Lesson 2: ICS Features and Principles

Lesson Overview

This lesson reviews ICS features and principles. At the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the basic features of ICS.
  • Select the correct terminology for ICS facilities.
  • Identify common tasks related to personal accountability.


Making ICS Work

Effective incident management relies on a tight command and control structure for managing resources, making decisions, and assigning tasks. Although information is exchanged freely through the ICS structure, strict adherence must be paid to this top-down management approach when managing incidents in the field.

To make ICS work, each of us must commit to following this command and control approach.


ICS Features and Principles: Overview

As you learned in the previous lesson, ICS is based on proven management principles, which contribute to the strength and efficiency of the overall system.

ICS incorporates a wide range of management features and principles, beginning with the use of common terminology and clear text.

[David Burns, Emergency Preparedness Manager, University of California Los Angeles]
Communication is probably one of the most essential elements of ICS. It’s important that we know how to communicate.

[Daryl Lee Spiewak, Emergency Programs Manager, the Brazos River Authority]
If the terms that I use mean different things to different people, we’re going to have a hard time communicating and doing what needs to be done to accomplish our mission.

ICS emphasizes effective planning, including management by objectives and reliance on an Incident Action Plan.

[Roberta Runge, EPA National NIMS Coordinator]
You have to coordinate on what your end objective is. All up and down the chain you have to have a common end goal. So you can establish your objectives, you can ensure they’re in the Incident Action Plan, and you can ensure that they are in agreement with the other Incident Action Plans that are produced by agencies.

The ICS features related to command structure include chain of command and unity of command.

[Bill Campbell, Director of Training, New York State Emergency Management Office]
One of the benefits is it gets all of the different organizations working under the same framework.

ICS helps ensure full utilization of all incident resources by:

  • Maintaining a manageable span of control,
  • Establishing predesignated incident locations and facilities,
  • Implementing resource management practices, and
  • Ensuring integrated communications.

ICS supports responders and decisionmakers through effective information and intelligence management and helps establish a common operating picture.

[Kristy Plourde, NIMS Program Coordinator, U.S. Coast Guard]
The common operating picture is a critical thing that the Coast Guard has been working hard on recently for ourselves because it’s something that helps us maintain a better operational picture and it’s more consistent across the board, everyone up and down the chain of command and across to other agencies understand the same picture.

ICS counts on each of us taking personal accountability for our own actions. And finally, the mobilization process helps ensure that incident objectives can be achieved while responders remain safe.

[Kristy Plourde, NIMS Program Coordinator, U.S. Coast Guard]
To have NIMS work effectively, it’s got to be top-down support.

The ICS features covered in this lesson form the basis for effective, team-based incident response at all levels.


ICS Features and Principles: Overview

The remainder of this lesson covers the following ICS features and principles:

  • Standardization
    • Common terminology
  • Command
    • Establishment and transfer of command
    • Chain of command and unity of command
  • Planning/Organizational Structure
    • Management by objectives
    • Incident Action Plan (IAP)
    • Modular organization
    • Manageable span of control
  • Facilities and Resources
    • Comprehensive resource management
    • Incident locations and facilities
  • Communications/Information Management
    • Integrated communications
    • Information and intelligence management
  • Professionalism
    • Accountability
    • Dispatch/Deployment


Common Terminology and Clear Text

The ability to communicate within the ICS is absolutely critical. During an incident:

  • Communications should use common terms or clear text.
  • Do not use radio codes, agency-specific codes, acronyms, or jargon.

The goal is to promote understanding among all parties involved in managing an incident.


Why Plain English?

The following meanings of a common acronym illustrate the importance of using clear text.

EMT = Emergency Medical Treatment
EMT = Emergency Medical Technician
EMT = Emergency Management Team
EMT = Eastern Mediterranean Time (GMT+0200)
EMT = Effective Methods Team
EMT = Effects Management Tool
EMT = El Monte, CA (airport code)
EMT = Electron Microscope Tomography
EMT = Email Money Transfer


Command Definition

The next ICS principle is clarity of command or who is in charge. The National Incident Management System defines command as the act of directing, ordering, or controlling by virtue of explicit statutory, regulatory, or delegated authority.

When you are using ICS to manage an incident, an Incident Commander is assigned. The Incident Commander has the authority to establish objectives, make assignments, and order resources. In doing so, the Incident Commander works closely with staff and technical experts to analyze the situation and consider alternative strategies.

The Incident Commander should have the level of training, experience, and expertise to serve in this capacity. Qualifications to serve as an Incident Commander are not based on rank, grade, or technical expertise.


Chain of Command

Chain of command is an orderly line of authority within the ranks of the incident management organization. Chain of command:

  • Allows an Incident Commander to direct and control the actions of all personnel under his or her supervision.
  • Avoids confusion by requiring that orders flow from supervisors.

