The Role and Responsibility of an Incident Commander in Emergency Management

incident commander in major incidents

What is an Incident Commander?

The Incident Commander (IC) is the individual at the top of the Incident Command System, providing leadership and direction. They are responsible for all aspects of an emergency response, integrating various incident management functions—operations, planning, logistics, and finance/administration—into a unified strategy. This coordination is crucial for the effective handling of major incidents, ranging from natural disasters to man-made crises, such as civil disorder, biological or chemical threats, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a key component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and serves as its operational component. It is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach that allows responders to adopt an integrated organizational structure equal to the complexity and demands of any single incident or multiple incidents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for creating and updating the policies and guidelines that form the foundation of these systems.


Incident Commander Roles & Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of an Incident Commander are multifaceted, requiring a blend of strategic planning, resource management, and leadership skills. Here is a detailed exploration of the primary duties of an Incident Commander:

1. Developing Objectives

One of the major responsibilities of an IC is to establish clear and achievable objectives for the incident response. These objectives serve as the foundation for all subsequent planning and operations. Incident Commanders must assess the situation, identify the most pressing issues, and set priorities that align with the overall mission. This involves:

    • Conducting initial and ongoing situational assessments
    • Consulting with internal and external stakeholders and subject matter experts
    • Defining specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objectives
    • Communicating these objectives clearly to all emergency response workers

2. Managing Operations

The Incident Commander is responsible for overseeing all operational activities during an incident. This includes directing and coordinating emergency response efforts to ensure that they are effective and aligned with the established objectives. Key aspects of managing operations include:

    • Establishing an operational structure that can adapt to the needs of the incident
    • Supervising the execution of the Incident Action Plan (IAP)
    • Monitoring progress and making real-time adjustments as needed
    • Ensuring that all incident response actions comply with safety protocols and procedures

3. Applying Resources

Efficient resource management is vital for a successful response to a major incident. The IC must allocate resources, including personnel, equipment, and supplies, in a manner that maximizes their effectiveness. This entails:

    • Identifying and procuring necessary resources
    • Deploying resources to the areas where they are most needed
    • Tracking resource usage and maintaining an inventory
    • Coordinating with logistics to replenish supplies as needed

4. Preserving Safety and Security

The Incident Commander is also responsible for preserving the safety and welfare of the employees and all personnel involved in the incident management. This involves:

    • Ensuring that all safety protocols, such as the use of PPE, hazard assessments, and safety briefings are being conducted
    • Continuously evaluating the health and safety conditions of the incident site
    • Establishing perimeter controls to prevent unauthorized access
    • Coordinating with security personnel to maintain order and address any security threats

5. Maintaining Control

Maintaining control of the incident scene is crucial to prevent chaos and ensure a coordinated response. The IC must establish a command presence and keep the operation organized. This involves:

    • Setting up and maintaining a command post
    • Establishing clear lines of communication
    • Implementing a structured incident management system (IMS)
    • Monitoring all aspects of the response to maintain situational awareness

6. Anticipating Changes

Incidents are dynamic and can evolve rapidly. The Incident Commander must anticipate potential changes and be prepared to adapt the incident response strategy accordingly. This proactive approach by incident commanders includes:

  • Continuously monitoring the incident and assessing new information
  • Identifying potential challenges and developing contingency plans
  • Adjusting the IAP to address emerging threats or opportunities
  • Maintaining flexibility and the ability to pivot as the situation changes


Incident Command Staff Organizational Chart

The Incident Command System (ICS) is designed to provide a flexible and scalable response structure for managing future incidents of any size or complexity. Central to this system is the Incident Command Staff Organizational Chart, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of key personnel within the ICS. The Incident Command System structure is divided into Command Staff and General Staff, each with distinct roles and responsibilities that support the IC.

Command Staff

The Command Staff consists of positions that provide essential support and coordination functions to the IC. These roles include:

    • Public Information Officer (PIO): Manages communication between the incident management team and the public, media, and other key stakeholders. The PIO ensures that the public is informed about the incident's status and response efforts, mitigating misinformation and panic.
    • Safety Officer: Secures the safety of all personnel involved in the incident response. The Safety Officer has the authority to stop any operation that poses a risk to personnel, prioritizing the well-being of emergency responders.
    • Liaison Officer: Acts as the primary point of contact for all cooperating and assisting agencies. The Liaison Officer is responsible for making all agencies work together seamlessly, avoiding duplication of efforts, and resolving any interagency conflicts.

