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October - December 2004
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Incident Command and GIS

During an emergency, there is little time to specify the ground rules for interagency cooperation. Consequently, emergency managers have agreed to implement a prearranged structure that effectively manages any conceivable type of dangerous situation. As an incident evolves, it may be necessary to relocate or even transfer command to another individual. Training, especially with neighboring agencies, allows responders to work through the details of establishing, maintaining, transferring, and closing command.

The concept of span of control is a critical part of IC. During an emergency, it is difficult for any one manager to safely and efficiently supervise many responders. IMS recognizes that a broad span of control is inefficient and difficult to maintain. As supervision decreases, the likelihood of responder accidents and injuries increases. To maintain a safe and effective span of control, IMS specifies that a supervisor may directly manage three to seven staff members, with five people as the ideal number. IMS' structure allows for the addition and removal of staff units as needed without taking the span of control beyond safe limits.

Command Staff

IMS relies on the ultimate authority of the incident commander to effectively manage the overall incident. Command is established when the first emergency responder arrives on scene and remains in place until the incident reaches a successful conclusion. With ultimate authority over the actions and safety of all staff and civilians involved in and affected by an emergency, the IC is responsible for the protection of life, property, and the environment. The IC operates from a command post that is out of harm's way yet close enough to the event to provide accurate visualization, communication, and control of the event. Depending on the size and nature of the emergency, the command post may be fixed or mobile and may be relocated during the course of responding to an emergency. Its location is clearly known to all command and general staff.

The IC will typically acquire or appoint a command staff that consist of a Safety Officer (SO), a Liaison Officer (LO), and an Information Officer (IO). The SO is responsible for the overall safety of emergency responders assigned to the incident and often acts as an advisor to the IC. However, the SO carries ultimate authority to cease or suspend all operations if unanticipated, highly unsafe conditions develop. The SO must be highly qualified with a broad background in fire science, emergency services, and occupational health and safety. After the IC, the SO is the most important, informed person on the fireground.

The LO provides in-depth contact with staff from outside agencies and may step in for the IC during busy moments at and around the command post but often operates very near, but not within, the command post. The IO, or Public Information Officer (PIO), provides media with current, accurate, and authorized information about the emergency. As with the LO, the PIO will establish a command base near, but slightly outside, the command post. All command staff maintain close communication with the IC throughout the incident.

General Staff

IMS is divided into four general sections-operations, planning, logistics, and finance/administration. Each sector is led by a sector chief who reports directly to the incident commander. At a small incident, one individual may perform all functions related to a section. Sections are formally established, and section chiefs are appointed by command as an incident becomes complex. Section chiefs typically establish their own base of operations, predicated on the chief's needs and responsibilities and the geography and response strategy devised for that incident. A close line of communication is maintained between each section and the command post, and a formal reporting and ordering system is quickly implemented.

Operations Section

The operations section, often the largest, most dynamic of all general staff sectors, is responsible for managing and performing all actions on scene. Operations personnel may perform a wide variety of on-scene tasks including fighting fire, rescuing and treating victims, managing hazardous materials, and anything else necessary and practical to resolve the emergency. In the business world, operations might correlate with production, manufacturing, or services.

click to enlarge
The plume dispersion model for the incident at Sky Sox AAA stadium shows the radiation hot zone in relation to regional infrastructure, public buildings, and values at risk.

Operations proceed under the guidance of an Incident Action Plan (IAP) that outlines strategic objectives and the preferred actions to achieve them. At a small incident, the fire chief may assume the roles of incident commander and operations chief. If the incident grows, the chief may assign the operations role to a battalion chief, or if several departments respond together, the jurisdiction chief might transfer operations responsibility to an arriving chief. In any case, preplans, interagency agreements, and combined training exercises help to make the deployment process fast and efficient.

Planning Section

The planning section, which may include units for resources, situation, documentation, and demobilization in addition to technical specialists, is responsible for gathering, evaluating, and disseminating vital information throughout the incident. It continuously monitors, evaluates, updates, and recommends modifications to the Incident Action Plan. Preplanning and information development are critical to the rapid deployment and action of this section. Departments often rely on internal or external information management systems that acquire, catalog, and update important information including prefire plans, building schematics, response networks, technical references, and interagency agreements. These documents are quickly transferred, either in hard copy or digitally, to the planning section. The planning staff acquires, analyzes, summarizes, and relays all necessary information developed as the incident progresses. This section could be compared to the scheduling department in a large company.

Logistics Section

The logistics section manages purchasing and warehousing functions for an incident. Its staff provides the necessary equipment, materials, staff, and services to respond to the incident. The challenge is to anticipate incident needs, acquire necessary items, store them until needed, and arrange for transport and deployment at the scene. At large or long-term incidents, the logistics section can operate as a small city. It provides food and shelter for responders; fuel for all apparatus and tools; and maintenance, repair, and replacements for heavily used equipment.

Logistics is often subdivided into a service branch and a support branch. The service branch includes communications, medical, and food units. Support includes supply, facilities, and ground services units. Unit managers report to their branch chief, who reports to the section chief. The section chief reports directly to the IC.

Finance/Administration Section

The finance/administration section is deployed at large incidents where financial support, reimbursement, and/or administrative services are needed. This section compares to the accounting, payroll, and administrative services departments of a large company. When outside services are acquired and utilized, it is often necessary to "deploy now and pay later." Finance/Administration will track the arrival and use of all equipment and personnel so proper reimbursement can be obtained. The finance chief will also advise the IC regarding the best fiscal use of equipment and personnel. The finance/administration section is often divided into time, procurement, cost, compensation, and claims units.


Incident management manages broad, highly technical combinations of knowledge, skills, personnel, apparatus, and equipment, all intermixed with a population and values at risk. Although Global Mirror was only a drill, emergency responders take all drills quite seriously. The total exercise was successfully managed through immediate implementation and consistent use of NIMS by more than 50 responding agencies. GIS, mapping, spatial technology, and information management are used by incident staff. A GIS curriculum for first responders is being developed through the GIS-TECH program at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, with assistance from a National Science Foundation grant.

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