Establishing an Incident Command Structure at Special Operations Incidents

The changing times in our society today has resulted in the alteration of the roles of the Nation's emergency responders. Today's rescuers can find themselves on the front lines at a Special Operations Incident. Moreover, the long-term success at these...


One vital step in preparing for such a response is developing an emergency response plan. This plan should include a thorough and clear set of Standard Operational Guidelines that help define the initial operations of the department once they have arrived on-scene. A good start would include a clear Scope of the guideline; Department Responsibilities; Training Requirements; Actions of Members; Scene Integrity/Control; and Crime Scene response and investigation. Along with SOG's, it is wise to come up with a Logistical Resource List that encompasses emergency contacts in the event that they are needed at an incident. It can include the following:

  • Weather reports
  • Structural engineers
  • Municipal/State rescue teams
  • Equipment and tool suppliers
  • Lumberyards
  • Utility company management personnel
  • Heavy equipment rentals
  • Towing companies
  • Hospital/Trauma centers
  • Railroad officers
  • Apparatus repair personnel
  • Fuel companies
  • Caterers
  • Portable facilities
  • Housing/Shelter accommodations
  • Pharmacies
  • And the list goes on...

It will be difficult to locate experts and resources during the night or weekend hours, and the list of people requiring their services will expand dramatically after the incident occurs. Therefore, it is best to plan ahead.

The initial dispatch report for the incident will be a start to the size-up process. The initial unit reports of the arriving units will help to indicate the severity of the incident, even when they are not saying anything. Many initial responders are struck with awe based on the scene they are confronted with, that the initial unit report takes some time to be transmitted. The excitability of the dispatcher, the first arriving personnel, and citizen's reports will clue the responders to what lies ahead.

Upon arrival, scene success will not occur without scene control. Establishing command is the first step to gaining control. Depending on the nature and severity of the incident, many agencies may have a direct responsibility for the outcome of the incident: the fire service will be charged with any suppression and rescue issues, EMS will have mass casualty transport and treatment issues, along with responder care issues, and law enforcement will be investigating the incident for potential crime scene enforcement. Incidents as such are best suited to operate in a Unified Command System.

Command should be set well into the cold zone of the incident, and should be large enough to facilitate the needs of the entire command staff. Some jurisdictions have agreements with bordering communities to special call Command Officers to serve as Section Chiefs for the incident. But, no matter who serves in the role, each section will be staffed at an incident such as this.

The next step in controlling the incident is controlling the perimeter of the incident. As large scale incidents as these, there will be a large convergence of apparatus, personnel and equipment to respond directly to the scene. This can become chaotic, and clog the escape routes for transporting vehicles and apparatus that needs to re-position, based upon assignment. It may be wise to identify a location for multiple Level II Staging areas, based on type of resource.

There are many effective acronyms for size-up concerns that responders use at an emergency. Special Operations Incidents have some different needs, so there is a variation of the standard acronym, (COAL TWAS WEALTHS) that can be applied as such:

Constructon - It is not just limited to buildings. Vehicles, debris and heavy objects on scene will have to be moved, lifted breached, etc… How will that be accomplished? (Photo 3)

Occupancy - What was the building/vehicle/area being used for, and how does that affect the response?

Apparatus, personnel and equipment - This one is simple: you will need lots of each of them.

Life hazard - What are the abilities of the victims to self-rescue? Can they aid in their rescue?

Terrain - What is the layout of the land? Will you have to stage your apparatus, and carry your equipment in? Will you have to traverse flat land, or a debris pile? How will you move victims out of the hot zone? (Photo 4)

Water - It will be a necessity for stand by fire suppression, and for equipment maintenance. Conversely, water can add to the problem, and may have to be removed. How will you handle it?

Accountability - PASS tags, T-cards, you name it, there are many types of systems in place. How will you control accountability for multiple agencies, for each operational period?

Special circumstances - Is this a result of a terrorist attack? Is this going to become a crime scene, and evidence preservation is key? What are the infrastructure concerns of the community regarding this incident?