Command on Display: Notes and ICS


For many incident commander (IC) staff personnel, the command and control functions, specifically accountability and situational awareness, can rapidly grow beyond the normal span of control when incidents escalate. To help maintain control, numerous command boards and tracking systems have been developed. They have varying degrees of success and different price tags. Some departments that regularly conduct multiple-alarm events with expanding operations have created their own systems. Although these systems have all been useful and capable, some necessitate prior training or knowledge that may not always be available at the time of a rapidly expanding event. In addition, personnel must constantly practice to be competent in the system’s use. For agencies that do not deal with these events frequently, a rapidly deployable, easily generated system that all can understand is needed. Because of its limited use, it would be helpful if the system were inexpensive and adaptable.

A good place to start would be to develop a plan on a standard paper tablet that can then be copied to a large poster-size format. This idea is based on developing a chart quickly drawn on a large poster board-size paper. A simple diagram or floor plan of the event would be one method. If this is not possible, divide the paper into three separate key areas. The first would depict the active event area labeled with the designated name of the incident or event. Insert the subtitles “Assigned” and “Unassigned” below the title. Label the next divided section “Staging”; insert the same subtitles under the title. Label the third section “Requested” or “Needed.”

After this is completed, or simultaneously, another staffer writes on a piece of Post-it®1 note paper the assets employed. Post a table designating what type of resource each color signifies on the corner of the paper or directly adjacent to it. For example, if employing standard engine companies, use pink note paper labeled with the company’s identifier or call sign. Use blue paper for ladder or truck companies, green for EMS, and yellow for command staff officers (photo 1). Continue this process based on the assignments. Then, place the notes in the designated areas—for example, Engine 5 on exposure B or the 2 side of the structure or “Assigned” under the event. As units are requested, the note pertaining to them would go under the “Requested” portion of the paper. As the units arrive, move them to “Staging” under “Unassigned.” As they move to the scene, you would again move them to the “Event” section under “Assigned.” This will allow for rapid correction and an error-free visual display of assignments, available assets, and requirements—all done in a color-coded method to allow for determination of resource type and identifier.

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Photo by author.

You might be wondering what using notes has to do with the incident command system (ICS), or you may think that this system is too simplistic. Historically, major events have grown to become complex operations, but that does not translate into requiring a complex method of tracking and displaying the event. In fact, it is important to keep things simple during less complicated incidents. 


If you are a National Incident Management System (NIMS) advocate (as I am), you may recognize that this method is similar to the ICS (219) T-Card system. The concept is based on the display methods used under the ICS Planning and Logistics branches. The ICS T-Card system is a visually informative system once you know how to use it.

This is where the similarities end and the first advantage is noted when comparing the note concept with the T-card display system, but it is not the only one. The T-card system requires that the developer explain to the observer what he is attempting to display. It is necessary to explain the system to everyone who has never seen or worked with it before to help them understand what it is trying to accomplish with a very small visual reference system. Another deficiency of the T-card display system is that training is needed to fill out each T-card. Filling in the information can be time-consuming when time is critical.

The self-adhering note display concept does not necessitate manuals, premade cards, or hours of training. Anyone with minimal to no ICS training can use the system or set it up. To prove this concept during two large-scale training events, we employed personnel with basic ICS (NIMS 100 and 200) training only to operate this system. During the first event, the individual assigned to display the information had no command experience and had never been exposed to the ICS environment outside of the classroom. In the second event, a command officer was the only person needed to display and maintain the information on the board during a complex high-rise evolution. In both events, neither of the display personnel had any experience providing this information with T-cards or the note concept.

Another advantage of the note system over the T-card display system is that the note concept provides a large-scale visual display. With the T-card system and most predesigned command boards, the viewer must be in close proximity to identify and interpret the information displayed (usually within two to three feet), limiting the number of individuals who can look at the board simultaneously. On the other hand, the note concept enables responders to interpret the information from an average of 12 to 15 feet away, allowing more personnel to view the information quickly and completely. There is no need to move over to allow others to rapidly absorb the information. The note concept also allows nonfire personnel to absorb the information with little to no explanation, which is important during unified command events.

This is not to imply the jettisoning of the T-card display system during a campaign (which is when most Type 1 or Type 2 ICS teams are employed). Instead, it will help to bridge the initial response (the first 12 hours) with the next phase (the full mobilization of a NIMS ICS team). Displaying this information early in the event will allow the issues to be determined earlier and the developers of the T-card system to analyze the information to be placed onto the T-card display in greater detail. As the event progresses, organizational charts can also be developed; but in most cases, responders to the command post (CP) will be able to quickly visualize and reference the wall poster to identify that Chief 3 (on the yellow note) is operating in exposure B with Engines 5 and 7 (on pink notes) and ladder 1 (on blue note).


At this point, it would be helpful to distinguish among incidents, events, and campaigns. Incidents are the response organization’s bread-and-butter calls, those calls public safety agencies can handle within a standard shift and do not necessitate assets beyond the standard response. These incidents would not last beyond one 12-hour operational period and would not need outside agencies beyond those with whom the organization normally works.

Events are greater-alarm incidents that necessitate resources beyond those for a normal response and incorporate those resources into a unified command. These responses will rapidly turn into significant events and have the potential of becoming even larger operations. By their nature, they will require multiple agencies from a variety of disciplines. These responses will last beyond one operational period and will necessitate at least one to two shift changes.

Campaigns are responses that exceed the local resources and require assets beyond those normally available in a jurisdiction. They will last multiple operational periods, necessitate several shift changes, and call for major outside resources for a significant period of time. Campaigns, by nature, are unified command operations. 


