and do briefings as necessary
  • Identify service and support needs for the duration of the incident
  • Coordinate and process requests for resources
  • Advise IC and staff of current service and support capability
  • Prepare "Service and Support" portions of the IAP
  • 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.

    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:

  • Common Terminology 
  • Multi-Jurisdictional Unified Command 
  • Modular Organization 
  • Integrated Communications 
  • Manageable Span of Control
  • 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.

    The elements of ICS are discussed in the detailed ICS description in the first portion of this web page.

    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 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 Ontario should have a cadre of individuals "fully trained" in ICS. ICS training can be provided by served agencies throughout Ontario; check with your CEMC.

    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, 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 Duties for ARES Operators:
    To repeat some VERY important instructions that apply to all ARES 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 the problem.

    • Before you leave your house, you should
      • Review your assignment to insure you understand what is expected of you for this specific assignment. 
        • Incident type, name and designation
        • Incident check in location
        • Reporting time
        • Anticipated length of stay
        • Travel instructions
    • Update your "go-bag" with needed items not normally stored there 
      • Prepare clothing and food, sufficient to handle the anticipated length of stay at your assignment.
      • Review communication procedures as necessary 
      • Ensure that your family knows how to contact you while you are at the assignment.
      • Review transportation requirements - to and from the assignment
    • On departure from your house, check in with the staffing net to let them know you are in route to your assignment. 
    • On arrival: 
      • Check in at the staging area so the served agency records reflect your help.
      • Notify the staffing net that you are going to the operations frequency. 
      • Check in with operations NCS to let them know you are available.
      • Determine where/when the event briefing will be (ASK!) 
    • Perform the duties assigned in a manner consistent with good safety procedures and good Ham techniques. This will include: 
      • Monitor work progress.
      • Provide your supervisor with appropriate status updates and notification of any problems that may arise.
      • Keep a good log of your station activities.
    • Once your assignment is complete AND prior to departing you need to: 
      • Complete your work assignment 
      • Brief your subordinates on demobilization
      • Complete event paper work 
      • Brief your replacement as applicable 
      • Follow incident check out procedures. This means: 
        • Check out where you checked in (if at all possible)
        • Notify Operations NCS of your departure 
        • Notify the Staffing Net you are checking out from your assignment and going home.
    • Upon arrival at your house, check out with the staffing net. ICS Definitions
    ICS Definitions will explain the terms and definitions used within ICS that are most relevant to ARES.

    ICS Glossary are the definitions of many other ICS terms that should help minimize confusion.

    Source material: Kentucky Amateur Radio Web Site