Chain of command does NOT prevent personnel from directly communicating with each other to ask for or share information.


Unity of Command

Under unity of command, personnel:

  • Report to only one ICS supervisor.
  • Receive work assignments only from their ICS supervisors.

When you are assigned to an incident, you no longer report directly to your day-to-day supervisor.


Transfer of Command

The process of moving the responsibility for incident command from one Incident Commander to another is called transfer of command. Transfer of command may take place when:

  • A more qualified Incident Commander arrives and assumes command.
  • A jurisdiction or agency is legally required to take command.
  • The incident changes in complexity.

The transfer of command process always includes a transfer of command briefing, which may be oral, written, or a combination of both.


Management by Objectives

Incident objectives are used to ensure that everyone within the ICS organization has a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished.

Incident objectives are established based on the following priorities:

  1. Life Safety
  2. Incident Stabilization
  3. Property Preservation


Reliance on an Incident Action Plan

Every incident must have an Incident Action Plan (IAP) that:

  • Specifies the incident objectives.
  • States the activities to be completed.
  • Covers a specified timeframe, called an operational period.
  • May be oral or written—except for hazardous materials incidents, which require a written IAP.

Incident Action Plans specify the incident activities, assign responsibilities, identify needed resources, and specify communication protocols.


ICS Organization

The ICS organization is unique but easy to understand. There is no correlation between the ICS organization and the administrative structure of any single agency or jurisdiction. This is deliberate, because confusion over different position titles and organizational structures has been a significant stumbling block to effective incident management in the past.

For example, someone who serves as a director every day may not hold that title when deployed under an ICS structure.


Modular OrganizationThe ICS organizational structure:

  • Develops in a top-down, modular fashion that is based on the size and complexity of the incident.
  • Is determined based on the incident objectives and resource requirements. Only those functions or positions necessary for a particular incident are filled.
  • Expands and contracts in a flexible manner. When needed, separate functional elements may be established.
  • Requires that each element have a person in charge.


Manageable Span of Control

Another basic ICS feature concerns the supervisory structure of the organization. Maintaining adequate span of control throughout the ICS organization is very important.

Span of control pertains to the number of individuals or resources that one supervisor can manage effectively during an incident.

Maintaining an effective span of control is important at incidents where safety and accountability are a top priority.


Span of Control

The type of incident, nature of the task, hazards and safety factors, and distances between personnel and resources all influence span of control considerations.

Effective span of control on incidents may vary from three to seven, and a ratio of one supervisor to five subordinates is recommended.


Accounting for Incident Resources

In ICS, “resources” refers to personnel, supplies, and equipment. During an incident, it is critical to know:

  • What resources are needed and available.
  • Where deployed resources are located.

Effective resource management ensures that response personnel are safe and incident objectives are achieved.


Resource Management

Resource management includes processes for:

  • Identifying resource requirements.
  • Ordering and acquiring resources.
  • Mobilizing and dispatching resources.
  • Tracking and reporting on resource status.
  • Recovering and demobilizing resources.

It also includes processes for reimbursing for resources and maintaining a resource inventory.


Predesignated Incident Locations and Facilities

Incident activities may be accomplished from a variety of operational locations and support facilities.

The Incident Commander identifies and establishes needed facilities depending on incident needs. Standardized names are used to identify types of facilities.

The most common type of facility you may encounter is the Incident Command Post. The Incident Command Post, or ICP, is the location from which the Incident Commander oversees all incident operations. The Command Post may be an office or resident post. The goal is to get you away from your day-to-day work setting so you will not be distracted from your incident assignments.


Incident Facilities Virtual Tour

This presentation introduces the ICS facilities. In less complex incidents you most likely will not need many of the standard ICS facilities. However, in large incidents, such as a hurricane or earthquake, it is likely that all of these facilities will be necessary.

The Incident Command Post, or ICP, is the location from which the Incident Commander oversees all incident operations. There should only be one ICP for each incident, but it may change locations during the event. Every incident must have some form of an Incident Command Post. The ICP may be located outside, in a vehicle, trailer, or tent, or within a building. The ICP will be positioned outside of the present and potential hazard zone but close enough to the incident to maintain command.

Staging Areas are temporary locations at an incident where personnel and equipment wait to be assigned. Staging Areas should be located close enough to the incident for a timely response, but far enough away to be out of the immediate impact zone. In large complex incidents, there may be more than one Staging Area at an incident. Staging Areas can be collocated with other ICS facilities.

A Base is the location from which primary logistics and administrative functions are coordinated and administered.