Command staff operating at second alarms or greater events should use this command display concept during the first operational period. It will aid in transitioning into multiple operational periods and command shift changes. Use it also at planned events that involve unified command so that all parties involved will gain situational awareness prior to deployment. As shifts (or operational periods) change, departing units can easily be changed out or updated with newly arriving units (and personnel) without significant alteration to the display.

The display board concept will act as the bridge to developing an incident action plan (IAP) for events and campaigns while providing basic situational awareness during larger than normal bread-and-butter incidents. One of the key things that events and campaigns have in common is that they all start as incidents. Regardless of the type of display system employed, it should capture most of the information required on the ICS 201 form the initial command staff must fill out and provide to the ICS (Type 3, 2, or 1 team) arriving during a campaign. The difference between the standard ICS 201 and the poster display concept is that the poster display captures the majority of the information visually. This is important because the majority of people comprehend information much better visually than in standard written format. This is a key factor in any escalating event, and you should use anything that will aid in the transitioning of information.

Specific examples of escalating incidents would include high-rise incidents, where the note concept could display what is occurring on each floor and the locations of all personnel operating in the structure. Another example would include an urban search and rescue campaign, where individual displays can be used for each squad or team operating during the operational period—for example, up to eight notes can be placed (or attached) to one another without falling apart, allowing each color-coded squad member to be displayed. As the team or individual moves from the operational area to the base of operation (BoO), the command staff can track him. This feature provides excellent tracking and complete situational awareness. 


Place the command display at the CP in the area of greatest visibility for the IC, display personnel who must quickly update it as the event progresses, and then for good visibility for as many responders as possible. Taping it to a wall or the side of a response vehicle (SUV or mobile communication vehicle) at the CP will make it a focal point for responders. Unlike some other displays, the note concept is not static—it needs constant updating. Only the personnel assigned to the display board should update or alter the board. This will ensure that accurate and timely information is maintained on the display. 


Note System: Positive Factors 

During a recent high-rise training scenario, the note concept and the standard command table were used to compare the pro and cons of these systems (Table 1). This display of the key information visually allows large groups to comprehend data, which helps to create situational awareness for all during briefings at greater-alarm responses and also helps to minimize the number of the copies of the IAP that must be printed. The posters allow for easily defined displays that help to brief nonfire personnel as well as normal staff.

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This concept is easy to use and needs minimal to no training. The notes cover topics such as the locations of the assigned and unassigned operations; the communication systems (type of equipment, frequencies, channels); who is in command; and branch, division, and unit leaders for the event.

Additional displays of maps of the operational areas and critical locations such as the CP, the BoO, staging, and rehab and directions and scale can be used.

The note system, along with the standard paper tablet, involves minimal costs (see “Costs” in box at right). Most of the items can be purchased under normal line item stationery needs. Magnetic boards or specialized command boards would be separate budget line items that would cost between $200 and $800 per system. 

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Note System: Negative Factors 

The note system is susceptible to weather conditions, since its components are paper products, whereas magnetic boards and the specialized command systems would not be. Unlike the formal command board system, you would need time to draw the poster design and produce the note identifiers. The note system is not a permanent record system, since it can be altered as the events progress. This is a disadvantage of most systems, which can be overcome by taking a time-stamped digital photo of the display every 20 to 30 minutes during the event. 

Formal Command Board: Positive Factors 

This system is immediately ready to deploy in most, if not all, events and is less susceptible to weather conditions. All items related to the system are secured in hard cases that are less susceptible to damage or loss. The components are well labeled. The system is free standing and does not necessitate tables or flat-surface areas. In most cases, only one trained staffer is needed to maintain the status board. 

Formal Command Board: Negative Factors 

The cost is considerably higher than that for any other system available. The system is not flexible and requires additional cost for mutual-aid or outside-agency identifiers. Those using the system need formal training and must be familiar with the board design and layout. These command boards have no display capability; viewing of contents is limited to the immediate staffer and the IC.

White boards could also be used for the display application. They offer advantages similar to those of poster-sized paper, including being able to correct titles and format. These advantages did not seem to have enough significance to supersede the following disadvantages: Portable white boards take up considerable space within a response vehicle. The cost is also considerably more; numerous white boards would be needed unless the boards were wiped clean to display new information, which would eliminate previous displays. White boards are also as susceptible to foul weather as the paper format. This makes one pad of poster board considerably more affordable and will achieve the majority of the functions the white board would serve in the field. This is not to say that white boards are not useful. If a purpose built (designed) CP vehicle is available, it should be outfitted with (or have available) white board walls or portable large white boards along with the proper markers and erasers. 

Flexible Magnetic Board 

This system, unlike the white board, could be rolled up, as the poster paper can, and placed in a map container, which will take up minimal storage room. The magnetic board offers most of the advantages the note system offers; but, in addition, erasable markers and notes can be used in addition to magnetic signage. It is also less susceptible to weather conditions. The only two disadvantages are cost, which is greater than that for the note system, and the limitation of erasing the previous display. 


1. Post-it is a registered trade name of 3M, St. Paul, Minnesota.

BRETT M. MARTINEZ, a member of the fire service since 1983, is a member of the Hauppauge (NY) Fire Department and a fire marshal for Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services. He has an associate degree in fire science from Suffolk County Community College and has been an FDIC instructor since 2002. He is a New York-certified level II fire investigator, a level I instructor, a peace officer, and an ATF-certified accelerant detection canine handler. He is a member of the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorist Advisor Council and the coordinator of the Suffolk County Arson Task Force. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and is the author of Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification (Fire Engineering, 2002). 

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