Fire Service Incident Command System: Command And Leadership

Fire Service Incident Command System

This drawing by the author depicts the way that ICS is sometimes perceived by members of the fire service.

Through the years, the need to control and coordinate groups requiring teamwork has had many different approaches. From the autocratic manner of the military to the brutish forcefulness of a coal mine boss, the control of segments of a working group has been as varied as the people overseeing the task at hand. In the world of emergency response groups, the need for a system that exercises strong control but remains flexible enough to expand with the size of the incident is required.

This has been accomplished with the evolution of the incident command system (ICS). Though the recent proponents of this command and control system may not be aware of it, the roots of the system fall into set patterns of organizational theory. These patterns were proposed by the founding creators of modern organization administration intending to increase the productivity of industrial systems. These same management systems have come full circle, and the private sector has begun to adapt ICS into its emergency contingency planning, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the realization that disasters, both internal and external, are more manageable with a command and control system in place.

Military Pattern

Until the 1970s, the fire service always dealt with the hierarchy of command by using a military-style template. This is a very fixed scalar system, based on one of Henri Fayol’s 14 administrative principles, found in his paper “General and Industrial Management” in 1916. This ‘scalar chain’ command structure is a system that states: “Complex organizations require a chain of superiors from the highest to lowest levels of authority ....”1 This style worked in environments that were not complex in nature, widespread, and did not involve multiple agencies.

It has been noted that “… traditional bureaucratic or mechanistic systems ostensibly become more unreliable as situational volatility escalates.”2 Those incidents exceeding the resources of a single organization or that cross jurisdictional boundaries also demand a system of control that has a more horizontal component in its structure than the old scalar template allowed. This necessitates the separation of control of each organization’s elements into functional areas, not just along hierarchy lines, and lends itself to Luther Gulick’s ideas of division of labor theories: “If subdivision of work is inescapable, coordination becomes mandatory.”(1)


The need for this increased level of command structure became more evident in the fire service during the increased wildfires that affected the urban interface in the 1970s, primarily in California. Massive incidents required the combined efforts of multiple fire agencies as well as forestry, civil support units, and law enforcement. The problem became multifold in nature: Line supervisors found themselves having to deal with controlling too many subordinates, different command structures involved from the various assisting agencies, and unclear lines of authority.

These problems were addressed through several years of study by the interagency task force known as Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE). This working group found that there were four critical functional areas that would need to be addressed if a usable system were to be developed:

  1. The system must be organizationally flexible to meet the needs of incidents of any kind and size.
  2. Agencies must be able to use the system on a day-to-day basis for routine situations as well as for major emergencies.
  3. The system must be sufficiently standard to allow personnel from a variety of agencies and diverse geographic locations to rapidly meld into a common management structure.
  4. The system must be cost effective.3

After the ICS’s creation, it was seen as a model of organization for more than just wildfires and has been adopted as part of the National Response Plan as the tool for the command and control of incidents.

Separation of Control

Another of the identified areas is the need to separate the different areas of control needed for large, complex incidents. Planning, logistical, and financial controls need to be addressed, but as Fredrick Taylor pointed out, “centralized planning with its attendant separation between planning and doing the work” makes aspects of management easier. (1)

Even a cursory look at the basic organizational chart (another of Fayol’s tools) template for the ICS standard reveals a relationship to the ideas of Fayol, Gulick, and even Fredrick Taylor.4

As seen in the chart, the vertical scalar principles of Fayol are readily apparent; the titles in each box are not important to that fact. The chain of command, from the highest leader to the lowest worker, is based on the principle of hierarchy of “the supreme coordinating authority can operate from the top to the bottom of the organizational structure.” (1)

Communication movement in this type of system flows only up and down the chain, from superior to subordinate and back. In the fire service, this allows the opportunity to have all orders given at the highest level of command follow downward to the proper level necessary to carry the goal out, while all in the chain are aware of the actions and their effect on the overall situation. The exception principle, discussed by Taylor, is also exercised by the ICS. The ICS clearly wants each level to solve its own problems without the intervention of superior levels unless it requires additional resources to do so.

