The Incident Command System

When wildfires burn on public lands, firefighters follow the Incident Command System (ICS) to ensure organization and safety.

Wildfire is a natural part of many Idaho ecosystems. But when homes and lives are threatened or landscapes are burned beyond repair, fighting wildfires becomes a necessity.

The Bureau of Land Management, the federal departments of the Interior and Agriculture, and the Idaho Department of Lands have shared firefighting goals, policies, and tactics.

When wildfires burn on public lands, firefighters follow the Incident Command System (ICS) to ensure organization and safety.

ICS is an emergency management system designed to provide standardized structure and language for responding to emergencies. The ICS consists of five working units:


The ICS consists of five working units: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance.

The ICS consists of five working units: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance.

  • The Command unit is in charge of the wildland fire incident. It isestablished by the first officer on the scene, who assumes the role of Incident Commander (IC).
  • The IC immediately establishes priorities, objectives, and strategies.
  • The IC is responsible for monitoring safety and for managing organization by delegating authority to units as needed.


  • The Operations unit carries out the plans established by the IC and Operations staff. It is responsible for fire suppression and rescue.
  • Operations staff are made up of both commanders and firefighters working on the fire.


  • The Planning unit is responsible for collecting, evaluating, and distributing data.
  • The Planning unit publishes the Incident Action Plan, which is used by everyone working on the fire.
  • The Incident Action Plan includes all related plans of action—which firefighters and resources are assigned to the fire, where they are assigned, contact information for the ICS staff, safety information for firefighters, and maps of the fire and surrounding area.


  • The Logistics unit provides services and support to firefighters—communication equipment, medical supplies, clothing, accommodations, food, restrooms, showers, and vehicle maintenance.


  • The Finance unit tracks all money associated with the fire incident, including personnel time, contracts, and workers’ compensation and claims.

History of ICS

Click here to learn more about when, why and how the Incident Command System was formed.

Firefighters have to use a variety of tools and equipment to fight wildfires. Helicopters are often used in wildland fire operations, and they are very useful for a number of reasons.

Firefighting helicopters are equipped with a bucket or a fixed tank used to drop water on the fire. Some buckets are attached to a “long line,” meaning that they are attached to a steel cable that hangs anywhere from 100-300 feet from the helicopter. Helicopters with fixed tanks can hover over the fire and use a tube or flow door to plunge water on the fire as well. They can hover over hot spots or flaming trees, and be able to accurately drop hundreds of gallons of water from close distances.

Helicopters are also used to transport firefighters, equipment, food, water, and other supplies. They are especially efficient for this task because they can land in small spaces and do not require long runways like airplanes do. Helicopters can also be used to carry instruments which provide infrared imaging, and they are frequently used to generate digital maps of wildland fires.

Many firefighting agencies have helicopter crews, called “helitack.” These crews are made up of firefighters who, as soon as fire dispatch receives a fire call, quickly jump into their helicopter and fly to the fire. Some of these helictack crews are trained to to repel from a hovering helicopter, so they can reach very tight spaces without having to search for a safe, flat place to land the helicopter.

Airplanes are also used in a variety of firefighting missions. Planes equipped with large tanks, called “air tankers,” carry large amounts of water or retardant that can be dropped on critical areas of a fire. Air tankers can reach high speeds and have the capability to drop lines of retardant, which slows the fire and aids firefighters’ efforts on the ground.

Airplanes are also used to scout wildland fires. Often, smaller airplanes are used to relay information to firefighters on the ground, who cannot see the entire fire and its activity. These planes are commonly referred to as “air attack,” and serve as the “eyes in the sky” for firefighters. The pilots of these planes can also relay important weather information to firefighters, as well as potential dangerous fire behavior, or to see “spot fires” that have been ignited away from the main fire.

To find out more about wildland fire air operations, visit the following websites: