Roles & Responsibilities Of General Staff Officers

The incident command system (ICS) is described as an "all risk" system that can effectively manage any type of incident. The key concept of "all risk" is that the same command system is used at fire, emergency medical, rescue or related events. The underlying reasons that the ICS should handle all types of alarms are ease of development, implementation and use. If the system is too complicated, it will not be utilized.

One principle that allows the system to be "all risk" is the function of delegation. The incident command system has a standardized way of delegating at the strategic level. The five general staff officer positions provide the framework for building incident strategy. This article will review the roles and responsibilities of the five general staff officers in the ICS:

  • Command.
  • Operations.
  • Planning.
  • Logistics.
  • Administration/finance.

Each of the general staff positions is headed by a "section chief" who should be selected based on qualifications rather than rank. All of the supervisory positions of the system should be filled according to education and experience to perform the job at hand.

Photo by Anthony Miccicke
The incident command system has a standardized way of delegating authority at the strategic level. Here, a deputy chief directs exterior operations as heavy fire vents from the attic of a vacant 2 1/2-story dwelling in Reading, PA, on July 22, 1996.

The ICS does not rely on rank structure but on functional positions. All of the general staff officers help develop the incident action plan. They have the responsibility to supervise the sectors and units that are assigned under their charge. Typically, the members who are qualified to fill these positions are ranking officers but not always.

The responsibilities of command include the oversight and management of the entire incident. The incident commander (IC) must determine the incident priorities, strategies, action plan and resources needed. Scene safety, liaison with outside agencies and release of information to the media are additional duties for the IC to handle. The incident commander must establish and operate out of a command post. The command post can range from the front seat of the first-in engine to a designated command post vehicle. (For more details about the role of IC see Basics Of Command, "Duties & Responsibilities Of The Incident Commander," October 1996).

Next, the operation section chief is held accountable for all of the tactical functions at the alarm. Typically, when the operation section is activated, it is because the incident is large or complex. The incident commander's attention will need to be focused at a broader, more strategic level than just on the incident operations.

The operations section chief actually manages the "line work" at the incident. The staging sector officer reports to the operations chief because staging is a tactical function. At smaller situations, some ICs have established an operations section. In most cases, the person that serves as the initial IC is assigned this role. A word of caution: the IC should not delegate away his or her job. The rule of thumb is that several of the other general staff jobs should be needed before it is time to set up the operations section. Don't be obligated to make an operations section when it is not needed.

The next major section is planning. The planning section chief is the "brains" of the system and is responsible for collection, interpretation and dissemination of information. The plans chief charts what is happening and projects what is going to happen. Consider a hazardous material event; "Plans" must gather future information such as weather forecasts, evacuation routes and effects of chemical exposure. Five functions fit under the planning section: situation status, resources status, documentation, demobilization and technical specialists.

I had the opportunity to be assigned as the plans section chief at a multiple-alarm fire. A major chemical plant was ablaze (sounds just like "Backdraft"). The fire would destroy five floors of a manufacturing building causing over $100 million in direct fire loss. About 400 jobs were lost, causing an untold financial burden on our community.

The situation and resource status units were deployed. All available information was gathered and presented to the incident commander. Further, a chemical engineer was summoned to assist with the chemical reaction, decontamination and cleanup concerns. The chemical engineer was assigned the role of technical specialist and worked directly with me. Interestingly, that person was on the development team that invented the specific material that was involved in and accelerating the fire. The chemist was able to thoroughly discuss the product under normal operating conditions but very little was known about this material under fire conditions. I got a little nervous when the chemist was questioned about a fire-related reaction and his answer sounded like, "I have not a clue what the product will do in the fire. I can't wait to see the results myself." A certified industrial hygienist was called into develop a decontamination plan based on the hazards identified in the Material Safety Data Sheet to develop these plans.

The logistics section chief is the "supply sarge" in the system, ensuring that all of the material, facilities, hardware and mechanical needs are met at the incident. Consider a campaign incident that will require a long time to complete. The firefighting forces will need to be fed and maybe housed. Restroom facilities could be required as well as moving people to various locations. Vehicle servicing on scene and radio equipment maintenance and repairs could be requested. All of these items are the responsibility of the logistics section chief. The two branches are services and support. The services branch includes facilities, rehab and communications units. The support branch consists of the supply, food and ground support units.

The last general staff position concerns administration/finance. The administration section chief oversees the legal and financial considerations. The "admin chief" is the "bean counter" who is concerned with limiting liability and managing financial resources. With laws, regulations and standards constantly changing, the IC will need help at catastrophic situations.

Consider the legal exposure and associated expense at a large-scale hazardous materials incident. There are several case studies where the incident commander intentionally allowed a hazmat problem to burn out to cause the least amount of environmental damage. It's times like these that will require legal advice for the IC. The financial considerations might be reimbursement of funding from government or private sources. In either case, documentation and tracking of funds is the key for remuneration.

In summary, the general staff positions are established when needed to help the IC look at the strategic picture. Each of the five areas has specific identified segments of responsibilities that make up a comprehensive management system that can handle any type of alarm.

One key component is the training, education and experience needed to handle a general staff position. It's not often that operations, planning, logistics and administration/finance are all utilized at an incident. About 1% of the time, the full system is required to manage an alarm. This fact emphasizes the training commitment that departments must make to be ready for the "big one." Look toward state and national training opportunities to sharpen your skills.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.