Selling ICS Is Like Showing a Pig a Watch

By Michael S. Terwilliger

I really got a good laugh the other day when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) basically said you have to use the incident command system (ICS) on emergency incidents if you want federal money in the end. The anti-ICS crowd started squirming like a catfish in two inches of water. I find it interesting that all the reasons cited for ICS’s not working are opinions, not facts. What opponents should say is “We don’t use (like) ICS because we don’t want to (get it)!”

Say you were a large fire department in the Southwest and have the resources to invent another system just like ICS and call it something else. It would not matter how you manage incidents because you generally handle most of them by yourself. That is the same analogy used by one Bay Area fire department when it decided years ago to use a hydrant discharge coupling unique to its area. Well, it worked until mutual aid was needed during an epic urban interface fire.

If you are a small department, then you can say ICS works only on big fires and you have only small fires. Or you can say you tried it, but it takes 42 minutes to implement and you just didn’t have the time. Hearing the reasons, I am reminded of what an old battalion chief told me years ago: “If you give any idiot enough money, he can put out a fire.” But you don’t want to hear another story about ICS from a California firefighter, so allow me to try another angle.

Let’s say I just got hired as the chief for a fire department east of the Mississippi River. Heck, it could be your department. The department does not use ICS because it is only for large fires, and the members found it just does not help the combat situation initial attack firefighters face. I could probably tell them that some of the most modern, large, busy, and sophisticated fire departments in the world use ICS at every incident with great success, but that would be as meaningful as showing a pig a watch.

As the new chief, I want my emergency scenes to be managed well and, to accomplish this, it is imperative that a management system prepare your organization prior to any incident, sort of a default system. I also know I would have a better chance of selling Amway to these guys than ICS, so I will give them a challenge. I would tell my division chiefs and battalion chiefs that I will be responding to all emergencies for a few days or weeks and I will expect to see them use a quantifiable scene management system at all times regardless of the type or complexity of the incident. To help them out, I would give them the following list of things I will be looking for during the incident.


A person will be designated to be in charge. He will have the responsibility for all functions on the scene, and I will be talking to him as available. He may elect to perform all the functions or delegate the authority to others as the incident grows more complex. This, however, does not relieve him of the overall responsibility for the incident.

He would probably wonder what functions I am talking about, so I will explain that he is filling a role I call commander. This commander should consider all tactical applications as operational under his command. He must have a plan; he may need logistical support; and, of course, he will have financial and administrative concerns. Additionally, he will also have to deal with liaison issues concerning other cooperating and assisting agencies; the media, if present; and scene safety.


Our scene management system must cover four essential steps of all incident management.

a. All personnel will understand agency policy and direction.

b. At every incident, we will establish objectives regardless of how insignificant. Perhaps “Protect Life, Protect Property, and Stabilize the Incident” should be an umbrella approach.

c. Based on the overall objectives, we will always select an appropriate strategy. For example, on all structure fires we will use RECEO (Rescue, Exposure, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul).

d. We will always apply tactics appropriate to the strategy, assign correct resources to complete the tactics, and continuously monitor the performance.


At all incidents within our jurisdiction, every individual will have a designated supervisor. The concept of chain of command is not foreign to the fire service and simply means there will be an orderly line of authority within the ranks of the organization with lower levels subordinate to, and connected to, higher levels. At most simple incidents, you will have command and a few single resources; for more complex incidents, this chain of command will expand into an organizational structure with the functions I listed above, resulting in several layers as the incident dictates.

It will not be made up at the time of the incident, so let’s agree now to call them command, sections, branches, divisions/groups, units, and resources just so we have common terminology when under stress at the height of the incident. Finally, it is important to have a management system that is in place daily prior to an incident, thereby recognizing unity and chain of command should be used daily.


