Multi-Discipline/Agency Operations: Who’s In Charge?

By: Stuart D. Adams, Esq.

In California, all first responders utilize the Incident Command System (ICS). The ICS is a component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). When an incident requires response from multiple local emergency management and response agencies, effective cross-jurisdictional coordination using common processes and systems is critical. The Incident Command System (ICS) provides a flexible, yet standardized core mechanism for coordinated and collaborative incident management, whether for incidents where additional resources are required or are provided from different organizations within a single jurisdiction or outside the jurisdiction or for complex incidents with national implications.

ICS is used by all levels of government—federal, state, tribal and local—as well as by many nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. ICS is also applicable across disciplines. It is typically structured to facilitate activities in five major functional areas: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics and Finance/Administration. All of the functional areas may or may not be used based on the incident needs. Intelligence/Investigations is an optional sixth functional area that is activated on a case-by-case basis.

The purpose of the Incident Command System (ICS) is to provide for a systematic development of a complete, functional command organization designed to allow for single or multi-agency use which increases the effectiveness of command and firefighter safety. The ICS should be considered the basic incident management system to be used on any size or kind of incident.

There are two types of command structures at a scene: Single Command and Unified Command. The primary differences between the Single and Unified Command structures are:

•    In a Single Command structure, a single Incident Commander is solely responsible,      within the confines of their authority, to establish objectives and overall management strategy associated with the incident. The Incident Commander is directly responsible for follow- through to ensure that all functional area actions are directed toward accomplishment of the strategy. The implementation of planning required to effect operational control will be the responsibility of a single individual (Operations Section Chief) who will report directly to the Incident Commander.

•    In a Unified Command structure, the individuals designated by their jurisdictions or by departments within a single jurisdiction must jointly determine objectives, strategy and priorities. As in a Single Command structure, the Operations Section Chief will have responsibility for implementation of the plan. The determination of which agency or department the Operations Section Chief represents must be made by mutual agreement of the Unified Commanders. It may be done on the basis of greatest jurisdictional involvement, number of resources involved, by existing statutory authority or by mutual knowledge of the individual’s qualifications.

Unified Command Structure occurs when the incident is totally contained within a single jurisdiction, but more than one department or agency shares management responsibility due to the nature of the incident or the kinds of resources required;

Establishing Command Under ICS: The first fire department member or unit to arrive at the scene shall assume command of the incident. The initial Incident Commander shall remain in command until command is transferred, the command is unified or the incident is stabilized and terminated:

The first unit or member on the scene must initiate whatever parts of ICS are needed to effectively manage the incident scene. For incidents that require the commitment of multiple Companies or units, the first unit or member on the scene must establish and announce “command”, and develop an ICS organization appropriate for the incident.

Upon arrival at an EMS incident an example of the radio broadcast from the first arriving unit whose Company Officer assumes the Incident Command would sound something like: “Engine 52 is on the scene with a single vehicle accident with multiple injuries. Engine 52 will be IC.”

Establishment and Transfer of Command: The command function must be clearly established from the beginning of an incident. When command is transferred, the process must include a briefing that captures all essential information for continuing safe and effective operations.

Chain of Command and Unity of Command: Chain of command refers to the orderly line of authority within the ranks of the incident management organization. Unity of command means that every individual has a designated supervisor to whom he or she reports at the scene of the incident. These principles clarify reporting relationships and eliminate the confusion caused by multiple, conflicting directives. Incident managers at all levels must be able to control the actions of all personnel under their supervision.

Unified Command: In incidents involving multiple jurisdictions, a single jurisdiction with multiagency involvement, or multiple jurisdictions with multiagency involvement, Unified Command allows agencies with different legal, geographic, and functional authorities and responsibilities to work together effectively without affecting individual agency authority, responsibility, or accountability.

Often, Incident Command in a Single Command situation can be transferred upon arrival of a higher ranking officer from the same department as the initial Incident Commander or an officer from the Agency which has jurisdiction. Under the ICS system the actual transfer of command will be regulated by the following guidelines:

The officer assuming command will communicate with the person being relieved by radio or face-to-face. Face-to-face is the preferred method to transfer command.

The person being relieved will brief the officer assuming command indicating at least the following:

  •     Incident conditions (fire location/extent, HazMat spill or release, number of patients, etc.)
  •     Incident Action Plan
  •     Progress towards completion of the tactical objectives
  •     Safety considerations
  •     Deployment and assignment of operating companies and personnel
  •     Appraisal of need for additional resources

The person being relieved of command should review the tactical worksheet with the officer assuming command. This sheet provides the most effective framework for command transfer as it outlines the location and status of personnel and resources in a standard form that should be well known to all members.  The person being relieved of command will be assigned to best advantage by the officer assuming command. Whenever a transfer of command occurs, this change in Incident Commander must be announced.

Under the ICS System, when the incident is multi-jurisdictional, resources are best managed under the agencies that have normal control over those resources.

*Sources:; OES FIRESCOPE OCC “Incident Command System”

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