It is easy to describe how to expand the incident command system (ICS) when the incident commander (IC) needs to segment the command responsibilities into manageable sections, branches, divisions, or groups. Training materials show simple organization charts demonstrating what the command structure looks like on paper before and after the expansion (see Figure 1).

All too often, it doesn’t work as easily as it seems amid the chaos and stressful activities of an emerging major incident.

Some incidents are major incidents from the initial 9-1-1 call. Others develop into major, complex incidents as the full potential of the situation is realized on arrival of the first-due command officer. The complexities continue until the incident is stabilized and the community is returned to normalcy.

There are many variables in the types and magnitudes of incidents we face as well as in the size and structure of fire departments. This article deals with incidents that exceed the capacity of the first-alarm assignment of fire departments that are of sufficient size so that all on-duty personnel are not initially sent to reports of significant incidents. Considered here is the transition of an incident between the time when the IC performs all command tasks to the time when all general and command staff positions are filled and an incident management team (IMT) is established. The ICS general staff positions include Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administration. The command staff positions include Safety, Public Information, and Liaison.

The typical initial expansion of the command structure is the IC’s designation of an Operations Section Chief (see Fgure 2). Another common progression is for the IC to transfer command to the next-arriving command officer and become the Operations Section chief (Ops chief) himself. The second decision is often the result of the arrival of a higher ranking chief. Sometimes, the transfer of command is done because the next arriving chief is the best person to command the incident. All too often, the real reason is ego. Some chiefs still believe that they must be in charge of the incident simply because they have more brass on their collar and they can take command. If ICS training is effective and progressive, the first-due battalion chief should have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to command most incidents.


I am proposing and justifying herein a better expansion model based on the hypothesis that it is better to assign the second-arriving command officer to the position of Planning Section chief (Planning chief) in-stead of the Operations chief as the ICS command structure first begins to expand. The IC should continue to function as the Ops chief and get assistance with planning or planning and logistics until there is a specific need to expand the command structure to a full IMT (see Fgure 3). Here’s why.

The first-alarm assignment to a structure fire in a community sends the closest units, typically two engine companies, one truck company, one EMS unit or rescue company, and one battalion chief (14 to15 firefighters). Those firefighters know the most about their first-response district and often have a preincident plan designed for that structure. The IC for this first-alarm response is normally the battalion chief who is the immediate supervisor of the companies on the call. No one should know the capabilities and skills of the personnel initially operating at the scene better than the initial IC, their battalion chief.

Tactically, the initial IC knows the plan, knows how the situation has developed since their arrival, and is in the best position to know the operating assignments and locations of the personnel arriving on the scene from the beginning of the incident. The initial IC has already activated an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and will be in the process of accessing the relative progress of operating units. Therefore, the first-arriving command officer, the initial IC, is normally in the best position to continue implementation of the IAP and to continue to function as both the IC and Ops chief.

Strategically, the initial IC establishes the incident objectives soon after arrival and assumption of command of the incident. These objectives should be based on the character and potential of the incident as evaluated during size-up. The IC implements an IAP and deploys the first-alarm assignment of personnel and equipment. These are the IC’s two primary functions.

The IC has already performed the initial functions of the Operations Section chief—i.e., tactical application of the IAP, usually following the RECEO model of rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, and overhaul. Continuing to follow through with these actions seems to make good sense.

As the incident expands or is determined to be larger than can be controlled by the first-alarm assignment of personnel and equipment, additional resources are called to the scene. In reality, this is often nearly automatic when the first report by the arriving units identifies the incident as a working fire or other significant incident. With few exceptions, the first report of a significant incident will initiate the response of additional command personnel. Effective ICs will strike a second alarm early be-cause they know that the situation will continue to get worse during the response and reaction of second-due units. They understand that second-due units will respond from a greater distance than first-alarm units absent automatic move-up assignments. By the time additional units arrive and are deployed, the initial IAP has been in operation for some time. It is, therefore, a good choice to maintain the same IC that far into the incident and delegate the functions of planning and logistics.

