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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Incident Command Process

The incident command process describes an ordered sequence of actions that accomplishes the following:

  • Activates the system and defines the incident response structure
  • Establishes incident goals (where the system wants to be at the end of response; these are referred to as "control objectives"[12] in NIMS)
    to any single operational period (thus distinguishing them from operational period objectives).
  • Defines incident operational period objectives (measurable steps that contribute to reaching the goal) and strategies to meet the defined objectives
  • Adequately disseminates information, including the following, to achieve coordination throughout ICS:
    • Response goals, objectives, and strategies
    • Situation status reports
    • Resource status updates
    • Safety issues for responders
    • Communication methods for responders
    • Assignments with individual assignment objectives and operating parameters
  • Evaluates strategies and tactics for effectiveness in achieving objectives and monitors ongoing circumstances
  • Revises the objectives, strategies, and tactics as dictated by incident circumstances.

Actions during the initial phases of incident response should be guided by checklist procedures established in the EOP. For any response of more than a few hours, management should transition to a method of proactive response by establishing incident-wide objectives. These overarching "control objectives" are further qualified by establishing measurable and attainable objectives for each operational period, and by defined strategies and tactics. All are documented in an IAP. Because event parameters and the status of the components of an asset will change, incident objectives will have to change as the response evolves.

This flux in incident and response conditions is best managed using a deliberate planning process that is based on regular, cyclical reevaluation of the incident objectives. Commonly known in ICS as the planning cycle (see Figure 1-5), this iterative process enhances the integration of public health and medical assets with other response agencies that operate planning cycles.

Figure 1-5. Basic Presentation of a Planning Cycle.[13]

Figure 1-5 shows the basic presentation of a planning cycle. The graphic moves clockwise starting from the upper-right. First stage is to hold a planning meeting to develop strategy, tactics, and assignments to accomplish the objectives. During this stage, information processing and supportive plans are developed. Next stage is to prepare and approve an Incident Action Plan (IAP). Upon approval, this begins the operational period. Next stage is to hold an operational briefing to operations leaders about the IAP. Next stage is to execute the IAP and initiate planning for the next operational period. Next stage is to assess progress using measures of effectiveness. Final stage is to hold a management meeting to evaluate and revise incident objectives. The management meeting denotes the start point for subsequent incident planning cycles. The management meeting also includes information processing and supportive plans development.

The timing of the development of incident action plans should be coordinated among disciplines so that updated information may be shared before strategies and objectives are established. As shown in Figure 1-5, the key steps in the planning cycle are:

  • Transitional management meeting: This marks the transition from reactive to proactive incident management. The transitional meeting brings together the leadership of key response disciplines, defines the primary incident management team, and allows managers to be briefed on the known incident parameters. If the lead incident commander determines that formal incident planning is warranted, the command staff set initial incident goals (i.e., control objectives) and operational period objectives and the planning cycle process moves forward.
  • Planning meeting: Using the objectives set during the transitional (or a subsequent) management meeting, the incident management team, with leaders of key functional areas, sets strategies, general tactics, and major assignments. These are documented by the Planning Section and become a central component of the IAP. For public health and medical disciplines, documentation of an IAP has rarely been undertaken as an essential action during response, and yet it is one of the most effective means for coordinating between multiple locations, resources, and levels of government (see appendix C for an example of an IAP). The addition of supportive plans[14] completes the IAP for the upcoming operational period.
  • Operational briefing: All components of the response system are briefed on the operational period objectives, strategies, tactics, and assignments. The purpose of the operational briefing is to impart information and to raise emergent issues, not to discuss alternative plans, debate choices made in the planning process, or undertake extensive problem solving. In traditional descriptions of ICS, the operational briefing occurs in person, but it may also occur telephonically or through electronic communications. A defined briefing process imposes discipline for the operational briefings so that time constraints are met, distractions are limited, and questions are kept to a minimum.
  • Management meeting: This marks the onset of the next planning cycle. The incident command staff reevaluates the control objectives and progress made in meeting the operational period objectives, based on information collected throughout the operational period. Objectives are revised and new ones are established as appropriate.