At an incident, the command structure will be established by the highest-ranking person at the scene who has jurisdiction, including the engine or truck captain. We need to be able to transfer command should a more qualified/appropriate person arrive, such as a chief officer, if the situation changes to where jurisdictional or agency change in command is legally required, if it makes good sense to make a transfer of command, if it is the normal turnover of personnel, or if the incident is long in duration. Regardless of the situation, the ranking person on the first-arriving resource will be established as the incident commander.


This system will adhere to a “Form follows function” philosophy. This means the organization my staff develops at any given time during the incident should reflect what is required to meet the planned tactical objectives and nothing more. If there is a need to expand this organization, it should be based on some form of operational planning derived through the incident planning process. Of course, certain elements of an organization may be activated, but it does not mean a person must be specifically assigned as a section chief. For example, one person may in fact be in charge of numerous elements and should only ask for more help should it be required. Conversely, any element activated should be eliminated if it is no longer needed.

A good example would be determining when the person in charge needs someone designated to handle operational issues—for example, when the person in charge is so involved in operational issues that planning, logistical support, and other details suffer. Just because the organizational chart under this system may be quite large for a big incident, don’t be confused—fill the box only if it needs to be, kind of like ICS.


Our system should allow all agencies with jurisdictional or functional responsibility for the incident to jointly develop a common set of objectives and strategies. It is absolutely ridiculous to have a system that does not allow another jurisdictional agency to work with our organization. For example, a bus accident in our city requires a simple unified approach involving at least the law enforcement authority and the EMS/rescue component; we will operate as one when developing objectives for mitigating this bus accident. Of course, this will ensure that the incident will function under a single, coordinated plan of action and we will always operate out of one command post.


How many individuals can one supervisor effectively manage? This is paramount at incidents where safety and accountability have top priority, which will be all incidents. Basically, if a person has fewer than three or more than seven individuals or components reporting to him, consider an adjustment. A ratio of 5 to 1 is good; I have used that for many years; it works just fine.


We will agree on common terminology so we all understand each other. The terminology should be applied to the following.

Organizational elements. Use a consistent pattern for designating each level of the organization with terms such as sections, branches, and so on.

Position titles. Any person charged with management or leadership responsibility should be referred to by organizational title such as officer, chief, director, and supervisor—not a given rank while employed. This places the most qualified personnel in our organizational positions on multijurisdictional incidents without confusion caused by various multiagency rank designations. It also gives us a standardized method for ordering personnel to fill positions by qualifications, not agency rank. You will be assigned to the incident by your qualifications, not your daily rank; recognizing rank is not always a barometer for incident management skills you may possess.

Resources. Use common designations for common resources. For example, a vehicle used for fire suppression will be called an engine. We will also recognize the various capabilities of engines and give them a classification based on capacity, pumping capability, staffing, and other factors. Apply this rationale to all resources we commonly use.

Personnel accountability. I would like to see this system augment our current accountability system for scene management. It would entail some form of mandatory check-in for all personnel on arrival at the incident. There is no way we will employ a system that allows resources to arrive and take action without confirmation from command that they are there and what their assignment is. Second, we will adhere to the concept of unity of command, ensuring that everyone has only one designated supervisor. Finally, we will have a system that maintains status of all assigned resources; we will keep track of all resources actively assigned by geographical or functional references; and we will document all major events, activities, and resource locations.

Integrated communications. The ability to communicate will not be compromised. When considering integrated communications, we will be aware of the need to have some form of communications plan for all incidents, and that should be in place prior to the incident. An awareness of communication systems and available frequencies combined with an understanding of the incident requirements will enable the incident commander to have an effective communications plan. The IC will also understand that an effective multijurisdictional or multiagency management system requires that all communications be in simple English with no specialized numbering codes or abbreviations. I suggest it be called “clear text” so everyone working will understand what is being said. Mutual-aid resources coming in must be able to communicate with our resources, thus eliminating the need for one of their chief officers to be at the command post to translate or communicate on another frequency. This must be a regional concept, and we will not accept communication shortcomings on the part of our cooperators. For every incident, we will have available frequencies to use as follows:

a. Command net: a frequency established to link supervisory personnel from the commander down to and including division level supervisors should this designation be warranted. This will also be a frequency to communicate with our dispatch center that is different from our primary dispatch frequency so we can continue daily operations while managing a complex incident.

