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Forward Observer The ICS System and FREEFOR: Part 1

Discussion in '3 Percent' started by melbo, Mar 7, 2015.

  1. melbo

    melbo Hunter Gatherer Administrator Founding Member

    This article will attempt to provide a short look at what the ICS system is and how it can be utilized as a model for FREEFOR to manage multifaceted groups with diverse backgrounds and levels of skill. First off, let’s look at what the ICS system is and what it is not.

    The ICS system, or Incident Command System, is a part of a larger body of guidelines and structure called the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. NIMS evolved from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the debacle of Hurricane Katrina and seeks to provide effective and efficient coordination across jurisdictions and organizations. Now this is government we are primarily talking about, so what appears to be a good idea can quickly bog down into a bureaucratic nightmare. There are reasons for that breakdown, and they primarily center on the funding for the response. That is a concern for this system and we have to make sure that we do not fall into the same pitfalls. The best approach in my opinion is to pick the parts of the system that work and trash the waste. One thing that does work is the command structure of the NIMS system and that is the ICS. NIMS also includes guidelines for resource management (a potential problem) and information management (another area of concern). The ICS system is basically a command organization chart and the duties assigned to the various elements of that organization. What it is not is an off the cuff plan to address the specific incident. It’s not a detailed explanation of what you communicate, what information you share, or what resources you allocate. So let’s drill down and see what ICS is made of.

    The primary aim of the ICS is to allow diverse groups to converge on an incident and effectively respond. Many incidents will be addressed locally by a single group. That group has unity of command communications and logistics. Other incidents however will arise that provoke a response consisting of many different groups. All manner of problems can arise from different organizations responding to large incidents – from the incompatibility of equipment to the rival leaders conflicting over authority. When all of the responding groups follow the ICS system there is no question of leadership and there is a framework of interoperability. ICS is a management system with standard roles and responsibilities. It is organic and evolves to support the size of the incident. It guides planning and execution of the plan and ICS provides the structure to support the main efforts with logistics and financial administration. The basic elements of the system are in 6 key functional areas: Command, Operations, Planning, Intel, Logistics and Admin/finance. There are additional principles that will be addressed as we move through the descriptions of these areas.


    The incident has a single commander, that commander is known as the IC (Incident Commander) and it is his primary function to be ultimately responsible for the outcome of the mission. The IC represents the principle of Unity of Command. Unity of Command clarifies the reporting structure and eliminates conflicting directions and orders. All levels of the structure have a clear supervisor and all lines of reporting flow to the IC. The IC will be the authority on scene. As the incident grows he would transfer command to higher level leadership as it arrives on scene. This Transfer of Command is done in an orderly fashion with a briefing of the situation at the time of transfer. As an incident grows additional areas of functionality would be activated under assigned leadership, however the IC is prepared to fill multiple roles provided his command does not exceed his Span of Control. Span of control is the limit of an individual to provide leadership to individuals under his command and should not exceed 5 individuals. This principle is consistent with all levels of the organization. For example the span of control for a typical infantry platoon leader would not exceed 5 individuals. He would have one assistant platoon leader and three to four squad leaders. In turn those squad leaders would have only two to three team leaders reporting to them and those team leaders would have no more than 5 individual soldiers reporting to them.

    The IC will assess the incident and develop a set of clear measurable objectives that will be utilized to manage the incident. He will also set limits for the organization to constrain activities.

    The Command Staff may grow to include a Public Information officer, a Safety officer and a Liaison officer as necessary to provide additional assistance.


    Planning may not be activated until later in an incident as the incident grows outside of the span of the IC’s control. Planning, however, is a vital piece of the organization. The Planning section is led by the PSC or Planning Section Chief. The PSC is responsible for working with the Intel section and the Operations section to develop the Incident Action Plan for the IC. The IAP plan is a concise, coherent strategy to achieve the objectives laid out by the IC. The Incident Action Plan should incorporate changes in tactics and strategy based on lessons learned and should be updated and evaluated every operational period. The IAP should contain all aspects of the operational plan to achieve the objectives from logistical work to weather reports. It is the plan that the Operations Section will execute.