Unity of Command

Fayol is found again in the ICS as it incorporates unity of command, another of his 14 administrative principles. As described by Fayol, “An employee should receive orders from one supervisor only. Dual command generates tension, confusion, and conflict and results in diluted responsibility and blurred communication.”5 This also works in conjunction with Fayol’s span of control principle and is expanded on by Luther Gulick. The number of persons under control must be limited, and that limit, according to Gulick, “varies with the unique abilities of the superior, the nature of the work, size of the organization, and the level of authority.” (1)

The incorporation of these principles, when used according to the ICS, makes the problems of line of authority and too many subordinates answering to one person a thing of the past. Unity of command is used in the private sector through the assembly line boss, the factory foreperson, or the manager of any fast food establishment. Span of control and potential confusion are lessened in these more static work settings, but the stricter span of control in the fire service requires tighter supervision on an incident scene, especially at incidents involving dangerous actions or technical skills from personnel performing the work.

Fayol also indicated that the functional principal, known by Gulick as departmentalization, created the horizontal grouping based on types of work to be performed. In the ICS, this is demonstrated by the horizontal layer of the four management functions: the operations, logistics, planning, and finance sections. Each has scalar components answering to the top, but all the supporting tasks under each are directly related to that section’s function. And each reports to only one section chief.

This sectioning of tasks also enacts the homogeneity principle by Gulick as well. Gulick’s belief was a single organization section must be as small as possible based on its tasking, typing, or technology or it “will encounter the danger of friction and inefficiency.” (1)

One Best Way

There are numerous parallels found in the applications of the management principles when comparing private sector and public sector organizations. Taylor’s “one best way” experiments determined the most efficient way to accomplish the tasks required by an industrial process. Efficiency was increased by carefully observing, measuring, and removing any unnecessary action used to complete said industrial process, thereby maximizing output in such varied industrial needs as assembly lines, field operations, or simple tasks such as shoveling coal. The fire service’s version of “one best way” is seen on the training ground of all fire services, as it is where the most effective methods of fire stream deployment, ground ladder placement, machine/auto extrication methodology, and more are taught.

The difference between an industrial setting and fire service application needs is that industrial settings are static and nonvariable in outcome requirements: Bolt A always goes into slot B. The fire service must adapt to very different potential outcome needs using the basic general operations methods (e.g., a hoseline will always place water on the fire, but how large a diameter, what length needed, and what best gpm and stream shape vary with every incident). The “one best way” for the fire service to accomplish any given task is through preparation, being skilled in as many aspects of the fire service as possible, and applying the most effective solution to the problem currently facing the unit leader.

Cohesive Groups

Another parallel of private sector and fire service use of management theories is adaptation of another of Fayol’s principles, that of esprit de corps: “... the building and maintaining of staff and management morale and unity.” Private sector organizations use branding of the company or product, corporate outings, and other methods to build personnel into cohesive working groups.

Fire service organizations have the advantage of having the very nature of the work performed create bonds in the overall employee group but also routinely allow even tighter internal grouping. Apparatus or station patches are found throughout the fire service, and all fire service personnel wear the emblem of their department on a shoulder, indicating that they are part of something greater than themselves.

Safety and Efficiency

The incident command system is one of the finest examples of organizational management theory being applied to a problem. The need for control was established and a group of subject matter experts took up the task of providing an answer. The principles of the theorists in the science of organization were applied, albeit possibly unintentionally. The results have been dramatic increases in safety and efficiency at incidents of all size and magnitude. The complex administrative principles of formal management theory are routinely exercised by the line firefighter, chief, and local incident commander—even if they never heard of Fayol, Taylor, or Gulick.


1. Tomkins, Jonathan. Organizational Theory and Public Management. Boston: Thompson Wadsworth, 2005.

2. Gregory A Bigley, and Karlene H Roberts. “The incident command system: High-reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments.” Academy of Management Journal 44.6 (2001): 1281-1299. ABI/INFORM Global, ProQuest. Web.

3. National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Incident Command System National Training Curriculum History of ICS, October 1994.


5. Proven Models. fourteen principles of management,

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