Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies



The incident command system (ICS) is a federally adopted approach for the systematic management of all types of incidents. ICS provides clear procedures for inter-agency coordination and outlines roles and responsibilities for incident responders. Rather than just defining who is in charge, ICS provides the management structure for who is in charge of what. ICS allows agencies to work together using common terminologies and operating procedures. An important outcome of the use of ICS is that command personnel have a better understanding of other agencies’ priorities, leading to fewer conflicts and greater effectiveness of response. However, because of the many agencies involved in incident response, this is a process that is under continual attention and improvement.

Unified command (UC) provides a management structure that allows agencies with incident responsibilities to work within an established set of common objectives and strategies that can include:

  • Agency assignments
  • Incident priorities
  • Assignment of agency objectives
  • Communications protocols
  • Knowledge of duties within agency responsibilities
  • Acquisition and allocation of materials and resources

When applied effectively, UC benefits facilitate the ability of multiple agencies to work together, fostering a cooperative environment. Duplication of tasks can be avoided, and greater teamwork leads to efficiencies in response. UC allows all agencies with jurisdictional authority to provide managerial direction at an incident scene while maintaining a common set of objectives and strategies.

Command staff report directly to the incident commander. The identity of this person actually depends on the priority of the mission at the time. Fire-rescue or EMS is typically in charge until the injured are treated and moved. Once priorities shift to investigation, law enforcement takes over. As the incident moves into clean-up/recovery, command can shift to the transportation agency or towing contractor. Personnel participate actively until they no longer have a role at the incident. During this process, other agencies have the opportunity to participate in decision-making and provide direction to their own personnel; however, overall charge resides in the incident commander.

Table 2. Typical Roles and Responsibilities Within the UC Structure 21

Incident Responder

Role and Responsibilities

Incident Commander

  • Overall incident management
  • Has clear authority and knowledge of policies and procedures
  • Determines priorities and strategies
  • Coordinates operations

Information Officer

  • Develops and releases information to news media, incident personnel, and other appropriate organizations

Liaison Officer

  • Used during multi-jurisdictional incidents
  • Point of contact for representatives from other agencies
  • Contact for personnel from other agencies with roles in response support

Agency Representatives

  • Individuals assigned to the incident response from other cooperating agencies with delegated authority to make decisions on their agency’s participation at the incident

Safety Officer

  • Develops and recommends measures to assure personnel safety and assess unsafe/hazardous situations
  • Monitors incident operations and operational safety for incident responders