You are in: GET HELP » Emergency Disaster Services » Disaster Articles and Resources » The Basics of the Incident Command System (ICS)

The Basics of the Incident Command System (ICS)

Send this page to a friend Email envolope

Learn more about ...

Incident Commander
Public Information Officer
Liaison Officer
Safety Officer
Emotional & Spiritual Care Officer
Operations Chief
Logistics Chief
Finance & Administration Chief
Planning Chief

A Salvation Army officer survey damage in New York on Steptember 11, 2001

The Basics of the Incident Command System (ICS)

By Jeff Jellets, Territorial Disaster Coordinator


What Is ICS?

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a management system used by emergency responders to command, control and coordinate emergency operations. ICS integrates all the critical components of an emergency operation -- facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications -- within a common organizational structure.

Important features of ICS include:

  • Wide applicability across all emergency management disciplines;
  • Used to organize both near-term and long-term field operations;
  • Used for a broad spectrum of emergencies, from small to complex;
  • Used by all levels of government;
  • Used by private sector and nongovernmental organizations
  • Adopted by The Salvation Army's Commissioners Conference for all disaster operations.

ICS was developed more than 30 years ago by the fire service. In the 1970s, as California firefighters battled a series of massive wildfires, they found that one of their most significant challenges was not always the fire. With no standardized management structure or system to categorize resources, internal confusion, conflicting priorities, mismatched resources, and miscommunication hampered emergency response efforts. In 1972, an inter-agency task force called FIRESCOPE was created to standardize wildfire fighting operations, and ICS was born.

Today, ICS is one of the principle components of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) established under Presidential Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 5. This directive requires all emergency responders to utilize a common management structure in response to all domestic incidents.

Why Does The Salvation Army Use ICS?

The Salvation Army utilizes the Incident Command System (ICS) as its command-and-control structure for all disaster operations. This system provides the framework to rapidly assemble a command team capable of managing a disaster incident and also defines each person's job responsibilities on that team. A predetermined command structure allows Salvation Army disaster workers to organize their internal structure quickly and focus more rapidly on external service delivery.

ICS also allows The Salvation Army to train disaster workers to fill specific positions. Some positions may require specific skills that can only be adequately acquired before a disaster occurs. These positions and the overall ICS structure is consistent throughout The Salvation Army, allowing disaster workers from across the country to combine during a disaster event and work together as integrated team.

In adopting ICS, The Salvation Army speaks the same language as key government and non-governmental partners. This allows The Salvation Army to communicate and exchange information more easily with other agencies.


ICS Functional Areas

ICS is organized into functional areas called sections. Each section describes an activity (or group of related activities) that are considered essential parts of the disaster operation. For minor incidents, one person may be capable of performing several functions; on large or complex incidents, each ICS section may represent several dozen disaster workers, each charged with specific responsibilities.

Incident Command - Has overall responsibility for managing the disaster operation;

Public Information - Communicates with media and others seeking information about the disaster operation;

Liaison - Serves as The Salvation Army's point-of-contact with other disaster relief agencies;

Safety - Assesses safety and security risks and recommends action to protect all disaster personnel;

Emotional & Spiritual Care - Coordinates emotional and spiritual support services;

Operations - Manages all direct service activities, such as canteen feeding, mass shelters, bulk distribution of goods; and emergency financial assistance programs;

Logistics - Secures and manages resources (including supplies and equipment) necessary to support the operation;

Finance & Administration - Manages reports, statistics, personnel, volunteers and accounting for the disaster operation;

Planning - Develops an incident action plan to accomplish operational objectives; collects and evaluates information.





ICS Organizational Chart

ICS Management Characteristics

In addition to being organized by functional sections, ICS is based on proven management characteristics. Each of these management characteristics contributes to the strength and efficiency of the overall system. As Salvation Army field commanders establish the disaster operation, it is important that staff members are organized according to the management characteristics. This will help facilitate communication and ensure important orders and information are rapidly communicated through the chain-of-command.


