“The Command Process: Getting Started”

The founding principles of the incident management system are establishing, maintaining, supporting and terminating command.


The founding principles of the incident management system are establishing, maintaining, supporting and terminating command. A strong, central single incident commander is the starting point of the incident action plan process. The roles and responsibility of the incident commander are to develop and communicate strategy and tactics; assess the incident priorities (life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation). Then he/she must develop and manage an organization that meets the needs of the incident; produce and support the incident action plan; obtain, allocate, coordinate and direct resources; and assess outcomes with action plan adjustments accordingly.

In order to be able to do these functions consistently and accurately at each alarm, the incident commander needs a structure or operational framework. This article will address three basic, but critical components that are part of the "incident command framework".

Essentially there are two types of command levels, they are single and unified command. Single command occurs when only one agency is involved and only one jurisdiction is impacted by the incident. The single type of command is used by emergency response agencies most of the time.

Examples of the single command process are emergency medical calls, automobile fires or an apartment complex burning that would not require outside help. The concept of "single command" is straightforward and simple to apply. To summarize single command concept, only one jurisdiction has the duty and authority to act at a given incident.

In contrast, a unified command structure assumes that multi-agencies and/or jurisdictions are actively involved in solving the emergency. Because of each agency's involvement or community impact, they are allowed (encouraged) to have input at the strategic level.

In the unified command structure there is still only one single, central incident commander and one incident action plan. However, the other response agencies/jurisdictions interact and provide direction to the entire operation. This activity may sound a little tricky, but if the egos are set aside, the unified process should strengthen the command team concept.

A great example occurred several years ago in a community next to mine. A gasoline tank was struck by a dump truck erupting into flames. This accident happened in a densely populated area that had a great deal of human and property exposures. Instantly, there was a major rescue and fire problem to resolve. As well, there was a tremendous potential for an environmental assault with 9,200 gallons of gasoline. This incident occurred at the jurisdictional boundary line, which just happened to be a major river. Both departments that were near this alarm were summons by multiple 9-1-1 calls to their respective communications centers. The two departments send full fire-rescue responses to handle the type of request that was received.

The departments worked together very well that day. "All hands" were needed to support this major operation which had several fire fatalities, injuries and ignition of two exposure buildings. The run-off situation had to be handled by the hazardous materials response team from the larger of the two jurisdictions. Both departments provided senior fire officers for the command post operations. The "host" department (the county that the accident occurred in) took and maintained the incident commander position. In fact, their fire chief handled the command duties.

Valuable input was provided by the "assisting" department, as well as a significant amount of personnel and equipment. Further, the communications network (each agency uses a different frequency) was improved considerable through this application of unified command. Coincidentally, about 90 minutes into the operation, a chief officer from a third community arrived on location and requested to be added to the "unified command team".

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