Using Area Command To Manage Multiple Incidents

COMMAND OFFICERS ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR alternate ways to manage incidents. The use of command personnel most likely is limited by the size of the agency. To compound the problem, when faced with multiple incidents, many departments often have a shortage of command-level personnel. It should be noted that initiating multiple, simultaneous terrorist attacks within a common operational area has been one of the hallmarks of al Qaeda operatives worldwide. Managing incidents using the National Incident Management System (NIMS), especially in relation to safety and accountability, is paramount to successful, safe, synergistic mitigation. Area Command offers agencies faced with multiple incidents an alternate approach to overall incident management.


Area Command is an organization mechanism used, when necessary, to provide overall command and authority for two or more events or incidents, usually in close proximity to each other. It works closely with the incident commanders (ICs) to establish overall objectives, priorities, management or critical resources, logistical concerns, and planning issues. When activated, Area Command eliminates confusion by providing the necessary oversight of the incidents/events being managed.

Photo by Tim Olk.

The members of the Area Command team should be qualified and trained in their respective functions. Its positions include the following: Area Commander, Area Command Logistics Chief (which also may have a Critical Resource Unit), Area Command Planning Chief (which also may have a Situation Unit Leader), as well as the command staff positions of Liaison Officer and Information Officer. In addition, there may be a need for a Technical Specialist or an Information/Intelligence Officer. Each of these positions will necessitate sufficient staff to assist the command staff in completing their duties. Just as in the incident command system (ICS), command staff personnel may have assistants, and general staff positions may have deputies.

Area Command does not in any way replace the incident’s command organization or functions. The incident will be managed using the ICS. Therefore, emergency incidents or events can be managed by a single IC, by an IC with deputy ICs, or through unified command. In addition, if incident command is unified, Area Command should also be unified. Therefore, all interested parties are represented.

The Area Command positions in the NIMS are established to enable ICs and their personnel to manage the incident, whereas Area Command assists the ICs in meeting their objectives through critical resource ordering and tracking, advance planning, and handling their logistical concerns.

Primary Functions of Area Command

Area Command has six primary functions:

  • To provide agency or jurisdictional authority for assigned incidents or events.
  • To ensure a clear understanding of the agency’s expectations, intentions, and constraints related to the incidents among the ICs.
  • To establish critical resource use priorities among the various incidents based on need, agency policy, and direction.
  • To ensure appropriate incident management team personnel assignments and organizations for the kind and complexity of the incidents involved.
  • To maintain contact with officials in charge, assisting and cooperating with agencies and other interested groups.
  • To coordinate the demobilization or reassignment of resources among assigned incidents.

Area Commanders should allow ICs as much latitude as possible in implementing their respective Incident Action Plans. This is usually done by ensuring that they have a complete and accurate understanding of the overall objectives and priorities not only of their incident but also the magnitude of the other ongoing incidents. Therefore, the Area Commander will need to have planning and operational meetings with the ICs. These meetings do not have to be face-to-face; they can be achieved through teleconferences. The meetings should be held at one location and at preestablished timeframes. The meeting should follow a prescribed format: incident briefings, policies, direction for the incidents, conflicts among the incidents, evaluation of incident action plans, communication concerns, safety concerns, logistical needs, safety issues, and questions. The meetings should also be carried out in a strict timeframe, to allow emergency scene managers to accomplish their duties.

Area Command is designed to be the last command element that deals directly with incident management personnel in the field. As mentioned above, Area Command must meet six primary functions to provide efficient and effective oversight. It is not an operational aspect of command and control. It coordinates and facilitates with agency administrators, multiagency coordination centers, and emergency operations centers to ensure that the IC’s objectives and needs are communicated up through channels. In turn, Area Commanders also ensure that the ICs understand agency officials’ needs and requirements.


The following describes how the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) would use Area Command for emergency incidents and special events. The department consists of three divisions, 16 battalions, and 154 fire stations, established to protect approximately four million citizens in an area of 472 square miles. The department is divided into three geographical divisions; each division has been further divided into five or six respective battalions. Each battalion is divided into six to nine first-in districts.

If imminent or hazardous conditions are contemplated, the fire or police department could activate the procedures for Area Command. On notification of a significant event that will affect a large geographic portion of the city, the IC can establish an “Impact Area” Command Post-for example, Division 1-Metro Command, Division 2-South Command, and Division 3-Valley Command.

Photo by David Handschuh.