It is important to consider adding a couple of positions early as additional resources are responding to an expanding incident. Most departments have a standard staging plan; but when an incident has multiple units en route to the scene in addition to the first-alarm units, assigning a Staging Area manager early is a good idea. Staging is a responsibility of the Operations Section chief unless it is delegated to a specific person. Check-in and accountability are the responsibilities of the Planning Section. Incoming units should be directed to report to a specific staging area. Arrival of incoming units should be documented as they report prior to deployment, and the units should receive their assignment at staging. A brief check-in process at this location gains control over the incoming units in a way that facilitates effective deployment at the most needed locations. This process also facilitates the effective application of accountability standards so that all operating personnel on the scene can be properly and quickly accounted for regularly throughout the incident (PAR—Personnel Accountability Report).

Some departments assign an acc-ountability officer to work directly for the IC. The job of the accoun-tability officer is to maintain a constant status/assignment board listing all personnel and their assignment or location throughout the incident. This information is collected at check-in and tracked throughout the incident. The accountability officer must be able to account for the location and status of all personnel on-scene from the time they initially check in at staging until they are demobilized and released from the incident.

Often, these duties can be assigned to the second-arriving command officer, who will organize a company officer or even a trained firefighter to the positions of Staging Area manager, Check-in, and Accountability. Because of the fluidity of the expanding incident, clear distinction between the functions of the sections is not always possible. However, as soon as sufficient personnel have arrived on-scene to take over these functions, the IC can focus attention on command and control of the incident.

There is often a period of time when the command and response are in a “catch-up” state, especially during the initial expansion at a major incident. This is a statement about capacity—i.e., the capacity to receive, process, and act on all the information and decisions necessary during the initial time of expansion during a major incident—not capability.

It is often difficult for the IC to obtain an up-to-the-minute understanding of the current status of the incident and its anticipated progression within the next few minutes on a continual basis throughout the incident. And, there is often a critical need to identify and request the additional resources needed to effectively control the incident. If the IC has effective support to deal with these needs, command and control of the incident will be more manageable. So, the conclusion is that it normally is best to leave Operations with the IC and delegate the responsibility for planning and logistics to the second-arriving command officer, designated the Planning Section chief or simply “Planning.”

Delegating planning and logistics to the Planning chief provides the IC/Ops chief with help to handle at least two critical areas: (1) gaining a clear understanding of the changing status of the incident; and (2) maintaining an up-to-the-minute status of the operating, staged, and responding resources. With this information, the IC can convert strategic goals into tactical objectives—and ultimately, an effective IAP— more efficiently than in situations where the IC delegates operations but maintains planning, logistics, and finance/administration.

On arrival, the second-due command officer should quickly gain an understanding of the incident’s current status from the IC (incident briefing). Then, as the Planning chief, he should turn his full attention to obtaining additional resources as needed and developing a plan for bringing the incident under control and back to a relative state of normalcy.

As the time of the incident gets longer and longer and sustained operations are necessary, the IAP needs to be formalized and committed to a written form. Operational periods for the incident need to be established, and a rehab group needs to be formed to take care of the crews’ needs as they are rotated out of operational assignments, even if it is only to exchange air cylinders on their SCBA. Key first responders may be transferred into the Planning Section to provide critical information they may have obtained during the early stages of the incident or from their preincident knowledge of the structure and occupancy. More command staff must be added so that arriving units are checked in, staged, and then effectively briefed about the incident before they are committed to an operational assignment. Although this takes resources away from operations, effective incident management requires that command positions to be filled.

On arrival, the second-due command officer should report to the IC and receive his assignment. The IC must always have the flexibility to assign subsequently responding personnel to the area of most need, and it is hoped that the IC will assign the second-due command officer the position of Planning chief. On receiving this assignment, the Planning chief should obtain a briefing from the IC. If the IC has not started documenting the incident, the Planning chief should prepare the document quickly and confirm that it accurately reflects the information provided by the IC in the verbal briefing. This information should include a summary of the resources operating or dispatched to the incident and any restrictions that the IC has placed on the scene, such as man-traps, weakened structures, or other safety issues.