A Camp is the location where resources may be kept to support incident operations if a Base is not accessible to all resources. Camps are equipped and staffed to provide food, water, sleeping areas, and sanitary services.

A Helibase is the location from which helicopter-centered air operations are conducted. Helibases are generally used on a more long-term basis and include such services as fueling and maintenance.

Helispots are more temporary locations at the incident, where helicopters can safely land and take off. Multiple Helispots may be used.

Let’s review the different ICS facilities covered in this video.

  • The Incident Command Post is the location from which the Incident Commander oversees all incident operations.
  • Staging Areas are where personnel and equipment are gathered while waiting to be assigned.
  • Base is the location from which primary logistics and administrative functions are coordinated and administered.
  • Helibase is the location from which helicopter-centered air operations are conducted.
  • Helispots are more temporary locations at the incident, where helicopters can safely land and take off.


Incident Facilities

As you learned in the video presentation, standard ICS facilities include the following:

  • Incident Command Post: The Incident Command Post is the location from which the Incident Commander oversees all incident operations.
ICP symbol - On a map, the ICP location appears as a blue and white square

  • Staging Area: A Staging Area is a temporary location where personnel and equipment are gathered while waiting to be assigned.
Staging Area symbol - On a map, the Staging Area appears as a circle with an S in it.

  • Incident Base: The Incident Base is the location from which primary logistics and administrative functions are coordinated and administered.
Base symbol - On a map, the Base appears as a circle with a B in it.

  • Camp: A Camp provides sleeping, food, water, and sanitary services to incident personnel.
  • Helibase: A Helibase is a location from which helicopter-centered air operations are conducted.
  • Helispot: A Helispot is a more temporary location at the incident, where helicopters can safely land and take off.
Camp, Helibase, and Helispot symbols

Remember, not all facilities are used in every incident. Also, if needed, additional types of facilities can be added to accommodate incident needs.


Integrated Communications

A common communications plan is essential for ensuring that personnel can communicate with one another during an incident.

Prior to an incident, response partners should work together to ensure that communication equipment, procedures, and systems can operate together during a response. This is known as interoperability.

Integrating communications can be as simple as making sure you have current phone numbers of all key players.


Information and Intelligence Management

The analysis and sharing of information and intelligence is an important component of ICS. Incident management must establish a process for gathering, sharing, and managing incident-related information and intelligence.

Intelligence includes operational information that may come from a variety of different sources, such as:

  • Risk assessments.
  • Threats involving potential for violence.
  • Surveillance of disease outbreak.
  • Weather forecasts.
  • Structural plans and vulnerabilities.



Effective accountability during incident operations is essential. Individuals must abide by their agency policies and guidelines and any applicable local, tribal, State, or Federal rules and regulations.

The following principles must be adhered to:

  • Check-In. All responders must report in to receive an assignment.
  • Incident Action Plan. Response operations must be coordinated as outlined in the Incident Action Plan.
  • Unity of Command. Each individual will be assigned to only one supervisor.
  • Span of Control. Supervisors must be able to adequately supervise and control their subordinates, as well as communicate with and manage all resources under their supervision.
  • Resource Tracking. Supervisors must record and report resource status changes as they occur.



A systematic deployment process improves safety and reduces chaos.

After being dispatched, your first task is to check in and receive an assignment.

After check-in, you will locate your incident supervisor and obtain your initial briefing. The briefings you receive and give should include:

  • Current assessment of the situation and incident objectives.
  • Identification of your specific job responsibilities.
  • Description of ICS organizational structure and identification of coworkers.
  • Location of work area.
  • Identification of break areas, as appropriate.
  • Procedural instructions for obtaining needed resources.
  • Operational periods/work shifts.
  • Required safety procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE), as appropriate.

Remember, you should respond only when dispatched by an appropriate authority.


ICS Features: Review

This lesson covered 14 ICS features that lay the foundation for effective response partnerships. The first seven ICS features are listed below:

  1. Common Terminology

    ICS establishes common terminology that allows diverse incident management and support organizations to work together across a wide variety of incident management functions and hazard scenarios. This common terminology covers the following:

    • Organizational Functions: Major functions and functional units with incident management responsibilities are named and defined. Terminology for the organizational elements is standard and consistent.
    • Resource Descriptions: Major resources—including personnel, facilities, and major equipment and supply items—that support incident management activities are given common names and are “typed” with respect to their capabilities, to help avoid confusion and to enhance interoperability.
    • Incident Facilities: Common terminology is used to designate the facilities in the vicinity of the incident area that will be used during the course of the incident.

    Incident response communications (during exercises and actual incidents) should feature plain language commands so they will be able to function in a multijurisdictional environment. Field manuals and training should be revised to reflect the plain language standard.

