Unified Command is More than about Authority - It is also about Respect

Unified Command is the corner stone on the Incident Command System (ICS) when more than one agency or jurisdiction - as well as a company - is involved in emergency management at the site (Command Post) and field (tactical) levels of response.  However, Unified Command is the least understood aspect of ICS.

Operational Guideline on Unified Command
Op Guide - ICS Unified Command.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 1.4 MB

Managing a major emergency – especially a complex, multi-jurisdictional response – is one of the most difficult challenges facing agencies and industries.  Effective coordination among local, provincial, and federal responders – in conjunction with the Responsible Party (spiller or a facility owner) - at the incident site is often key to ensuring successful response.  Both the application of the Incident Command System and Unified Command are means to effectively join efforts from multiple agencies, as well as the private sector (company, contractors).  They are two important tools available for the emergency community to foster a successful, cohesive response regardless of the size and complexity of an incident.  


To the uninitiated, the Incident Command System (ICS) appears complex, and the concept of Unified Command (UC) is not universally understood or endorsed by all agencies and industries.  The purpose of this document is to instil a greater understanding and appreciation of the ICS and Unified Command to manage an emergency.  The document’s main focus is on Unified Command, its arrangements, merits, and application for managing emergencies whether a spill, flood, fire, crime, or seismic event.


The ICS was developed in 1976 specifically to manage multi-agency response to urban interface forest fires in California – of which Unified Command remains an essential component.  Unified Command was created in recognition that most incidents (spills, forest fires, floods) have impacts that cross jurisdictional boundaries such as local, federal, provincial, international, and First Nations (Aboriginal).  Furthermore, authority's for incident response are not normally legally confined to a single jurisdiction or agency. There is often the need to delineate and share response responsibilities.


A premise of Unified Command is that the responders - whether government or industry - generally hold common goals such as the protection of people, property, and the environment.  As such, there is a common desire to achieve mutually-agreed-on response objectives, strategies and tactics.  Unified command assists in meeting common tactical goals and varied values (business, environmental, public safety etc.).  As such, Unified Command is when more than one agency has a shared role to formulate response objectives and strategies and to work as an integrated Incident Management Team.  This arrangement also applies when a facility owner is involved due to business loss (structural fire or failure), impacts to the environment (spiller/polluter), consequences to public safety (dam safety, agricultural health), or combinations thereof.

Unified Command is an integral part of the ICS that helps define the “rules of engagement”. Unified Command is defined as:

A unified team effort which allows all agencies with responsibility for the incident, either jurisdictional or functional - and a company if a facility owner or responsible for pollution or public safety impact - to manage an incident by establishing a common set of incident objectives and strategies. This is accomplished without losing or abdicating agency or corporate authority, responsibility, or accountability.


The ICS is an on-site (Incident Command Post) organization to manage emergency response in the field, whereas Unified Command is an arrangement for managing multi-jurisdictional / multi-agency / corporate interests and efforts within the ICS.  Understanding the concepts of ICS/Unified Command is as important for local responders (Fire, Police, Ambulance, Public Works), who generally arrive on-scene first, as it is for Company, Provincial and/or Federal organizations that may be joining the Incident Management Team later at an Incident Command Post. 

The concept of Unified Command simply means that all departments and government agencies and company who have a functional, jurisdictional, or legal responsibility at an incident contribute to the process of:

  • Determining overall response strategy and objectives; 
  • Insuring that joint planning for response activities will be accomplished; 
  • Insuring that integrated operations are conducted; 
  • Making maximum use of all assigned resources, and 
  • Keeping track of financial costs. 


The process of Unified Command encompasses consensus decision-making, delineating activities, and sharing responsibilities(tactics and management), rather than the more traditional "Command and Control" approach whereby there is only one authority.  The latter model often leaves important stakeholders only as advisors - allowing in put only when asked.  


Unified Command is essentially about “respect”.  The choosing of members to be part of a Unified Command is first and foremost about respecting a jurisdiction’s or agency’s role to govern and to represent affected populace, economies and environments and/or mandates. 


In the case of a company whose business is affected (e.g. structural fire or failure), it is about their economic and commercial values being recognized (e.g. what to protect first). If in the case of a spill where the “polluter-pay” principle applies, Unified Command is about expenditures of the Responsible Party’s (RP) money that ensures reasonable actions and costs to mitigate the impact, to allow the RP to demonstrate due diligence and to enable the spiller to make the community whole again.


In the case of a functional Unified Command, it is about respecting a local government’s agencies mandate to fight fire, police, provide medical services in a safe and effective manner.


Unified Command is not about “power” where a jurisdiction or agency postures to “trump” another’s role, or that a company tries to divide authorities by seeking only one person to be in charge.  Members of Unified Command must recognize “inclusive” emergency management strives to fully identify and apply “values” regarding what is protected first, when, and to what degree.  No one authority has this mandate to make these decisions when an incident crosses agency or jurisdictional boundaries and/or affects a private business interest.


The advantages of an ICS/Unified Command include:

  • Using a a common language and response culture;
  • Optimizing combined efforts of multiple agencies and companies;
  • Eliminating duplicative efforts;
  • Establishing a single command post;
  • Allowing for collective approval of operations, logistics, planning, and finance activities;
  • Encouraging a cooperative response environment;
  • Allowing for shared facilities, reducing response costs, maximizing efficiency;
  • Minimizing communication breakdowns; and
  • Permitting responders to develop and implement one consolidated Incident Action Plan


The ICS/Unified Command structure outlines responsibilities and functions, thereby reducing potential conflicts, and improving information flow among all participating organizations.  The ICS maintains its modular organizational structure, so that none of the advantages of the ICS are lost by the introduction of a Unified Command.

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