Formulating an emergency spill response plan can be tedious, but the result is worth it. A well-designed plan lays out a logical, straightforward set of procedures for your workers to follow in case of an emergency. 

While all of this information is critical to have on hand for a successful response, deployment often doesn’t go to plan.

Consider a scenario where an oil tanker catches fire, leading to an explosion that releases a massive amount of crude oil into the ocean.

  • Multiple agencies on federal, state, and local levels could get involved at any time.
  • Unforeseen hurdles like unfavorable weather conditions and worker injuries can throw a wrench into your schedule and resourcing plans. 
  • Concurrent activities like fire suppression, search and rescue, or wildlife protection may interfere with your planned activities. 
  • Communications among agencies, responsible parties, and contractors may become strained during high-stress situations.

Even with the best of intentions, the most well-laid-out emergency spill response plan cannot account for these unknowns. So if you were to rely solely on a rigid emergency response plan or enter reactionary mode, chaos would follow. 

The incident command system (ICS) can be invaluable for deploying your emergency response plan. The ICS is a framework that allows all parties to be agile in an emergency by helping you establish command and control, coordinate resources, and plan and communicate responsive activities and actions within tight timeframes. Plus, the ICS is flexible and scalable, so you can use it for any size emergency response, from a small chemical spill confined to a warehouse to a major oil release in international waters. 

ICS background 

Today, the ICS is used for various activities, including oil and gas emergency response, search and rescue, and even wildlife disease control. 

But the first ICS was used to help fight forest fires — the first iteration was developed in the late 1970s after a series of devastating wildfires swept through Southern California. Over 13 days, nearly 800 wildfires burned 576,508 acres. The fires claimed over 700 homes and 16 human lives. 

Studies revealed that the core weakness in this emergency response was inadequate management. The process lacked key factors in response success, including accountability, systematic planning processes, and a flexible management structure. Working within the ICS, a proven management structure, helps emergency responders to avoid these pitfalls. 

In the oil and gas industry, the ICS gained traction after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

The ICS has since been endorsed and used by the United States Coast Guard as the response management system for oil spills in coastal zones.

Resource: Coast Guard Incident Command System (ICS) Authorized Forms

ICS organizational structure  

The ICS is broken up into five primary functions that can expand or contract as the need arises.

  • Incident command 
  • Operations
  • Planning
  • Logistics
  • Finance and administration

Incident command 

The incident commander and, when necessary, their command staff in the safety, information, and liaison positions, drives the incident command function of the ICS. Incident command’s general responsibilities are to set response objectives and priorities and, ultimately, oversee and coordinate all activities. 

  • Drive and oversee all response activities
  • Facilitate communications among all functions
  • Coordinate response resources
  • Develop and gain buy-in for all protocols, priorities, objectives, and strategies
  • Assign objectives within response structure
  • Review and approve Incident Action Plans
  • Ensure proper response organization integration

Depending on the magnitude of the situation, the responsible party, the responsible party working in parallel with government agencies, or a unified command can fulfill incident command responsibilities. 

Unified command 

A unified command is often necessary for large-scale emergency spill responses. It allows for agencies on federal, state, and local levels to share the incident command responsibilities with the responsible party. The inter-agency link that unified command creates helps streamline communications within and between agencies, which can expedite time-sensitive decision making. 

Note: The incident command function is the only one in the ICS that’s always staffed. During smaller responses, the incident commander may also carry the operations, logistics, planning, and finance and administration functions. Incident command will decide if and when to build out these other sections. 


The planning section, led by the Planning Section Chief, is responsible for investigating and establishing a technical basis for action plans. One of the most critical duties of the planning section is to prepare and document Incident Action Plans — this is what ensures the whole team regularly aligns action plans for the next half of the day, the next day, or the next week. 

Some of the planning section’s duties include: 

  • Collecting, evaluating, and presenting incident data
  • Conducting long-range and contingency planning
  • Keeping incident documentation
  • Tracking resources
  • Developing demobilization plans

The planning section can be broken down into four units as needed: resources, situation, documentation, and demobilization. Technical specialists also fall under the planning section (for example, legal specialists). 


The operations team undertakes tactical response actions, so the bulk of the resources are assigned to this section. An Operations Section Chief leads the function and is usually the person with the most relevant technical expertise.  

Depending on the number of resources assigned to operations, sometimes it’s necessary to break the section down into multiple levels of groups, divisions, and other branches. This ensures that no one person is responsible for managing, leading, and holding accountable an overwhelming amount of people and resources. 


The logistics section works closely with planning and finance and administration to ensure sufficient resources are available to carry out the Incident Action Plan. Their responsibilities include: 

  • Resourcing personnel, equipment, and supplies
  • Providing communication planning and resources
  • Establishing food services
  • Setting up and maintaining incident facilities
  • Arranging transportation
  • Providing medical services 

Like the planning and operations functions, logistics can be broken down into smaller parts when necessary. 

Here’s an example of an organizational structure you can build under logistics: 

  • Service Branch
    • Communication Unit
    • Medical Unit
    • Food Unit
  • Support Branch
    • Supply Unit
    • Facilities Unit
    • Ground Support Unit

Finance and administration 

Any incident enabling the ICS that requires separate fiscal management will likely employ the finance and administration unit. The finance and administration function: 

  • Negotiates and manages contracts 
  • Runs timekeeping
  • Conducts cost analysis
  • Handles injury and property damage compensation 

The finance and administration section may be broken down into procurement, time, cost, and compensation and claims units as needed. 

Standard Incident Command Structure for Oil Spill Response. Acronyms: FOSC = Federal On-Scene Coordinator, SOSC = State On-Scene Coordinator, RPIC = Responsible Party Incident Commander

Example ICS structure for emergency oil spill response Pinniped and Cetacean Oil Spill Response Guidelines – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 25 Jun, 2020]

TriMedia’s team is well-versed in working on emergency responses of all sizes. For more information on how to apply the ICS to your emergency response plan, contact us today. 


The National Response System and the Incident Command System/Unified Command [The U.S. National Response Team]

ICS 100 – Incident Command System [U.S. Department of Agriculture] 

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