The boundaries of the Impact Area can be established by any of the following: the IC, the Dispatch Center, or the Area Commander. The perimeter may follow existing station, division, or battalion boundaries or may be defined by the area affected. Boundaries for geographic branches or divisions within the Impact Area may follow existing battalion boundaries or may be defined by the area(s) affected. Appropriate officers shall be designated as Branch Directors or as ICs for specific incidents within those geographic areas.

Responses that may initiate the need for Area Command include the following: major multicasualty incidents, responses involving tactical alerts (i.e., civil disobedience, riots) major weather-related events, a widespread hazardous materials release, a terrorist incident, a major fire, a natural disaster, and a significant (nonemergency) event.

In Los Angeles, incidents necessitating Area Command often involve fire and police department responses. So, predetermined operational plans have been established. The primary role of the LAFD is to rescue trapped persons and provide emergency medical services for those injured. It must be prepared to control fires or hazardous conditions that may occur as a result of a disaster. The LAFD has developed operational tactical plans to meet potential critical resource needs. Such plans can be implemented if conditions escalate or if the safety of members or citizens becomes questionable.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is responsible for providing civil obedience law and order and incident/event scene security. If the LAPD cannot provide an acceptable level of security, it is to contact other police agencies that could and would provide such security. The LAPD also determines the level of evacuation that may be needed.

LAFD & LAPD Unified Area Commanders determine the level of acceptable security protection. A Liaison Officer ensures that representatives from all concerned assisting or cooperating agencies involved are on-scene.

The Metro, South, and Valley Area command posts (ACP) normally are to be established at a fire department facility (division headquarters, a fire station, or a training center, for example). If that is impractical because of the nature of the emergency, the ACP may be established by using mobile command vehicles. The ACP should be secured; access should be limited to necessary personnel. Additional resources (personnel) will be added as soon as possible to fill necessary ICS functional positions. All requests for mutual aid shall be directed to the LAFD/LAPD Dispatch Center.

Communications will be conducted using existing radio caches, standard landline and cell telephones, and mobile and handheld radios. The ACP and Dispatch Center will allot dispatch, command, and tactical frequencies when possible. If the Dispatch Center is unable to do so, the city’s existing Radio Frequency Assignment Plan will be used.

Depending on the incident/event, operational resources may or may not be limited to those available within the perimeter of the affected area. ICs or Branch Directors can request additional resources (through channels) from Impact Area Command. Resources may be used as individual units or combined into Tactical Task Forces or Strike Teams. Impact Area Command could request additional resources through Department Command (if established) or through the Dispatch Center (if operational). Department Command or the Dispatch Center would request any needed resources from outside the city.

The focus on incident/event mitigation is to provide for life safety in the forms of search and rescue. All department officers must do risk assessments prior to committing resources. The incident priorities are life safety, property protection, environmental concerns, maintaining a level of emergency services to all portions of the community, protecting city infrastructure, and civil obedience.

From a large department perspective, having procedures in place for establishing Area Command ensures that the Area Command facility was predetermined and is ready for immediate use, equipment and supplies are already prepositioned, personnel involved in Area Command are trained in their positional responsibilities, communication channels and frequencies were preestablished, and standard operating procedures have been set up so all involved are familiar with the scope of Area Command.

You might be thinking, “This works great for large departments, but what about smaller agencies?” Good point. We have set up similar principles in Hillsboro, Oregon, a 24-square-mile city with a population of 85,000. The fire department operates out of three fire stations; the police department operates out of two precincts. The same applications of Area Command cited for Los Angeles above apply to Hillsboro. The only differences are related to from whom and how we get our critical resources when needed. We have to go out farther in our mutual-aid agreements, intergovernmental agreements, and contracts, and we have to request disaster assistance sooner.

If the governor declares a disaster, we would immediately seek assistance through the National Emergency Managers Association in the form of an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) or through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by initiating levels of response under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act or through the National Response Plan (NRP). There are 15 Emergency Service Functions (ESF) in the Stafford Act-for example, these resources can be in the form of urban search and rescue response resources in the recovery/restoration phase, as in ESF 9, or fire resources for firefighting operations, as in ESF 4.

. . .

Area Command is another tool in the incident management system. It is the last command and control element in the ICS. To use it effectively, you must be well versed in incident scene management. When applied properly, it is an asset for managing major or complex incidents/events. Remember, the main reason Area Command is established is to provide command authority and coordination for two or more incidents. If this tool works, use it.

GARY E. SEIDEL, chief of the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department, had served 26 years with the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department as an assistant chief. He served on several incident management teams and responded to the World Trade Center, the Utah Winter Olympics, the Northridge Earthquake, the Columbine High School shooting incidents, and wildfires. He instructs at and develops curriculum for the National Fire Academy and is a member of the FDIC Associate Advisory Board.

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