ICS and Hazmat: where do we fit in?

CarolinaFireJournal - Glenn Clapp
Glenn Clapp CHMM, CFPS
04/26/2010 -

Hazmat personnel are regularly faced with the question of where do we — hazmat teams and related personnel — fit in within the overall scheme of things in the incident command system (ICS)? Some folks, my wife included, will oftentimes state that we hazmat types don’t ever “fit in” in a given situation. All kidding aside, the ICS template mandated by the National Incident Management System (NIMS) serves as a clear roadmap to our success as hazardous materials responders in relation to the “big picture” of incident or event management.


Let’s look at the basics of ICS.  First of all, how did we end up with the ICS template we are using today? The FIRESCOPE (Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies) template of ICS was developed in the 1970s to ensure a coordinated and competently managed response to wildland fires in California. This template was then merged with that developed by the National Fire Academy (NFA) to arrive at the FIRESCOPE/NFA ICS template in use today. Many responders and ICS students ask the logical question, “Why are we using an ICS model developed for wildland fire incidents to manage both incidents and events of various natures, especially when there have been other ICS models developed for certain types of incidents (i.e. Chief Alan Brunacini’s Fire Ground Command for structural firefighting)?”

The answer is that the FIRESCOPE ICS model is the best fit for managing a diverse array of incidents and events. This fact was solidified by the NIMS in that the FIRESCOPE/NFA ICS template is now mandated to be used throughout the United States for incident/event management.

We will now address the basic tenets of ICS. Sure, we have all been through the required ICS courses that correspond to our position and job responsibilities, but it never hurts to do a quick review. These basic building blocks can be summarized as follows:

The ICS can be used to manage incidents — unplanned occurrences — and events — planned occurrences.

The ICS can be scaled up or down to meet the needs of the incident — only staff the positions that need staffing.

Unity of command is paramount — each person in the system reporting to one and only one supervisor.

A prudent span of control should be maintained. Span of control is the number of entities — personnel, branches, divisions, etc. — supervised by one person (three to seven, with an optimum of five).

If a position is not staffed, the responsibilities of the position fall (or shall we say rise) to the next highest position — delegate, delegate, delegate!

The distinct position titles in the ICS indicate exactly where the position lies in the ICS. See Figure 1.

In terms of ICS positions, one position should always be staffed — that of the Incident Commander (IC). See Figure 2. The IC is the singular person with the responsibility for incident/event management at incidents/events involving one agency. When an incident or event involves more than one agency, a Unified Command (UC) should be developed. A UC ideally consists of a representative from each participating agency (or at a minimum from each discipline) being present in the Command Post to jointly manage the incident. While the current UC model states that each agency may have its own IC and one IC is chosen as the UC “Spokesperson,” the approach oftentimes seen in the field is that of the “Spokesperson” taking the form of an Incident Commander, with the agency representatives of the UC serving as a “think tank” to jointly develop objectives and make decisions. 

The IC or UC may then fill three “Command Staff” positions. These positions include the Safety Officer, Public Information Officer, and Liaison Officer. Note that the distinct position title — as discussed earlier — of Officer is evident. The position of Safety Officer is just that — the person ensuring that all incident/event actions are conducted in a safe manner. The Safety Officer has the unique authority of being able to halt all activities if a safety issue is noticed. The Safety Officer may also have one or more Assistant Safety Officers at large-scale incidents or events. The Public Information Officer (PIO) is the interface between the IC or UC and the media  — and also the public, as our “customers” are the target audience being notified of critical information. The Liaison Officer serves as the single point of contact for outside agencies present at an incident or event, and he or she often winds up being a “referee” that brings order to any disagreements between agencies.

The next step in the ICS structure are the four “General Staff” positions, each termed a Section Chief. The acronym “FLOP” can be applied to these General Staff positions, representing the Finance/Administration, Logistics, Operations, and Planning Sections, each headed by a Section Chief. In simple terms, the Finance/Administration Section “gets you money” or ensures that incident/event finances are tracked and properly managed. The Logistics Section “gets you stuff” in terms of needed assets, which may range from personnel and equipment to port-o-lets. The Operations Section handles the tactics and oversees the in-the-field actions utilized to accomplish the objectives set by the IC/UC, and the Planning Section develops the all-important Incident Action Plan or IAP. A fifth General Staff Section — the Information/Intelligence Section — may be staffed. The Information/Intelligence Section is usually staffed in incidents involving terrorism or with incidents/events requiring the need for intelligence gathering and dissemination. As stated earlier, only the positions that need to be staffed should be staffed. In practical terms, the Finance, Logistics and Planning Sections are normally not staffed in small incidents or events. These sections also may have units staffed within them — or branches and units in the case of the Logistics Section — in incidents or events of larger scale and scope. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we will focus on the Operations Section and how hazmat assets fit within.

In incidents/events where multiple assets are enroute to the scene or are involved, a Staging Area should be initiated to provide a location for resources to gather away from the actual incident scene, or event location, to prevent an excessive number of assets clogging up scene operations or response routes.