    The Planning Section can be expanded as needed to include additional assets responsible for various sources of information. A Resource unit, a Situation unit, a Documentation unit and other technical specialists to meet specific needs can be added to the Planning Section. Following the principle of Flexibility, the planning section can also be expanded to include the Intel section.


    The Intel section is tasked with providing collection and analysis of critical information vital to the needs to the command staff to achieve the incident objectives. In addition, the Intel section can be tasked with deterring and prohibiting the collection of information by outside elements about the incident itself. The Intel section is led by the Intel Section Chief (ISC) and under the ICS, the system is primarily structured to support a Law Enforcement investigation.


    The operations section, led by the Operation Section Chief, is tasked with executing the IAP. The Operation Section’s organization and methodologies vary according to the incident that the organization responds to. The major functions are to tactically execute the IAP by tasking subunits to achieve the objectives laid out in the IAP. These sub units could be anything from an Air Operations Branch doing search and rescue to a Fire fighting strike team attacking a wildfire. Typically the section will be divided up into Branches, Divisions or Groups, or specific resources may be considered a sub-unit of this section.


    As incidents grow and the response begins to develop the inevitable need to supply the response will arise. This is the function of the Logistics section. Led by the LSC the Logistics section will provide the Resource Management the accurate and up to date picture of the utilization of supplies to the organization. The LS will provide transportation, storage and dispersal of all categories of supply. In addition, the Communications unit and Medical unit will report to the Logistics Section Chief. Logistics provides traffic control and site security for the Incident command post as well as IT support, feeding, hygiene and sanitation for the organization.


    Finance and Admin are established when the incident requires on-scene specific support. Primarily this section is tasked with tracking the costs of operations and providing projections that aid the planning of the ongoing response. The admin unit will handle procurement, time tracking, costs and personnel information.

    The ICS system allows for modular expansion and for individuals to wear multiple hats as the incident expands. As the span of control raises the addition of deputies or assistant leaders effectively grows the organization. Information management is accomplished with a goal of providing a single picture to the command staff. This single operating picture assists the IC and his staff with executing the plan put into place for the incident. Resources and supplies are tracked and delivered to the teams and units executing the plan and the costs of the operation are monitored to better project the course of the operation.


    The ICS system works, provided a few key measures are put into place by groups that will respond to an incident. Those measures fall into three areas Common terminology, Common skill-sets, and Common training /exercises.

    Common Terminologies:

    Groups responding to incidents need to speak the same language. This facilitates efficient communications and a clear understanding of goals and tasks. The ICs system has a very specific set of terms it uses to label and describe positions and facilities that leave no doubt as to their meaning. It discourages special radio codes in favor of a common set of radio procedures in plain language.

    Common Skill-sets:

    Groups responding must have proven capabilities. They must have skills that pertain to the specific incident in questions. This may include certifications from independent bodies or agencies. They must have knowledge of the ICS system and how it functions and they must “buy in” to the system. They must be willing to respond to an incident and set aside any ego that may hamper interoperability.

    Common Training /Exercises:

    Groups must train on the common skills and exercise that training in practical demonstrations. These exercises should be well planned and include as many of the various groups that can participate. This joint training will foster cooperation within groups by allowing groups to demonstrate their abilities, and build trust across organizations.

    There are additional layers to this system that time and physical limitations prevent us from expanding on here; however, more can be learned by seeking out the NIMS documents on the internet. There are many agencies and organizations that have produced ICS-based training and documentation if you are worried about hitting a FEMA site with your browser. I encourage you to take the online FEMA courses on the ICS system and print out the certifications that come along with them. The certificate is proof that you take the work seriously and are willing to take the next step.

    — Stay tuned to hear how this all applies to the FREEFOR movement next week in PART 2. –

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