Common Terminology: ICS embraces a common terminology that allows agencies to easily communicate with one another and share information across a wide variety of incident management functions and types of emergency incidents.

Modular Organization: ICS organizational structure is developed in a top-down fashion that is based on the size and complexity of the incident. ICS always starts with the incident commander, who establishes command and control, then expands accordingly to the needs of the incident.

Management by Objectives: ICS is managed by objectives. The establishment of specific, measurable objectives allows the ICS team to assess progress toward a goal and measure performance in obtainable increments.


Reliance on an Incident Action Plan: The incident action plans (IAP) serves as a roadmap for the disaster operation, detailing overall goals for the response and relief effort and the specific objectives taken toward obtaining those goals. A written IAP allows these objectives to be communicated throughout the entire ICS organization.

Manageable Span of Control: The span of control of any individual working with ICS should range from three to seven subordinates. Once a disaster worker's responsibilities exceed the recommended span of control, they begin to become overwhelmed and their ability to be productive declines.

Pre-designated Incident Locations & Facilities: Various types of operational locations and support facilities are established in the vicinity of the incident to accomplish a variety of purposes. Typical pre-designated facilities include the incident command post, staging areas, warehouses, assistance centers, shelters and other facilities as required.


Comprehensive Resource Management: Resource management includes categorizing, ordering, dispatching, tracking, and recovering resources. During a disaster, there are seldom enough resources to immediately meet every need; the ICS team must be able to prioritize resource allocations, ensuring the most critical needs are met first and avoiding hording.


Integrated Communications: Incident communications are facilitated through the development and use of a common communications plan. Critical information should be shared at regular intervals through established procedures, including regular briefings and written situation reports.


Establishment and Transfer of Command: The command function must be clearly established at the beginning of incident operations. When command is transferred from one organization (or person) to another, the transfer should include an overlapping transitional period to ensure that the transfer occurs smoothly and important information is not lost in the change.

Chain of Command and Unity of Command: Chain of command refers to the line of authority over the incident operations. Unity of command means that every individual has one designated supervisor. These principles clarify reporting relationships and eliminate confusion.

Unified Command: Unified command is a structure that allows all responding agencies to work together sharing objectives and resources without compromising individual agency authority, responsibility, or accountability The Salvation Army works within Unified Command structure, operating in support of emergency management, government officials, and other designated responders.

Accountability: ICS establishes principles of accountability. Within The Salvation Army, field commanders are held accountable to the principles of The Salvation Army's brand of "Doing the Most Good" and are charged to use the Army's personnel, equipment, and resources to make the most positive difference possible in the lives of those affected by the disaster incident.

Deployment: Personnel and equipment should respond only when requested or when deployed by an appropriate authority. Circumventing established deployment procedures only creates further confusion.

Information and Intelligence Management: The ICS team must establish a process for gathering, sharing, and managing incident-related information and intelligence. Critical decisions during a disaster must be made by supervisors at all levels of the ICS. Critical information must be widely and efficiently disseminated to ensure supervisors can make informed decisions based on the best intelligence available.


The Incident Command System provides a standardized management system for emergency response operations of all types and sizes. ICS is applicable across all emergency management disciplines and is the cornerstone of the federal National Incident Management System (NIMS). ICS is organized according to key functional areas, with like services grouped together. These functional areas are considered critical to the overall success of the disaster operation. Ignoring any function can have significant consequences. In addition to being organized by functional sections, ICS is also based on proven management characteristics. Each of these management characteristics contributes to the strength and efficiency of the ICS system.

For more information on ICS, register to take The Salvation Army's Incident Command System course.


Available Downloads

File NameFile Size (KB)
2007.05 - Job Description for Finance & Administration Chief.pdf37 KB


Print version


Enter your search terms below and hit the 'go' button

Site Map Site Map

Quick Links

Find a Center

Enter your zip code to find your nearest Salvation Army