ICS 201: How to Create Order from Chaos
By Brett Martinez

Sometime in the last few years, your eyes probably glazed over while attending a mandated course on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). If you’re an officer, or a firefighter hoping to promote (or just someone with masochistic tendencies), you may also have attended additional courses, such as the 200, 300 and 400 series—this is a requirement to be eligible for federal grants.

As much as I mock, I do believe these courses are beneficial; further, I believe all first responders, not just officers, should be well-versed in the components of the ICS to ensure that we’re all on the same page. But NIMS can seem intimidating if you’re unclear or unfamiliar with how the system works. Although the ICS courses offer some insight into how ICS is used in an emergency or non-emergency situation, it rarely brings the operational training down to the level of day-to-day municipal response.


ICS: The Incident Command System (ICS) is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach that:

  • Allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure.
  • Enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and functional agencies, both public and private.
  • Establishes common processes for planning and managing resources.

NIMS: The National Incident Management System (NIMS) provides a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to work seamlessly to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of incidents, regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity, in order to reduce the loss of life and property and harm to the environment.

Most incidents we operate at are Type 4 or 5, but when the more complex incidents hit, knowledge of the ICS is essential for effective management. Photo courtesy Brett Martinez

More resources don't always lead to the most effective command and control. Complex incidents where many resources respond can be chaotic without clearly defined roles and communication. Photo courtesy Brett Martinez

The 201 form will quickly allow the IC (or other staff) to document an escalating event. In the first critical hours (before the written incident action plan is developed), the transition of command may rely on the information documented on the 201 form. Photo courtesy Dennis Whittam

As with most of the sections in the 201 form, the summary of current actions is an excellent document from which to brief incoming personnel and to conduct a transfer of command. Photo courtesy Dennis Whittam

Additional Resources
  • New 2010 ICS Forms
  • NIMS Appendix B: Incident Command System presents detailed information about the ICS organization, ICS Sections, Area Command, incident facilities and locations, and the planning process. The appendix also includes examples of ICS forms and a summary of major ICS positions.
  • The ICS Resource Center includes a summary of ICS principles, job aids, position checklists, forms and reference materials.
  • Completed ICS 201 form as an example: DOC122110.pdf

The result: Members don’t trust the ICS, claiming that the “Feds are going to take over our incidents” or that “We’re being told how to run our incidents.” The truth: A basic premise of NIMS is that all incidents begin and end locally. NIMS does not take command away from state and local authorities; it simply provides the framework to enhance the ability of responders, including the private sector and NGOs, to work together more effectively.

Personnel also claim that NIMS/ICS isn’t useful for East Coast first responders or that they already have the concept of ICS forms instituted in their own system. The truth: The foundation for ICS principles embedded in NIMS do have origins in the West Coast wildland environment, they should not be automatically dismissed. In fact, to be NIMS compliant, you need to use the ICS structure described in the current version of NIMS.

I think the key lies in understanding how to relate the ICS to everyday incidents. And we can start with the ICS 201 form.

Command & Control

No matter what method is employed, capturing critical information transfers it from the mind of the incident commander (IC) to a written document that all staff can see and work from to better understand the IC’s goals and objectives. The ICS 201 form accomplishes this in three ways:

1. It captures all the information needed to begin the incident management functions;
2. It allows the IC and staff to manage incident information as the incident changes; and
3. It helps train new officers by allowing them to read what was done, when it was done, who did it and most importantly, what the IC’s goals and objectives were for the event.

Most incidents that we operate at are Type 4 or 5; command and control functions under these conditions are manageable without any additional assets required. It’s during those rare incidents that grow into multifaceted, multi-jurisdictional and multi-dimensional events (Type 1, 2 and 3 events) where we are effectively beyond the scale of our capabilities that we look toward other tools to help manage the growing chaos.

But most first responders, especially those on the East Coast, lack experience with Type 1, 2 or 3 incident management. This is not due to lack of incidents or events; it’s primarily due to resources. Unlike western incidents (specifically wildland fires), where limited resources must confront multiple incidents over vast distances, resources along the East Coast are in greater quantity in a much denser area.

