Unified command is one of those phrases under the glossary of terms for the incident command system (ICS). After traveling many miles with overhead teams and assisting with many all risk-type incidents on a local and regional level, I don’t think very many of us have a grasp of what unified command is or how to make it work for us. Moreover, addressing the crux of this article, we fail miserably to get involved in unified command on extended attacks and major wildfires. Conversely, I believe many of us think we are using unified command when we are not. So often, we become confused when it comes to differentiating between cooperating and assisting agencies and those agencies that have jurisdictional authority.

And then there is that new buzzword I’ve been hearing, interoperability.

(1) This wildfire, which began on federal land, has burned its way to this city. (Photo by author.)


The term is being used to demonstrate the inability to cooperate and assist agencies to communicate and work together. In this article, it will be referred to as “inoperability.” Perhaps addressing unified command or, more importantly, knowing how to interact with a liaison officer to work with agency representatives will minimize the impact of this term we keep tossing around.

A funny piece of history is that major wildfires in Southern California in 1970 were fraught with problems we now call inoperability, leading to the birth of FIRESCOPE. The result was the development and use of the ICS. It worked then, and it works now. The key is to use it as intended and to stop adjusting it for perceived local nuances. Common communications and clear text have taken us light years toward eliminating inoperability. Unfortunately, some folks just won’t give in and continue to insist their problems are different and require a different set of rules. I still don’t understand how adjacent fire departments that share automatic mutual aid can have radio communication problems, but I am digressing.


When a neighboring fire chief comes over to help you run a fire, that is not unified command. That is at best the application of a deputy incident commander (IC) or an agency representative, all duties listed under ICS. The differences are subtle but important.

The definition of unified command is as follows: a unified team effort that allows all agencies with responsibility for the incident, either geographical or functional, to manage an incident by establishing a common set of incident objectives and strategies. This is accomplished without losing or abdicating agency authority, re-sponsibility, or accountability.

That sounds simple enough, but one of the problems with large-scale incident management is filtering who actually fits within that description and in turn is part of the unified command team. As an example, in 1991, I was involved in a large railroad car chemical spill in the Sacramento River in northern California. When the initial overhead team arrived, we called all concerned parties together in one room to establish a unified command. When the question was asked, “Who here thinks they should be in charge?” more than 60 people raised their hands. By simply deciding who fell within the scope of the above description, the unified command was finally made up of a representative from the County Sheriff’s Office; the State Department of Fish and Game; State Water Quality; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the initial overhead team incident commander, who basically spoon-fed ICS and offered an organizational structure under which to operate.

The rest of the folks who raised their hands were in reality cooperators and assisting agencies appropriately assigned as agency representatives to a liaison officer for the unified command team. Many were assigned as technical specialists later in the incident under divisions or groups.


Unified command can be used for incidents that fall within one jurisdiction or within multiple jurisdictions as follows:

Single jurisdiction. A good example of this would occur in an incorporated city. This city has jurisdictional responsibility for police, fire, rescue, EMS transport, hospital care, public works, and so on. All of these services fall under the authority of the city council and the city manager, yet each department has received some delegation of authority and commensurate responsibility to carry out its tasks.

Now let’s have a major vehicle accident on the main drag through town. Is a unified command needed? Who is jurisdictionally responsible for this incident? I hope your answer is, “Yes, we need unified command.” Why? Well, in this city, because it is my story, the police agency has jurisdiction over the roadway that is impacted and management of that road will affect the development of objectives. Most likely, the fire chief has responsibility for patient rescue and EMS concerns. In this scenario, law enforcement and fire department representatives will establish a unified command to develop strategies and objectives; this will tend to eliminate inoperability problems between stakeholders in this incident. The other parties will be cooperating and assisting departments that will work as representatives to complete the tasks assigned.

Multiple jurisdictions. Take the same city and interject a wildfire burning from the national forest lands into the city. In this case, there are clear boundaries of responsibility. The federal government is clearly responsible for suppressing wildfires on federal lands, and the city’s fire chief is clearly responsible for suppressing fires within the city’s boundaries. This scenario has unified command written all over it. I have seen it happen all over the United States: The local jurisdictions are allowing themselves to be shuffled off as agency representatives and are not becoming members of the unified command.


