Unified Command and Cross-Agency Conflicts

Each and every day I am faced with incidents that involve a number of different agencies. A simple car crash, for example, can involve two police departments, two fire departments, three emergency medical basic life support services, and two emergency medical advanced life support services, yet we never use unified command, merely single command. Having been trained in ICS and incident management with a focus on unified command structures, it is disheartening to see my local responders attempt to manage incidents without this useful and effective facet. According to Walsh et al. (2012), responders frequently face incidents where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions are involved, and frequent use of unified command during incidents of smaller scale creates a familiarity which allows for seamless scalability when the need for a robust command structure presents itself.

A recent house fire brought this to the forefront of my mind. We had six fire departments, an emergency medical basic life support service, the state police, and two fire investigators onscene. We had one incident commander (the Chief of the jurisdictional department), no EMS command or law enforcement command, and no subordinate structure. The incident commander quickly found himself burdened with every detail of the incident and no one to help to alleviate the burden. Additionally, the incident commander (the only person who has detailed knowledge about the incident thus far) is finding himself walking in and around the fire building. If anything devastating happens, such as an explosion or toxic release, the entirety of command would be compromised and a whole command structure would have to be developed from scratch. More importantly, however, is the potential for conflict in determining who is ultimately in charge of each operational group (i.e. emergency medical services without an EMS command) or operational period, such as might occur in protracted incidents. Turf wars are notorious amongst public safety agencies, and planning the roles and responsibilities of each prior to responding to incidents can go a long way in preventing this conflict and confusion.

Compare the above with how we would approach almost every incident when I worked for the city of Austin, Texas. In Austin, we relied heavily on the unified command approach to incident management. For any motor vehicle accident, house fire, technical rescue, or any other multi-agency response, we would establish fire command, EMS command, and law enforcement command (depending on the involvement of each agency). At the least, law enforcement would plug in to the command structure as an operational branch. We would always establish a command, and if the incident warranted, we would build the command structure in top-down fashion starting with operations. Many incidents in Austin did, in fact, have pre-plans established that each agency was well versed in and trained on often. This allowed for rapid mitigation of any unforeseen circumstances that might occur. Additionally, the command post was always removed from the scene enough to prevent the command structure from succumbing to the effects (whether physical hazards or emotional) of the incident scene. In this paradigm, there is always a superior to represent the interests of each agency and guide their members safely and effectively through the incident.

There are many methods of effectively responding to and managing incidents, and many of these methods work most of the time; however, best practices, as described in Walsh et al. (2012), are designed to ensure effective and efficient incident management as well as maintain operational security and safety.


Walsh, D. W., Christen, H. T., Callsen, C. E., Miller, G. T., Maniscalco, P. M., Lord, G. C., & Dolan, N. J. (2012). National Incident Management System: principles and practice (2nd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.