But more resources don’t always lead to the most effective command and control; in some cases, they increase chaos as members freelance and incident objectives fail to get communicated or clearly defined because no one’s sure who’s in charge. ICS methods and forms will help reduce chaos and improve command and control, but only if officers are familiar with them. That’s why it’s important to use ICS Form 201 at bread-and-butter calls—so you know how to use it when facing “the big one.”

When & Who
When should the ICS 201 form be used? The simple answer to this question would be at every call, but this isn’t practical. The better answer would be at incidents that require actual fire suppression or mitigation functions. The key to all these incidents is time or, more specifically, the time on scene and the time combined with the resources required to mitigate the event. Simply put: ICS forms are a tool that helps us manage resources such as the Apparatus, the Personnel and the Equipment (or the APE) in a timely fashion over a given operational period. If you can control the APE, you can command the event.  

The majority of incidents we respond to are mitigated in far less than 12 hours. How do we determine which incidents will escalate and which will rapidly mitigate? Size-up is one way. And the 201 form is one of the best tools available to document, incident actions, objectives and organization from the beginning.

The 201 form will quickly allow the IC (or other staff) to document an escalating event. If the incident does extend into multiple operational periods, it will require relief and transition of personnel, who will require briefings and orders. In the first critical hours (before the written incident action plan is developed), the transition of command may rely on the information documented on the 201 form. It is critical to remember that the actions of those first on the scene will set the tempo for the rest of the event.

In short, filling out the 201 form upon completion of the 360-degree size-up or after the deployment of personnel is strongly recommended. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but must be legible.  

The 201 form should be considered for use by any IC when conditions allow. The key phrase in this statement is “when conditions allow.” Immediate span of control may not allow or require the need for the 201 form. Example: If the IC is the first-arriving officer establishing command with the primary duties of leading a fire suppression team, the IC may not have the time to fill out a 201 form. On the other hand, if the IC is a chief officer or the third fire suppression officer arriving on the scene of a motor vehicle crash (MVC), then it would be a great opportunity to fill out the form.

When possible, the first officer establishing command should attempt to begin filling in the 201 form, but completing it may fall to a chief’s aide or someone assigned to the command or general staff. For this reason, it’s important for all personnel to be familiar with the 201 form.

Filling Out the ICS 201 Form
The 201 form is one of the simplest ICS document to employ. Although there are formal instructions available, it’s somewhat self-explanatory. You can purchase command boards with color-coded fields and charts, but these boards can be confusing to the untrained eye. ICS forms are simple, free and available instantly off the Internet. Remember: To be NIMS-compliant, your department must use the ICS structure described in the current version of NIMS, and to receive federal grants, departments must be NIMS-compliant.

What follows is a breakdown of the sections of the 201 form and how each section could be applied to our everyday response.

Sketch or Map Section
The “SKETCH OR MAP” section is where you draw a quick display of the incident—this is especially helpful for incidents that cover large geographic areas as well as incidents that require the response of multiple units working in a coordinated operation.

Items to include in your sketch/map: a small legend identifying the time the sketch was created, symbols to designate objects such as apparatus, vehicles and/or structures involved, wind direction and the points of the compass. The sketch should also include operational sectors and/or exposure sides, which are usually designated by streets, highways or structural sides or significant land formations. Locations of key staff and/or branches are also documented, designated with ICS-compliant abbreviations such as CP for command post or ICP for incident command post as well as STAG for staging.

You’ll get better at drawing the sketch or map the more you draw them, so you should try to draw one at every incident in which you use the ICS 201 form. A good example is an MVC. Your drawing would include street orientation, vehicle locations, victim locations, apparatus placement and modified traffic flows. The legend could be used to explain the priority for care (triage) as well as the priority for rendering safe vehicles (fuel leaks, battery disconnect and vehicle towing).