The following critical points should be made about the planning cycle:

  • Tiers, and assets within tiers, should attempt to coordinate their planning cycles with that of the primary incident command. This allows information exchange between assets and tiers to promote consistency in the development of incident objectives and strategies.
  • A planning cycle is timed so the operational briefing occurs just before the beginning of work that is guided by the recently completed IAP. This work interval is usually referred to as an operational period. It is beneficial, therefore, for assets directly managed by the IAP to establish common operational periods.
  • Throughout the action planning process, the Planning Section plays a critical role by stewarding the planning activities and processing data into information that is relevant to incident decision-making.

1.4.1. Incident Command versus Regular Administration of an Organization

During an emergency, the normal administrative structure for an organization must continue to operate while actions are carried out under the EOP to address the incident. Issues not related to the incident are best managed, to the extent possible, by the usual, day-to-day administrative system. In a sense, the ICS structure works within and for the organization's usual administrative system. This concept may be obvious to some disciplines such as Fire Fighting (the entire Fire Department is not replaced by the ICS structure during response) but may not be as intuitive in the example of smaller organizations such as some healthcare facilities.

For this reason, it is generally NOT advisable for the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or other senior executive to automatically assume the position of the Incident Commander (IC) for an organization. Instead, this individual may be better situated to serve in the role ICS denotes as "Agency Executive."[15]. This individual maintains overall authority and responsibility for the organization, including the activated incident management team. The executive is involved in the incident by providing policy and strategic direction to the IC, as well as allocating the authority to the IC to manage the incident. The Agency Executive must have access to the IC and may be included in the incident planning meetings.

This concept of an Agency Executive is important for organizations to understand as they seek to develop an effective EOP and interface with other organizations. Even though the ICS for the organization may be clearly delineated, the role of the Agency Executive is not always well addressed.

1.4.2 Unified Command

Multiple organizations may have leadership responsibilities during a mass casualty and/or mass effect event. ICS has a designated model, Unified Command (UC), which allows multiple stakeholders to actively participate in incident management. When this occurs, the resulting UC team promotes cohesive action within the response system, and provides a uniform interface for integration with other tiers. This concept is critically relevant for participation by public health and medical disciplines since they bear a primary responsibility for the well-being of responders and the general population during emergencies or disasters. The UC model provides a mechanism for direct input from public health and medical practitioners at the decision-making level.

UC brings together incident managers of all major organizations involved in the incident to coordinate an effective response, while allowing each manager to carry out his/her own jurisdictional or discipline responsibilities. UC links response organizations at the leadership level, thus providing a forum for these entities to make joint decisions. Under UC, various jurisdictions and/or agencies and non-government responders may work together throughout the incident to create and maintain an integrated response system. UC may be established to overcome divisions from:

  • Geographic boundaries
  • Government levels
  • Functional and/or statutory responsibilities
  • Some combination of the above.

(Adapted from: U.S. Coast Guard Incident Management Handbook, U.S. Coast Guard COMDTPUB P3120.17, April 2001)

Unified, proactive incident command is accomplished through joint decision-making that establishes common incident objectives (i.e., management by objectives). During an incident, clearly delineated goals and objectives are agreed on and formally documented to form the basis of the IAP. To accomplish this strategic guidance throughout an incident, UC must entail:

  • A single integrated management structure for the emergency response
  • Shared or co-located management facilities
  • A single planning process and IAP (single set of goals and objectives)
  • A coordinated process for requesting and managing resources.

1.4.3 Incident Command Versus Incident Support

As previously described, Command and Operations are primarily supported by three internal (within ICS) Sections: Logistics, Planning, and Administration/Finance. However, in large-scale or complex events, incident command may require additional support from entities outside the responsibility/authority of ICS. This commonly occurs through an emergency management operations function—known in NIMS as a Multiagency Coordination System (MACS)—that is usually based in an Emergency Operations Center (EOC).[16]. For Tier 3, it is usually supervised by the jurisdiction's emergency manager.

Figure 1-6. Relationship of UC and the MACS that provide emergency management operations support to the UC.

