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14 Features of the Incident Command System (ICS)

If you’re involved in emergency management in the U.S., you’ve probably heard of the Incident Command System (ICS). A key feature of the U.S. National Incident Management System (NIMS), ICS is an operational incident management structure that provides a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response in the U.S.

Since it first came out in the 1970s, the system has been so popular that it’s inspired the development of new, comparable models around the world (see: the Australian Inter-Service Incident Management System). So, the question is, what makes ICS such a durable success in all-hazards disaster response, especially given the fact that the system was originally conceived of as fire suppression-specific command structure? If we can hazard a guess, it’d be that ICS’ 14 essential features continue to be extremely apt to incident response, both in emergency and non-emergency situations. Let’s take a closer look at the features themselves:

First of all, each of the 14 core principles underpinning ICS is clustered around one of a handful of categories or types: standardization, command, planning and organizational structure, facilities and resources, communications and information management, and professionalism. And these larger categories speak directly to the operational errors (in large-scale, inter-agency emergency response) that ICS was originally created to redress:

    • Lack of common organization
    • Poor on-scene and inter-agency communications
    • Inadequate joint planning
    • Lack of valid and timely intelligence
    • Inadequate resource management
    • Narrow prediction capability

Now, if we examine the features themselves, we’ll get an even clearer understanding of ICS’ original aims:

    1. Use of a common terminology to define organizational functions, incidents, facilities, resource descriptions, and position titles.
    2. Establishment and transfer of command, meaning command must be clearly established from the outset of the incident. Command should only be transferred after a briefing that captures all essential information for continuing safe and effective operations.
    3. Chain and unity of command clarifies reporting relationships, eliminates confusion, and ensures that Incident Managers are able to control the actions of all personnel under their supervision. Chain of command, in particular, refers to the orderly line of authority within the ranks of the incident management organization. Meanwhile, unity of command means that every individual has a designated supervisor to report to at the scene of the incident.
    4. Unified command enables agencies with different legal, geographic, and functional authorities and responsibilities to work together effectively under individual agency authority, responsibility, or accountability.
    5. Management by objectives includes establishing overarching objectives, developing strategies based on incident objectives, developing and issuing assignments, plans, procedures, and protocols, establishing specific, measurable objectives for various incident management functional activities and directing efforts to attain them, in support of defined strategies, and finally documenting results to measure performance and facilitate corrective action.
    6. A modular organization is based on the size and complexity of the incident, as well as the specifics of the hazard environment created by the incident.
    7. Incident action planning offers a coherent means of communicating the overall incident objectives in the context of both operational and support activities.
    8. Manageable span of control prescribes a span of control that ranges from three to seven subordinates for any one individual.
    9. Incident locations and facilities establishes operational support facilities (e.g. incident command posts, bases, camps, staging areas, mass casualty triage areas, etc.) in the vicinity of the incident.
    10. Comprehensive resource management stipulates accurate, up-to-date accounting of resource use.
    11. Integrated communications calls for the development and use of a common (incident) communications plan and interoperable communications, processes, and structures.
    12. Information and intelligence management establishes a process for gathering, analyzing, sharing, and managing incident-related information and intelligence.
    13. Effective accountability is considered essential during incident operations; therefore, the following principles must be adhered to: check-in, incident action plan, unity of command, personal responsibility, span of control, and real-time resource tracking.
    14. Dispatch/deployment means that personnel and equipment should only respond when requested or when dispatched by the appropriate authority.

Of course, there’s much more to ICS than its 14 animating features, but understanding those principles is key to comprehending the sustained success of the system. 


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