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What should an incident command system include?

We have seen how risk is assessed but how do we manage risk when an incident occurs?

In this section you will analyse the requirements of an incident command system (ICS).

The ICS provides a common approach to command, control and coordination where responders from multiple agencies can function effectively (Boersma, Comfort and Wolbers 2014).

As part of our introduction to ICS we should break the concept down into constituent parts.

What is an incident?

This usually refers to a risk-critical event that may result in the realisation of a hazard affecting a variety of what might loosely be described as targets. This can be human or animal life, the physical, economic or political environment, or a combination of all of these.

Such events can be described in terms of:

  • hazards
  • risk
  • scale
  • speed of onset
  • duration

Such incidents are deemed to be outside of steady state or routine activities.

What is command?

The UK Police service defines command as follows:

Authoritative command is carried out by those who have been given authority over others for a specific operation or incident (National Policing Improvement Agency 2009).

This defines command as a role, a function to direct.

It has connotations for interoperability where several agencies are acting together to resolve an incident – ie who has command and over what resources?

In the US National Incident Management System, command is also described as a function indicating, as it were, that incident command is the guiding mind:

Incident command is responsible for the overall management of the incident. A single Incident Commander or Unified Command conducts the command function on an incident. Command and General Staff support the incident command to meet the incident’s needs (FEMA 2017).

Command is also often described in terms of levels, with the on-scene control being the lowest, through a wider coordination role up to the overall strategic command.

What is a system?

In the incident management context, this can be looked at as a framework for command, control and coordination of all assets and resources engaged in dealing with the emergency.

It includes such elements as:

  • protocols
  • policies
  • operating procedures
  • communication systems
  • information management processes
  • reporting lines and organisational structures including roles and responsibilities
  • arrangements for inter-agency operations

But the system also includes non-technical factors such as:

  • tacit and implicit knowledge
  • decision-making skills
  • teamwork and followership tactics
  • broader community engagement considerations

In conclusion, then, an incident command system is a framework of technical and non-technical capabilities designed to facilitate the effective and safe resolution of emergency incidents, whatever the hazard, risk, scale and duration.

Your task

Either research an incident command system of relevance to your locality or draw upon your own experience.

How does it meet the criteria above? What factors would you like to see incorporated?


Boersma, K., Comfort, L., and Wolbers, J. (2014) ‘Incident Command Systems: A Dynamic Tension among Goals, Rules and Practice’. Contingencies and crisis management 22 (1), 1-4

FEMA (2017) National Incident Management System [online] available from https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1508151197225-ced8c60378c3936adb92c1a3ee6f6564/FINAL_NIMS_2017.pdf [17 April 2018]

National Policing Improvement Agency (2009) Guidance on Command and Control [online] available from http://library.college.police.uk/docs/acpo/Command-and-Control-2009.pdf [1 May 2018]

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

Coventry University