Is incident management really that essential to the fire service? The fire service has been extinguishing fires for 200 years without it. Why all the hoopla now? Furthermore, there are different incident management systems—which one should we use? These questions may seem familiar to many fire departments.

Incident management as defined by the NFPA is “an organized system of roles, responsibilities, and standard operating procedures used to manage and direct emergency operations” and is covered in NFPA Standard 1561, Fire Department Incident Management System. The incident management system (IMS) basically is a plan for managing and directing activities at the emergency scene and at other operations by applying principles of management such as span of control and unity of command. The fire service uses the material from the National Interagency Incident Management System that is based on the FIRESCOPE work, a modified version of the National Fire Academy system, or the Foreground Commander program.

The system is not difficult to use, especially at the company and firstalarm levels. It offers numerous benefits, including better controlled and managed operations. It ensures that basic functions are accomplished because responsibility is assigned, tasks are delegated, and reporting (communication) is demanded. The system can be expanded to ensure that the emergency will be well managed even if it should reach disaster magnitude. Another benefit is that IMS can be tailored to meet various situations: fire, emergency medical calls, hazardous materials, wildlands, natural disasters, and nonemergencies.

When a company uses IMS on the initial response, the incident commander initiates command, establishes a set location, opens communication channels, provides an initial situation report, establishes priorities, develops an action plan, and indicates the first actions. As the incident moves to a full first alarm, the ranking officer assumes command. Changes in the situation are reported; subsequent actions are noted; responsibilities at the emergency scene are divided and delegated; and, if necessary, additional command staff is assembled. These procedures ensure unity of command, eliminate independent operations, and improve efficiency at the emergency scene.


The best way to institute an incident management system is to set up standard operating procedures and use them constantly. Begin with training sessions and daily operations that can be divided and managed along IMS lines. Always use the departmental IMS procedures for drillground activities. IMS eventually will become second nature to department members, and its use will increase.

The five main sections of IMS are command, operations, planning, logistics. and finance. The command staff may include public information, safety, and liaison personnel. At smallscale incidents such as a car fire, all the functions might be performed by the company officer alone.

Some systems may use different terminology for assigning operational responsibilities. All systems, however, designate operations geographically and functionally. Breakdowns according to geography may be designated by number (Division 1, 2, or 3) or direction (west sector, north sector, or east sector). Functions may be identified according to personnel (Group 1, 2, or 3) or the function itself (rescue sector, ventilation sector). Large operations may have to be subdivided into branches.


Here is an example of how a first alarm might be assigned in the operations section. At the simplest emergency, there may be a Division 1 or outside sector and a Division 2 or interior sector. The chief officer at a smaller incident might be both the incident commander and Division 1 or front sector. The officer of the first engine could be Division 2 or interior sector, while the officer of the second engine could be Group 1 or ventilation sector. The officer of the mobile water supply unit could be Group 2 or water supply sector.

In a more complicated situation, IMS can be initiated as follows: The first unit on the scene, Engine 1, establishes command, and the officer becomes the incident commander. The second pumper, Engine 2, takes the rear of the building, or side 3, and becomes Division 2 or rear sector. Ladder 1 is assigned forcible entry and ventilation and becomes Groups 1 and 2 or forcible entry and ventilation sectors. Rescue 1 is assigned to search and rescue and becomes Group 3 or rescue sector. As the chief arrives, it is assumed that he will take the position of incident commander; the officer of Engine 1 then becomes Divison 1 or front sector. If the situation worsens, more geographical divisions, functional groups, or sectors are appointed.

The incident management system transforms the first-arriving company ofificer into the incident commander. As such, the officer must adjust from an “I’m-handling-this-scene” mentality to supervising the personnel and resources of the company vehicle. If the situation escalates and the officer determines that the company has reached its limit, the officer then must formulate plans and issue directions for bringing to the scene the resources needed to bring the incident under control. The IMS allows functional groups or sectors to select tactics they can implement and to communicate their choices to the commander, who can coordinate them with the action plan. All actions must ensure safety, which is the responsibility of the safety officer. The IMS reduces the micromanagement techniques of chiefs handling hoselines or sticking their heads in the door of the fire building at the expense of getting a picture of the entire fireground.

Incident management increases control over resources. It ensures that areas do not become unprotected because of unneeded responses, commits apparatus as required, gets equipment moving early, and returns unnecessary vehicles and personnel to service. It eliminates the chaos created by the “y’all-come” alarm.

Without an incident management system, companies or personnel responding freelance: They start to do tasks without orders and without knowing the overall game plan. The resulting uncoordinated attack or operations may leave some necessary functions or areas uncovered. In some cases, experience has shown that incidents have turned into disasters, deaths have occurred, and property losses have been higher where there was no planning on the fireground.

The IMS provides that one person be put in charge and that that person be responsible for developing a plan, making decisions, and directing operations. The staff and line officers provide the officer in charge with the information to carry the plan out safely and make changes as required. If your department doesn’t have such a system in place, get one. It will improve overall operations, efficiency, and safety. ■

No posts to display