Figure 1-6 shows the relationship between the unified command and the multiagency coordination center during emergency management operations. The graphic is a bulls-eye design made up of three rings. The outermost ring shows the incident response outside jurisdictional responsibility/authority. This outer ring is made up of the private sector, the Federal Government (through tier 4), Intrastate and interstate agencies (through tier 4), and other intrastate regions. Each of these groups in the outer ring coordinates their efforts through the middle ring. The middle ring is the emergency management operations (situated at the EOC). The middle ring manages jurisdictional issues outside the domain of the incident and integrates local political leaders and incident management. The inner ring, or bulls-eye, is the Unified Command. The inner ring is situated at incident command post which can be in the field or co-located with the EOC).

Multiagency Coordination Systems provide the architecture to support coordination for incident prioritization, critical resource allocation, communications systems integration, and information coordination.[17] The coordination center (EOC and others, see figure 1-7) is referred to in NIMS as the Multiagency Coordination Center (MACC) component of the MACS. It provides support and coordination to the Incident Command, facilitates logistical support, and develops and provides information. The component of the MACS that provides strategic decision-making and policy direction (senior policy groups and others) is referred to as the Multiagency Coordination Group (MAC Group).[18] The MACC implements the MAC Group decisions.[19]

Figure 1-7. Common types of Multiagency Coordination Groups and Centers[20]

Figure 1-7 shows the common types of multiagency coordination groups and centers. The common types of coordination groups are: Crisis action teams, policy committees, MAC group, joint field office coordination group and incident management planning team. The Common types of coordination centers are: emergency operations centers, joint operations center, joint filed office, joint information center, regional response coordination center, national response coordination center and national operations center.

During response, the MACS:

  • Directly supports the UC by providing resources that are not available through incident-specific ICS capabilities. This includes coordinating assistance from outside resources (Federal, State, and other jurisdictions) that cannot be obtained through tactical mutual aid.
  • Directly manages emergency issues related to the incident, but that are outside the scope of the incident as defined by the UC. This may be determined geographically (outside a scene perimeter) or functionally (beyond the scope of the UC control objectives when no single scene exists or when the impact is diffuse). An example is provided below.
  • Provides integration between community political leaders and the incident managers.

Example: In the event of a widespread outbreak of SARS in a jurisdiction, the UC (with lead participation by public health and the acute-care medical community) would establish protocols to guide the medical evaluation and treatment of confirmed and suspected cases, and to address surge capacity needs. In addition, the UC would be responsible for limiting the spread of the disease (as defined by their IAP).

Addressing the needs of travelers stranded when mass transit is disrupted, addressing requests to minimize the effect of school or business closures, and other significant issues may be considered to be functionally outside the scope of the incident response system. The jurisdiction's EOC would manage these issues using its emergency management team and Emergency Support Functions (ESFs), or other task groups.

Because of its complex role, the EOC's organization and management processes must be well defined. The MACS functions should be physically separate from incident management activities, even if they are co-located in the same facility. This critical concept, which is not widely addressed by many medical and public health managers, ensures that the roles and responsibilities of each remain distinct.


  1. "Control objectives" is the NIMS term for overall incident response goals and are not limited
  2. While ICS descriptions of the meetings in the planning process vary across versions, this diagram encompasses the principle actions in all versions of the ICS planning cycle.
  3. Supportive plans include the Safety Plan, the Medical Plan (for responders), communications plan, contingency plans, and others.
  4. Agency Executive is defined as the Chief Executive Officer (or designee) of the agency or jurisdiction that has responsibility for the incident (FEMA ICS definition).
  5. Additional information on MACS can be found in Chapter 2 of the NIMS
  6. The components of MACS (per NIMS) include facilities, equipment, emergency operation centers (EOCs), specific multiagency coordination entities, personnel, procedures, and communications. These systems assist agencies and organizations to fully integrate the subsystems of the NIMS (NIMS glossary).
  7. Multiagency Coordination Group: A Multiagency Coordination Group functions within a broader multiagency coordination system. It may establish the priorities among incidents.
  8. ICS 300 Unit 5: Multiagency Coordination; available through FEMA Emergency Management Institute, Emmitsburg, MD.
  9. ICS 300 Unit 5: Multiagency Coordination; available through FEMA Emergency Management Institute, Emmitsburg, MD.

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  • This page last reviewed: February 14, 2012