The rules of incident command

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Bierling
By John Bierling
08/04/2013 -

If you’ve been following along, you know that I have some very specific ideas about building the Incident Command System (ICS). There is a lot to learn and the process can sometimes seem overwhelming. Of course, we all know that no matter how well we do with the ICS, after the incident someone will come along and tell you (or the entire world) that they could have done a better job. We’ll address this later.


Because there is a lot to this process, I have developed, what I call, the rules of incident command. Now these are just my rules and you can certainly develop your own; however, please consider this in your study and execution of ICS.

By “rules” I really do mean rules. These are the essential elements necessary in building and using the incident command system. The good news is that there are only three “Rules of Incident Command.”

  1. Manage your span of control
  2. Use the terms and definitions correctly
  3. Be sure everyone goes home at the end of the day.

Manage Span of Control

The first rule is to manage your span of control. This is first because there is only one reason for ICS to exist and only one purpose for all the parts and pieces of ICS and that is to help us manage our span of control. Now we all know that span of control is defined as the number of people that one person can effectively supervise. In the ICS that number is three to seven with the optimum number being five. This is so important that I would argue that when bad things happen in the command and control arena it is (nearly) always because we have exceeded our span of control. When we exceed the span of control our well disciplined people will begin to freelance. When freelancing breaks out, three things automatically happen:

  1. We lose accountability for our people.
  2. We comprise their safety.
  3. Our system of incident command immediately begins to break down.

At this point in our incident command lives, CHAOS breaks out and overwhelms us. None of that sounds very nice, hence, the reason that managing our span of control is the first rule of incident command.

Know ICS

The second rule is a bit more complicated. Use the terms and definitions correctly. That means that we must know and understand all the parts and pieces of ICS and use then in the correct way when building our command structure in whatever position we occupy. There is no excuse to misuse the terms and definitions of ICS. All the information is available and easily learned.

When we violate the second rule we are unable to work with our response partners, we are unable to communicate in the system and we become an island that no one else can reach because we are using the system incorrectly. Sound pretty bad? Easy fix, use the terms and definitions correctly.

Everyone Goes Home

The third rule of incident command is to Be sure Everyone Goes Home at the End of the Incident. Hold up on the e-mails, I know this is our most important and sacred duty but these are my rules and I get to put them in order. The reason this is the third rule of incident command is that if we do the first two well this one should take care of itself.

Have no doubts, this is our most important responsibility. Effective command and control will improve our chances of protecting our people and being sure they go home at the end of the day.

Look carefully at these three rules. They take the mystique and complexity out of ICS. They don’t let you off the hook of building ICS every time or of learning ICS and being the best you can be in the incident command system.

Oh, by the way, about that person who criticized your ICS at the last incident, if you have followed the three rules of incident command, tell them to get their own incident because you have done it the right way.

John Bierling has been in the emergency services for more than 45 years including 17 years as a Chief Fire Officer. Chief Bierling is the CEO of The Incident Management Team, a consulting company that teaches incident management and facilitates the OurTown Diorama Incident Command Training Programs throughout the nation. He can be reached at [email protected] and his website is
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