General Staff

The General Staff is responsible for the major functional areas of emergency management, divided into four key sections:

    • Operations Section Chief: Manages all tactical operations directly related to the incident response. The Operations Section Chief is responsible for developing and implementing operational strategies, coordinating field operations, and overseeing the execution of the Incident Action Plan.
    • Planning Section Chief: Responsible for collecting, evaluating, and disseminating information about the incident. The Planning Section Chief ensures that all aspects of the incident are well-documented and that plans are updated as the situation evolves.
    • Logistics Section Chief: Provides the resources and services needed to support the incident resolution process. The Logistics Section Chief ensures that all logistical needs are met, enabling the emergency response team to focus on their tasks.
    • Finance/Administration Section Chief: Handles financial, administrative, and cost-related aspects of the incident. The Finance/Administration Section Chief ensures that all financial transactions are documented and that the incident response stays within budget.

The Incident Commander sits at the top of the chain of command, with the Command Staff and General Staff reporting directly to them. This well-defined hierarchy helps maintain order and discipline, ensuring that all team member understand their roles and responsibilities and that directives from the IC are executed promptly and accurately.


How to become an Incident Commander?

Becoming an Incident Commander requires a unique combination of certain qualities and skills that enable them to handle the complexities of emergency management. These include:

  1. Decision-making under pressure: The Incident Commander must be able to make quick, informed decisions in high-stress situations to ensure timely and appropriate responses.
  2. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills: Clear and effective communication is important for an IC to convey information accurately to diverse groups and build trust.
  3. Situational awareness and analytical thinking: Maintaining situational awareness and using analytical thinking helps the Incident Commander understand the incident's status and foresee challenges.
  4. Leadership and ability to delegate tasks effectively: Strong leadership and effective delegation enable the Incident Commander to guide and empower emergency response teams while managing the incident efficiently.
  5. Problem-solving and critical thinking skills: An IC needs to identify problems and develop effective solutions promptly, using critical thinking to manage complex situations.
  6. Adaptability and ability to manage changing situations: An IC must be able to adjust plans and strategies as needed to respond to evolving circumstances and unexpected challenges. The ability to remain calm and composed under pressure is also essential to resolve incidents as quickly as possible.

How is the Incident Commander Selected?

The selection of an Incident Commander often depends on the nature of the incident and the available personnel. Typically, individuals with significant experience in emergency management and relevant training are chosen. The selection process may involve assessments of leadership qualities, decision-making skills, and situational awareness.


Incident Command Training Program

Training is essential for anyone aspiring to become an IC. Incident command training programs cover various aspects and processes of emergency management, including:

    • ICS principles and structure
    • Developing and implementing IAPs
    • Leadership and decision-making in high-pressure environments
    • Communication and coordination with multiple agencies
    • Resource management and logistics
    • Safety protocols and risk management

These programs often include a combination of classroom instruction and practical exercises, typically ranging from 40 to 80 hours of training spread over several sessions. Successful completion of these training programs prepares individuals to handle the complexities and challenges of the Incident Commander role when an incident occurs.


FAQs about Incident Commander

Who selects the Incident Commander?

The Incident Commander is typically selected by the agency or organization with jurisdiction over the incident, based on experience, training, and leadership abilities.

What is the Incident Commander's first objective?

The Incident Commander's first objective is to assess the situation and establish clear, achievable objectives for the incident response.

What are the fundamentals of incident command?

The fundamentals of incident command include establishing a clear command structure, defining roles and responsibilities, setting objectives, allocating resources, and maintaining effective communication.

What is the difference between Incident Manager and Incident Commander?

The terms are often used interchangeably, but generally, the Incident Commander directly oversees the on-scene response to emergencies, while an Incident Manager may refer to a broader role that includes overseeing multiple incidents or providing support from a higher organizational level.

What is Incident Commander chain of command?

The Incident Commander's chain of command is the hierarchical structure that defines the authority and reporting relationships within the incident management organization, ensuring clear lines of communication and decision-making.

Who reports directly to the Incident Commander?

The Command Staff (Public Information Officer, Safety Officer, Liaison Officer) and General Staff (Operations Section Chief, Planning Section Chief, Logistics Section Chief, Finance/Administration Section Chief) report directly to the Incident Commander.

Who has overall responsibility for managing the on-scene incident?

The Incident Commander has overall responsibility for managing the on-scene incident.


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The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.