Then the Planning chief can get to work on two important parts of planning, SITSTAT and RESTAT. SITSTAT is the nickname for the Situation Unit, which used to be called Situation Status Unit—thus SITSTAT. RESTAT is the resource status unit. The preincident plan should be compared with the current operations. Deviations should be recognized and the necessary information provided to the IC. If the deviation is negatively impacting operations, changes should be recommended. Observers may be assigned to get an up-to-date report of the current status of the operations. RESTAT’s function is to identify the status of the resources assigned to the incident. It must be determined whether additional or specific resources are needed at the scene.

Based on the information gathered about the incident and its location, the Planning chief will then focus on the next critical information. If getting more resources to the scene is the most critical need, it is the first place to focus attention. If gaining a better understanding of the complexities of the situation is the critical point, then the Planning chief should focus attention to that task. Staging, checking units into the scene, and briefing incoming units are other tasks that can be a big help to the IC in these initial stages, even though these tasks cross over into Operations.

Establishing formal documentation procedures early in the incident is yet another important task. Many departments use an accountability officer to maintain strict control over the location and groupings of all personnel on-scene. Some departments assign a COMDOC officer to deal with the communications and documentation needs of the incident. The Planning chief can effectively supervise these functions.

Certainly, there will be times when a full Incident Management Team (IMT) must be established early in the call to effectively handle the incident. The response of an IMT will take time, often up to an hour or more. During this time, the incident will be continuing, and the demands for effective command and control of the scene often overtax the IC. In the meantime, an effective Planning Section chief can assist the IC/Operations Section chief during the transition from a simple command structure to the full implementation of an IMT at a major emergency incident.

As the ICS is initially expanding beyond the first-alarm assignment, keep the Operations Section responsibilities with the IC, and expand the general staff positions beginning with the assignment of the second-arriving command officer as the Planning Section chief.

MARK WALLACE is chief of the McKinney (TX) Fire Department and former chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department. He taught fire investigation throughout the United States and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for more than 20 years and taught fire investigation courses for the National Fire Academy. He is a past president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association and the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engin-eering, 1998) and has had numerous articles published in fire service-related magazines. He is the sole proprietor of Fire Eagle Ltd., a consulting firm.


Although each of the positions described in this article can be detailed, the place to start as the command structure is initially expanding is with the addition of the Planning Section chief. The Position Manual for the Planning Section Chief (ICS-221-1) of the National Interagency Incident Management System provides detailed information about this position. Chapter 2, Responsibilities and Procedures, states the following:

The Planning Section chief, a member of the incident commander’s general staff, is responsible for the collection, evaluation, dissemination, and use of information regarding the development of the incident and status of resources. Information is needed to (1) understand the current situation, (2) predict the probable course of incident events, and (3) prepare alternative strategies and control operations for the incident.

The Planning Section when fully developed has five units:

  • Resource Unit,
  • Situation Unit,
  • Documentation Unit,
  • Demobilization Units, and
  • Technical Specialists.

The Planning chief is responsible for the functions of all five units and may delegate responsibility to unit leaders as necessary. During the initial expansion of the command structure, the Planning chief must prioritize the work to be completed and make the needed staff assignments as resources arrive and are allocated to operational positions.

The responsibilities of the Planning Section include the following:

  • Obtain a briefing from the IC.
  • Activate Planning Section Units as required.
  • Reassign initial attack personnel to incident positions as appropriate with the concurrence of the IC.
  • Supervise preparation of the IAP.
  • Assemble information on alternative strategies.
  • Assemble resources not assigned to Operations.
  • Identify the need for use of specialized resources.
  • Perform operational planning for the Planning Section.
  • Provide periodic predictions on the incident’s potential and expected behavior.
  • Compile and display incident status information.
  • Advise the IC of any significant changes in incident status
  • Prepare and provide an Incident Traffic Plan.
  • Supervise Planning Section Units.
  • Prepare and distribute the IC’s orders.
  • Instruct Planning Section Units on distribution of incident information.
  • Prepare recommendations for release of resources and a demobilization plan.
  • Prepare and submit documentation of the incident.

No posts to display