Since I started this discussion with a wildfire burning from federal land into a city (photo 1), let’s use it as an example. Now the characters of this story can be changed to a special district and state lands or any combination that results in a fire on two distinct jurisdictions. In the scenario above, the wildfire was on the lands of the United States Forest Service (USFS). When it was on the lands of the USFS, the local fire chief may have sent resources from the city to assist in the suppression. It would have been appropriate for that fire chief to have a city representative assigned as an agency representative. This agency representative would meet with the liaison officer for the USFS IC to discuss concerns specific to the city’s resources. Subjects might include union issues on resource use, changing of personnel, or possible reimbursement issues. At this point, the strategies and objectives established would be those of the jurisdictional agency, the USFS.

Now, if at some time the fire behavior indicates that it is going to burn into the city limits, it would be the responsibility of the USFS IC at this point to invite the city representative into a unified command. Conversely, it would also be the fire chief’s responsibility to meet with the USFS IC to express an interest in becoming part of the unified command. This is the point at which I believe local government does not press the issue to get properly involved in the process. Remember, if you are not part of the unified command, then you have in essence given your responsibility and authority to that USFS IC, and you will have to live with the strategies, objectives, and ensuing tactics deployed in your area of jurisdiction. That is unacceptable to me.

During the summer of 2002, I was the IC of a fire that burned from a federal jurisdiction to a local fire district’s jurisdiction. The fire threatened many homes. After a morning planning meeting, a representative of that local fire district expressed concerns about our plans to protect structures in his jurisdiction. He did this at the wrong time.

Each of us was at fault in this scenario. One, I was negligent as the IC in not pursuing this fire chief and inviting him into the process and establishing a unified command. Two, he missed the boat by not getting involved in the planning process when his jurisdiction was affected. We both learned valuable lessons and will do better the next time. I guarantee it.

Of course, there is another approach that is a poison that enhances our friend inoperability. That would be to operate on the fire that falls within your jurisdiction independently of the USFS command structure. This choice has too many things wrong with it to mention them all. To name a few, it presents an extreme safety issue, ensures duplication of resources and efforts, and is always successful in developing inefficient and ineffective operations.


Now that you understand the need to become part of the unified command with this land management agency, there are a couple of documents you must understand because they are an instrumental part of the federal fire management program.

Wild Fire Situation Analysis (WFSA). When the USFS has a fire that escapes initial attack and becomes an extended attack or a major fire, it often activates an overhead team to manage the fire. There are various stages or levels of teams (this constitutes another subject matter), but in most cases, when the team arrives, the IC is given the WFSA (pronounced Wuff-sah) or partakes in its development. Briefly, this document outlines the expectations of the hosting forest concerning strategies, objectives, types of control methods used, and anticipated costs. It is a lengthy document; however, for your purposes, it is the roadmap outlining how the fire will be suppressed. Remember, the USFS is a land management agency, and fire is another tool used in the management of our public lands.

The IC and the USFS line officer generate and validate the WFSA daily. The importance of this document should be very clear to you. If this fire burns onto city lands, the strategies and objectives listed in the current WFSA may not represent what you want done in your city limits. As you become part of the unified command, you must be part of the daily WFSA process simply to ensure that your jurisdictional concerns are consistent with the objectives being developed in the WFSA process. The WFSA will not address strategy and tactics in your jurisdiction, but understand that it is the bible for the USFS IC, and he may implement those strategies regardless of your jurisdiction if you are not there.

Delegation of Authority. After the WFSA process is completed, the line officer for the burning USFS lands will give the USFS IC a Delegation of Authority. It basically passes that line officer’s authority and responsibility to suppress or manage the fire to the IC. This document also outlines the strategy and objectives the line officer desires. When the fire burns onto your jurisdiction, you have a choice: become part of the unified command and give the USFS IC a Delegation of Authority to fight fire for you on your jurisdiction or do your own thing. When you become part of the unified command, you will be implementing strategies and objectives that may be different from those listed by the line officer in the Delegation of Authority. There is a prevailing myth that federal policy always applies in wildfires when federal teams are deployed. If you do not get involved in the unified command, you will find that this is not always a myth, and you will be left wondering how your objectives were overlooked.