The Staging Area is overseen by a Staging Area Manager. I hear the collective sighs from persons accustomed to the former “Staging Officer” terminology. The Staging Area Manager reports to the Operations Section Chief and serves three main functions:

  • Maintaining a specified number and type of resources in the Staging Area as specified by the Operations Section Chief

  • Deploying specified resources to the incident/event scene when requested

  • Requesting additional resources when needed from the Logistics Section Chief or other appropriate source. 

The next level in the ICS scheme of things serves as a span of control measure. Branches — which may be either functionally or geographically oriented and are headed by a Branch Director — may be staffed. Branches normally take the form of functionally-oriented — and oftentimes discipline-specific — structural elements, such as Fire, EMS, and/or Law Enforcement Branches. Again, branches should only be staffed when needed.

Falling under Branches in the ICS structure are — no, not leaves as some students interject after sitting through hours of an ICS class — Divisions and Groups. Divisions and Groups are headed by Division or Group Supervisors and are entities that are geographically defined (Divisions) or functionally defined (Groups). A method for remembering these structural elements is “Divisions stay at home, Groups are free to roam.”We are accustomed to the use of Divisions in structural firefighting, as displayed in the use of Divisions A, B, C, and D and Divisions 1, 2, 3, etc. in such situations.  (Division A being the address side of the structure and continuing in a clockwise manner around the exterior of the structure when viewed from above and Division 1 being the interior first floor, Division 2 the interior second floor, etc.). 

There are also three structural elements that may fall under Divisions or Groups. Although the use of the first two — Strike Teams and/or Task Forces — is most often witnessed in wildland firefighting, these structural elements may prove useful in other types of incidents or events. Strike Teams consist of an arrangement of similar resources — usually five in number — with a Strike Team Leader in charge and a common means of communication. Think of the “s” in Strike Team connotating similar resources. Task Forces consist of differing resources — again usually five in number — and also have a Task Force Leader in charge and a common means of communication. The third structural element falling under Divisions and/or Groups is Single Resources. A Single Resource may take the form of an EMS unit, an engine company, or even a single wildland firefighter. In short, we can see that by utilizing the FIRESCOPE/NFA ICS template and maintaining an optimum span of control of five, an Operations Section Chief can indirectly supervise 625 individual assets (i.e. 625 assets will fall below the Operations Section Chief in the ICS structure).

Now that we have worked through the ICS structure, let us look at how hazmat fits into the picture.

In the past, hazmat teams would fit into the picture as just that — a “Hazmat Team” headed by a Team Leader. Now that the FIRESCOPE/NFA ICS template is being utilized, hazmat teams fit in as a Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) Branch, headed by a Hazmat Branch Director. Some persons may inquire as to why hazmat teams would not fit in as a Hazmat Group. The decision to insert hazmat assets at the Branch level is largely due to the ability to expand the hazmat component if incident or event needs dictate. The Hazmat Branch Director would report to the Operations Section Chief. 

The functional components of a hazmat team — formerly referred to as the Entry Team, Decontamination Team, etc. — can clearly fit in as Groups in the FIRESCOPE/NFA template due to their functional nature. As such, we now may have a Reconnaissance Group, an Entry Group or Groups, a Back-Up Group or Groups, a Decontamination Group and a Research Group. This change in title does take some adjustment for those of us familiar with the previously used “Teams”; however the use of “Group” terminology ensures consistency by all emergency responders across the country. 

There are also two other hazmat-related elements that may be utilized in the FIRESCOPE/NFA ICS template. These include Technical Specialists and the Assistant Safety Officer for Hazardous Materials. Technical Specialists may take the form of personnel with specific knowledge that can be applied during an incident or event. In a hazardous materials incident, a Technical Specialist might take the form of chemical engineers, process managers, or other personnel with specific knowledge of the chemicals and processes involved.

I believe the best ally that I can have at a fixed facility hazmat incident is the process manager who has worked with the same chemicals and processes for 20 or 30 years. Such Technical Specialists would either fit in under the Hazmat Branch and/or possibly under the Planning Section, where in large-scale incidents they would assist with IAP development and overall planning measures.

As stated above, one additional position that may be staffed at hazmat incidents is the Assistant Safety Officer for Hazardous Materials. This position reports to the Safety Officer, and would be staffed when the need for a dedicated Safety Officer to oversee the activities of hazardous materials operations arises. This also predicates the need for staffing the position with an individual that is knowledgeable and well trained and experienced in the hazardous materials arena. Again, this position would focus on Hazmat Branch activities.

In summation, hazmat teams and related personnel do indeed fit into the ICS framework.  Although the specific terminology relating to hazmat components within the ICS may seem vastly different than that utilized in the past, the overarching concept remains the same — to ensure that incidents and events are managed in the most efficient and effective manner possible. While some personnel may grumble at the thought of, or ask why we would even call someone “Decon Group Supervisor” instead of “Decon Team Leader,” the fact is that by doing so we ensure that all responders across the country are “playing off the same sheet of music” and can mesh seamlessly at incident scenes or events.  


Glenn Clapp is President of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and is a Fire Training Commander (Special Operations) for the High Point Fire Department. He is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, a Law Enforcement Hazmat Instructor, and is a Certifi ed Hazardous Materials Manager and Certifi ed Fire Protection Specialist. Additional information on enhanced fi ttings chlorine railcars can be obtained from TRANSCAER at http:// www.transcaer.com/resources.
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