  2. Establishment and Transfer of Command

    The command function must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations. The agency with primary jurisdictional authority over the incident designates the individual at the scene responsible for establishing command. When command is transferred, the process must include a briefing that captures all essential information for continuing safe and effective operations.

  3. Chain of Command and Unity of Command

    • Chain of Command: Chain of command refers to the orderly line of authority within the ranks of the incident management organization.
    • Unity of Command: Unity of command means that all individuals have a designated supervisor to whom they report 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 direct the actions of all personnel under their supervision.

  4. 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.

  5. Management by Objectives

    Management by objectives is communicated throughout the entire ICS organization and includes:

    • Establishing overarching incident objectives.
    • Developing strategies based on overarching incident objectives.
    • Developing and issuing assignments, plans, procedures, and protocols.
    • Establishing specific, measurable tactics or tasks for various incident management functional activities, and directing efforts to accomplish them, in support of defined strategies.
    • Documenting results to measure performance and facilitate corrective actions.
  6. Incident Action Planning

    Centralized, coordinated incident action planning should guide all response activities. An Incident Action Plan (IAP) provides a concise, coherent means of capturing and communicating the overall incident priorities, objectives, and strategies in the contexts of both operational and support activities. Every incident must have an action plan. However, not all incidents require written plans. The need for written plans and attachments is based on the requirements of the incident and the decision of the Incident Commander or Unified Command. Most initial response operations are not captured with a formal IAP. However, if an incident is likely to extend beyond one operational period, become more complex, or involve multiple jurisdictions and/or agencies, preparing a written IAP will become increasingly important to maintain effective, efficient, and safe operations.

  7. Modular Organization

    The ICS organizational structure develops in a modular fashion based on the size and complexity of the incident, as well as the specifics of the hazard environment created by the incident. When needed, separate functional elements can be established, each of which may be further subdivided to enhance internal organizational management and external coordination. Responsibility for the establishment and expansion of the ICS modular organization ultimately rests with Incident Command, which bases the ICS organization on the requirements of the situation. As incident complexity increases, the organization expands from the top down as functional responsibilities are delegated. Concurrently with structural expansion, the number of management and supervisory positions expands to address the requirements of the incident adequately.

  8. Manageable Span of Control

    Span of control is key to effective and efficient incident management. Supervisors must be able to adequately supervise and control their subordinates, as well as communicate with and manage all resources under their supervision. In ICS, the span of control of any individual with incident management supervisory responsibility should range from 3 to 7 subordinates, with 5 being optimal. During a large-scale law enforcement operation, 8 to 10 subordinates may be optimal. The type of incident, nature of the task, hazards and safety factors, and distances between personnel and resources all influence span-of-control considerations.

  9. Comprehensive Resource Management

    Maintaining an accurate and up-to-date picture of resource utilization is a critical component of incident management and emergency response. Resources to be identified in this way include personnel, teams, equipment, supplies, and facilities available or potentially available for assignment or allocation.

  10. Incident Facilities and Locations

    Various types of operational support facilities are established in the vicinity of an incident, depending on its size and complexity, to accomplish a variety of purposes. The Incident Command will direct the identification and location of facilities based on the requirements of the situation. Typical designated facilities include Incident Command Posts, Bases, Camps, Staging Areas, mass casualty triage areas, point-of-distribution sites, and others as required.

  11. Integrated Communications

    Incident communications are facilitated through the development and use of a common communications plan and interoperable communications processes and architectures. The ICS 205 form is available to assist in developing a common communications plan. This integrated approach links the operational and support units of the various agencies involved and is necessary to maintain communications connectivity and discipline and to enable common situational awareness and interaction. Preparedness planning should address the equipment, systems, and protocols necessary to achieve integrated voice and data communications.

  12. Information and Intelligence Management

    The incident management organization must establish a process for gathering, analyzing, assessing, sharing, and managing incident-related information and intelligence.

  13. Accountability

    Effective accountability of resources at all jurisdictional levels and within individual functional areas during incident operations is essential. Adherence to the following ICS principles and processes helps to ensure accountability:

    • Resource Check-In/Check-Out Procedures
    • Incident Action Planning
    • Unity of Command
    • Personal Responsibility
    • Span of Control
    • Resource Tracking
  14. Dispatch/Deployment

    Resources should respond only when requested or when dispatched by an appropriate authority through established resource management systems. Resources not requested must refrain from spontaneous deployment to avoid overburdening the recipient and compounding accountability challenges.


Lesson Summary

You have completed the ICS Features and Principles lesson. This lesson introduced:

  • ICS management principles.
  • ICS core system features.

The next lesson will provide an overview of the ICS organization and introduce the Incident Commander and Command Staff.