So there you have it: This fire has burned into your city, the USFS IC has invited you in as a member of the unified command, and you understand the WFSA and Delegation of Authority. With that said, there are some key meetings and briefings you must become part of and, just as important, you should consider how you are going to organize this incident to ensure that your needs are met while addressing the sharing of suppression costs.

Under the ICS, there are operational periods when the resources available are deployed and the tactics outlined in the Incident Action Plan (IAP) are implemented. Before the resources are deployed, there must be a plan, or the IAP. The contents of the IAP in part are generated during the planning meeting. For most wildfire incidents, there are two 12-hour operational periods, one starting at 0600 hours and one at 1800 hours. Therefore, there are two planning meetings, generally at 1000 hours and 2000 hours or thereabouts. At the meeting at 1000 hours, the IAP for the upcoming 1800-hour operational period is developed; the IAP for the next day’s 0600 operational period is developed at the 2000-hour planning meeting. As a member of the unified command, you must attend each planning meeting. During this meeting, current objectives are validated; the incident is divided into geographical or functional areas; and tactics are designed to meet the intent of the objectives. You must be part of this process to ensure the objectives meet your concerns and that the geographical and functional areas developed for your jurisdiction are consistent. The IAP is the roadmap all personnel participating in the incident will follow; you must be part of its development to ensure your jurisdictional concerns are met.


This briefing occurs twice a day, at 0600 and 1800 hours. All resources assigned to the incident are given the IAP at this time, before the parties move to the line. The ICs oversee this process to ensure it is run well. Most times, they speak at the briefings to report progress and express concerns. As a member of the unified command, it is imperative that you attend the briefings and that your presence is noted. The meeting and briefing times are generally close to those given here; there can be variations in times.


Many resources are assigned to the incident; none come free. Aside from mutual-aid agreements for services you may have, if you use resources of the federal government, you would be expected to pay for them at some point in time. One of those federal assets, which is very expensive and used effectively on wildfires, is aircraft such as air tankers and helicopters.

(Allow me another soapbox moment. Under ICS, a tanker flies and delivers moisture from the air. If it delivers water on the ground, it is a water tender—a pet peeve of mine—but another example of not giving in to ICS, I suppose.)

When you are talking with overhead teams, make sure you explain things clearly so you all understand what you are ordering and what you will be paying for. (If you call Operations and request a tanker, for example, it will not be driving your way.) In most cases, you will be expected to pay for resources used in your jurisdiction. The USFS IC will want to establish a cost-share agreement with you so the federal agency does not pay for resources used in your jurisdiction. There are various reasons for completing a cost-share agreement, but a major one is to protect yourself from costs you did not incur.

I have found that an excellent way to ensure that you pay only for the resources used in your jurisdiction is to divide the fire geographically to represent jurisdictional boundaries. When the fire enters the city, create a new division, divisions, or branches that lie within the city boundaries only. When the IAP is completed, resources allocated to those divisions in the city will be easier to track. If aircraft works for those respective divisions, the air attack officer will record that activity; you should be billed only for resources allocated to your divisions.

Costs may also be shared by percentage of acreage burned: If you have 10 percent of the fire, you pay 10 percent of the costs. This method can lead to your absorbing costs for portions of the fire for which you are not responsible; you must monitor the costs.

Well, the fire burned into the city. You have become a member of the unified command, you attended the planning meetings and made sure the objectives were representative of your concerns, the city jurisdiction was represented in the IAP by four divisions under one branch, and you have an equitable cost-share agreement. You can now report to your city manager that you are working within a recognized organizational structure and are using all the assets available to you to protect the life and property in your city while striving to stabilize the incident. I can’t think of a better scenario than that for you to follow. More importantly, you can change “wildfire” to “flood” in this story, add two counties and three cities, and achieve the same success by developing a unified command. Go ahead and use ICS as it was intended many years ago; it has proved to be the best available tool for incident management, bar none.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire 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 as operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. He was a member of the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border, and served as its incident commander for six years. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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