b. Tactical nets: frequencies established for various functions such as communication between divisions or single resources dedicated for tactical applications. We need multiple tactical frequencies so various parts of an incident can be broken up so radio traffic is not cluttered. The premise is that by using span of control, resources will communicate within themselves and with their designated division. The divisions will then communicate with the person in charge on the command frequency. This minimizes frequency overload and allows all resources the freedom to communicate as needed.

c. Support nets: frequencies to help with nonoperational issues such as logistics and planning at large incidents.

d. Ground to air: frequencies designated prior to the incident for ground personnel who need to talk to aircraft during the incident.


All resources assigned to an incident will be categorized in some fashion, accounting for single resources including personnel and equipment. The system will group like resources and unlike resources for improved tactical applications while considering the span-of-control issues (you could call them strike teams and task forces if you are stumped for words). All resources will have three designations at the incident:

a. Assigned—performing active assignments.

b. Available—ready for deployment.

c. Out of service—not assigned and not available.


Every incident needs a plan of action. We will not use only SOPs or guidelines as incident objectives. SOPs and guidelines are applicable to the implementation of tactics. The plan may be oral or written, and it is to provide all incident supervisory personnel with appropriate action for future operations. Use written plans when it is essential that all levels of a growing organization have a clear understanding of the tactical actions associated with the operations in the future. It might be important to have written plans when another agency is involved, when there might be large personnel changes because of time frames, when our organization system is getting large, and when it is a good idea to capture all actions planned and completed for documentation needs such as FEMA reimbursement and liability concerns. I will tell personnel to get settled at the command post and stop standing in the middle of the street with hand- held radios running an incident so they can document and follow their actions.

If you stayed with me so far, you may realize that I just gave my staff an outline for ICS. You are probably saying right now, “That is why ICS does not work for us; it is just too cumbersome.” If that reasoning were valid, after reading how to make an engine pump, you would have given up. Anyway, I disagree, and here is why. I just told my new hypothetical fire department that on all emergency incidents I want the members to have an agreed-on name for the functions we will use on the job, we will always have objectives and some type of strategy and applicable tactics, we will always follow the chain of command and ensure each person knows for whom they work, we recognize that we may need to transfer command as the incident grows, someone will always be in charge, we will have a flexible organization that is developed only to meet the needs of the incident, we will have a method to unify our plan with other agencies who have jurisdiction, we will pay attention to span of control, we will develop some form of terminology we all understand, we will account for personnel as they arrive and while they are assigned, we will make sure we have adequate communications before and during the incident, we will have designations for the resources assigned should we need them, and we will always have a plan. Keep in mind I never talked about tactical applications and tasks. No management system should have that as a component.

If you do not consider any of these components an important element for incident management, then you need to get out of the business. Will ICS keep you from entering a building about to collapse? No. When adhered to, ICS will stop initial attack free-for-alls from turning deadly because all resources will be on the same sheet of music from a simple gas leak to a multiple-alarm tenement building fire to a baby shower. I will say that if your objective is to die and it is agreed on, ICS will make sure you all die according to plan.

I still shudder when I remember a nationally known speaker telling us about multiple firefighter deaths in his department at a house fire and how a lack of scene organizational structure contributed to it; he then finished his story with the revelation that his engine company liked it when no chief officer showed up so they could all do whatever they wanted at fires. He didn’t like ICS either.

I remember a county sheriff telling me he will not support ICS because he does not plan, he kicks butt. See any similarities? The translation of that is the same as for any excuse for not using ICS: You just don’t get it. That was 10 years ago, and he is still getting his butt kicked. Come on over. I won’t tell if you don’t.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire Protection District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and operations section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger has been incident commander for Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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