Summary of Current Actions
The “SUMMARY OF CURRENT ACTIONS” section, also known as the “EVENT HISTORY,” allows for a brief description of what has occurred and what is being attempted. During any bread-and-butter incident, this section can be employed to capture initial actions taken and the goals and objectives of the incident. Example:
“A fire in a private boat in dry dock with extension to multiple exposures along the east and west side, located in the XYZ Marina. The Marina runs along Shore Road with the Bay to the south exposure and residential homes to the north exposure.”

Goals & Objectives
Some 201 forms will have a separate section for “GOALS AND OBJECTIVES,” while others may incorporate it under the “SUMMARY OF CURRENT ACTIONS.” Regardless of where the Goals and Objectives are located, they should be addressed. This will not be a detailed plan or strategy and tactics discussion. It should only be a few bullet points that make sense and are consistent with safe practices. Example:
·    “FD personnel will support LE operations w/fire suppression and EMS capability during hostage situation at the XYZ High School.”
·    “All FD personnel will stage beyond the ballistic range of all weapons systems known and believed in hot zone.”   
·    “FD personnel will not enter the hot zone until directed by Unified Command.”
·    “FD will establish EMS triage on the north and south sides of High School beyond hot zone.”

As with most of the sections in the 201 form, the summary of current actions is an excellent document from which to brief incoming personnel and to conduct a transfer of command. If staffing and time during initial suppression don’t allow for these sections to be completed, don’t discard the opportunity for practice. Once time and staffing allow, fill these sections out to document further mitigation functions that occur during the operation. Examples: overhaul teams during large scene fires, mid- and high-rise operations and fuel spill mitigation during MVCs.

Organizational Chart
The ORGANIZATIONAL CHART is a simple span-of-control diagram based on the pyramid concept, with the IC position at the top, spreading out in branches to the key positions of Operations, Logistics, Planning and in some cases Finance. Below each of these branches are additional positions that may or may not be labeled as Divisions/Groups/Units or specialized positions, such as staging, supply and transportation under Logistics. Resource and situation units are identified under Planning. The Operations branch may also be broken down by sectors. Off to one side of the IC could be the Safety Officer and PIO. These branches help to address where each resource belongs in the chain of command and who answers to whom.

On the same page above or below the diagram, there’s usually a chart allowing the same key command positions to be populated with additional detail. These boxes should be populated with the names and, when possible, radio call signs of each individual assigned. Note: It’s not necessary to fill every box, but filling as many of the key top positions will be critical.

Resources Summary
The “RESOURCES SUMMARY” section allows for a simple listing of the Apparatus, Personnel and Equipment (APE) currently employed and available on scene. In most cases, it will contain three separate fields or grids to allow the documentation of the resource requested, the agency they represent and their current location and/or assignment.

Place the APE resources in the first column on the left side of the form. In the next column, place the resources identifier or call sign. In the next column, write in the resource expected time of arrival or actual arrival time. And in the last column, describe the assignments and/or location of the APE.

This section is useful in almost any incident that involves multiple resources and should not only focus on fire and EMS, but could include law enforcement, public utilities and special services such as private hazmat cleanup companies and municipal road maintenance personnel. Depending on the incident’s initial complexity, this section can be used for company and/or personnel accountability.

Start Using It!
Now that we have briefly discussed the methods for organizing and documenting the chaos, it is up to you to begin using this form. The ICS 201 form is a tool, and as with any other tool, the only way you will become proficient with it is to use it. Practice with it at drills, planning stages of events and at actual incidents. No matter how small the drill or incident, knowledge and skills gained will pay off tenfold during the “big one”—placing you ahead of the chaos.   

Brett Martinez has been certified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as an accelerant detection canine handler since 1991. He has been a fire marshal with the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services for 21 years. He has also been a firefighter with the Hauppauge Fire Department since 1983. Martinez holds an associate’s degree in fire science and is a certified peace officer, Level 2 fire investigator and Level 1 fire instructor with New York State. He is also the coordinator of the Suffolk County Arson Task Force and a member of the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council in New York.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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