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What is the Incident Command System (ICS)?

By Melissa Otero | Harkcon's Program Manager

The Incident Command System, or ICS, is a model that is used widely throughout the United States. ICS can be found in the National Response Framework and it is essentially the foundation to the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. The ICS is the Command and Control part of the NIMS plan. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) was devised as the ultimate model for how our country would respond to emergencies.

ICS is also listed in government directives, such as Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 & 8 (HSPD-5 & 8). Primarily, ICS is the model tool for command, control, and coordination.

ICS was developed in the 1970s in response to a series of major wild fires in southern California. At that time, local, State and federal firefighting organizations decided that, due to the large loss of life, injuries and property loss, that there had to be a better way to fight these fires. ICS is a flexible framework designed to achieve effective communication and management during response to and recovery from a small out of the ordinary incident to a large disaster.

ICS was originally designed to manage rapidly-moving wild fires and to address recurring problems such as:

  • Too many people reporting to one supervisor

  • Different emergency response organizational structures between agencies

  • Lack of reliable incident information

  • Inadequate and incompatible communications systems

  • Nonstandard terminology among responding organizations

  • Poor communications

  • Lack of accountability

  • Lack of planning and no clearly defined command structure

  • Lack of capability to expand and contract as required by the situation

  • Lack of designated facilities

Efforts to address these difficulties resulted in the development of the original ICS model for effective incident management. Although originally developed in response to wild fires, ICS has evolved into an all-hazards system that is appropriate for both large and small-scale emergencies.

ICS can be used to manage any type of incident, including a planned event like the Olympics, Presidential inauguration, concerts, parades, official visits, staff parties, staff training, large meetings, fundraisers, special events, etc….

The use of ICS is applicable to all hazards, including:

Human-Caused Hazards: Criminal acts, terrorist acts, work place violence, or other civil disturbances, injuries, work place violence, power outage.

Technological Hazards: Dam breaks, radiological or hazmat releases, power failures, oil/gas spills, or medical device defects; air, rail, water, or ground transportation accidents.

Natural Hazards: Disasters, such as fires, tornadoes, floods, ice storms, earthquakes, food-borne illnesses, epidemics, or pest eradication programs.

Again, ICS can be used in both small scale and large scale incidents, and often for “routine” incidents.

Both the public sector and private sector, large and small businesses, use ICS. In the public sector there are public safety first responders, Federal, state, county and city emergency teams. The private sector consists of organizations like hospitals and the healthcare system, financial institutions, universities, retail/wholesale suppliers, oil and gas, airports, utilities, and other Government contractors.

ICS is an all-hazards system that provides a flexible framework designed to achieve effective communication and management during response to and recovery from any incident. Much of the success of ICS has resulted directly from applying a common organizational structure and key management principles in a standardized way.

Now that we understand the basics of ICS. Next time we will dive deeper and discuss how ICS can apply to your business and what it can do for you! If you would like to contact the author of this blog, send an email to and reference the title, "What is the Incident Command System (ICS)?"

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