The Incident Command General Staff, Keeping the IC Smart

Last quarter we examined the Incident Command System (ICS) Command Staff (Safety Officer, Liaison Officer and Public Information Officer) and how they keep the Incident Commander (IC) sane. 


This quarter, I would like to examine the ICS General Staff and how they keep the IC smart. The ICS General Staff are made up of the Operations Section Chief, the Planning Section Chief, the Logistics Section Chief, and the Finance/Administration Section Chief. These four individuals are the backbone of the management of any major incident. The General Staff has the potential to make the IC look very smart or very dumb. 

Operations Section Chief

Let’s start with the Operations Section Chief. This person is responsible for organizing the task level work given the resources available. Operations are very easy on a dumpster fire with one engine and four people; however, it becomes much more complex when there are many, many resources present. At a wildland fire in California in the 2000s, an IC ordered 250 type 1 engines in a single radio transmission.  As cool as that would be to do, managing all of those resources is difficult once they arrive unless you divide the labor. This division of labor often takes the shape of our branches, divisions, groups, strike teams, task forces, etc. We use branches to separate functional or geographical responsibility for major aspects of incident operations (fire, EMS, air ops), divisions to separate geographical areas (north division), groups to separate functions (triage group, search and rescue group), strike teams for a collection of the same type of resources (five Type 1 Engines), and task forces for a collection of different types of resources — one Type 1 engine, two Type 2 Ambulances, one Type 1 aerial.

Without this division of labor, our Operations Section Chief would go crazy trying to answer hundreds of people on the radio (all with different needs). Although the Operations Section Chief controls the task level work — putting fires out and treating/transporting patients — it is done from a strategic level. This means the Ops Chief has to take the strategies and tactics developed by the IC (and the other General Staff) and turn them into tasks that are communicated to the troops “on the street.” More importantly, the Ops Chief takes information from the troops “on the street” and transmits it back to the IC and General Staff. This is particularly important when the plan is not going well. The two-way communication allows the Ops Chief to adjust tactics as necessary to accomplish the overall goal of the incident.

Planning Section Chief

Next, we have the Planning Section Chief. This individual is responsible for supervision of the resource unit, the situation unit, the documentation unit and the demobilization unit. The resources unit is responsible for tracking all currently, and ordered, resources. This is important so that we can ensure we are meeting the needs of the Ops Section. The situation unit works closely with the public information officer, Planning Section Chief and IC to ensure that all involved maintain an accurate picture of the progress of the incident. The documentation unit records all incident activities (arrival and departure of resources, incident milestones, etc.) and is extremely important after the incident is over and reimbursement/recovery begins.

Demobilization Unit

Finally, we have the demobilization unit. This unit is responsible for planning on returning everything that we ordered to service at the conclusion of the incident. The Planning Section Chief takes all of this information, as well as information from the other General Staff members, and compiles it into an Incident Action Plan (IAP). The IAP is a document or playbook by which every person on the incident functions. It serves as a reference for the status of resources, incident objectives, strategies and tactics, radio channels, medical resource locations, etc. The IAP is an ever-changing document so it requires a lot of attention and is one of the primary tasks that the Planning Section must complete. 

Logistics Section Chief

The Logistics Section Chief is the next member of the General Staff. The Logistics section is responsible for getting us all the stuff we need to operate at the incident. This Logistics Chief supervises the Service Branch, made up of the Communications Unit, Medical Unit, and Food Unit as well as the Support Branch, made up of the Supply Unit, Facilities Unit and the Ground Support Unit. The communications unit ensures that we all have radios that can talk to one another. The medical unit provides first aid and medical support to incident personnel. The food unit ensures that all of the incident personnel have food and water while operating. The supply unit ensures that all incident personnel have what they need to perform their tasks at the incident. The facilities unit ensures that we have the facilities we need to operate at the incident — command post, staging areas, incident base. The ground support unit ensures that we have ground support resources — golf carts, four-wheelers, side-by-sides, passenger vehicles — to move personnel around the incident as needed. The Logistics Section is responsible for getting what we need, whether it is food for the troops, resources for operations, supplies to perform tasks, or facilities to house people or functions.

Finance/Administration Section

The final, and often overlooked, member of the General Staff is the Finance/Administration Section. The Finance Section Chief is responsible for supervising the time unit, procurement unit, compensation/claims unit, and the cost unit. The time unit tracks the time spent by each individual and resource for the purpose of billing and reimbursement. The procurement unit secures outside resources or contractors related to the incident — like a clean-up contractor or debris management agency. The compensation/claims unit attends to any incident personnel that are injured during the course of their duties at the incident. Documenting the first report of injury and subsequent treatment is important for any of our personnel and essential for any personnel from surrounding jurisdictions. Finally, we have the cost unit. This unit tracks all costs associated with the incident from the food we purchase to the hourly rate of the resources we have operating. Not many incidents require a finance section. You have probably never been to a dumpster fire that had a compensation/claims unit set up. However, it is this modular organization of the incident command system that makes it successful. These sections grow as the incident grows taking into account the necessary units to successfully prosecute the incident.

The members of the General Staff (the Section Chiefs) and the Command Staff (Safety, Liaison and Public Information Officers) along with the Incident Commander make up the Incident Management Team (IMT). Make no mistake. Managing a large incident is a team sport. Those that try to be IC, Ops Chief, Food Unit Leader and Procurement Unit Leader are destined to fail. In my jurisdiction, we use a hybrid ICS command structure in our Emergency Operations Section (EOC) which has each section chief responsible for more than what is listed above. The amount of information and requests can be overwhelming in a large incident. Having talented people in the General Staff helps to free up the Incident Commander to focus on the overall incident and not one specific area. I am fortunate enough to work with some extremely talented incident managers and when they are serving as Section Chiefs on incidents or in the EOC, they are superb at managing the high volume of information and resource requests as well as the operational aspects of the incident. In fact, a high performing incident management team probably doesn’t even need the Incident Commander unless a decision has to be made. A high performing incident management team, like the one I am fortunate enough to work with, can manage anything that is thrown their way. That is what any smart IC wants at every incident that requires a large command structure.

Be safe and do good.

Dr. David A. Greene has over 25 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at

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