Incident Action Planning - A Step-by-Step Process

by Stephen Grainer

The writing of an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for what is called an “expanding incident” is a long, complex, but also comprehensive process designed to clearly identify incident objectives, strategies, and tactics based on fundamental decisions made by the incident commander (IC) – who is responsible for establishing the incident objectives. The latter are used by the supporting command and general staff to identify the strategies and tactics needed to achieve the objectives set by the IC. Through the step-by-step process of conducting a tactics meeting, followed by a planning meeting, and other intermediate steps the command and general staff develop a plan based on the resources available and other factors. 

The development of a written IAP becomes particularly important when an incident: (a) involves more complications than expected; (b) requires more than the customary departmental resources provided; and/or (c) may require several operational periods for conclusion. For more than 30 years incident commanders charged with fighting wildfires have followed and refined a systematic approach for developing a written IAP by using several standard forms that are designed to capture all of the information needed to manage the resources operating on the incident scene. 

The specific forms used in the IAP planning process are: ICS 202 – Incident Objectives; ICS-203 – Organization Assignment List; ICS-204 – Division Assignment List; ICS 205 – Incident Communications Plan; and ICS-206 – Medical Plan.  Basically, completion of these forms provides the information needed to effectively manage almost any major event or emergency. The same forms also provide the information needed to answer several specific questions, including the following: (1) “What is intended to be accomplished?”  (2) “What resources will be used to carry out the intended actions?” (3) “How will these resources be organized and supervised?”  (4) How will resources communicate during their operations?” (5) “How will care be provided for any personnel who may be injured during the activities?”

A Standard Format to Ensure Continuity

Because this information is provided in a standard format, all of the personnel resources involved will be able to follow the same guidelines during the operational period of the specific IAP. The guidelines also ensure greater continuity between all of the resources involved. In a more formal IAP development process, the incident commander approves the plan for implementation (usually in the next operational period).  However, the actual development of the IAP is supervised and coordinated by the planning section chief.

The incident commander (or unified incident commanders) must not only manage all aspects of the on-going incident but also ensure that adequate planning is being carried out for the next operational period. The delegation of responsibility for planning to a planning section chief ensures that the planning process remains active and stays current during major events. The planning section chief is responsible for keeping informed of all current conditions; for anticipating changes in those conditions; and for monitoring and documenting all aspects of the incident.

Each member of the command and general staff – those specifically responsible for operations, for example, or for logistics, finance and administration, planning, public information, liaison, and/or safety – contributes input about his/her functional responsibilities and capabilities for the next operational period. The data, information, and input provided is collected and collated by the planning section staff and cross-referenced to the objectives previously identified by the IC to ensure that the objectives set can in fact be achieved.

Safety Factors and Other Concerns

Although not included in the IAP, two other standard ICS forms – ICS 215 and ICS 215A(G) – also are integral elements of the planning process. ICS 215 provides detailed information on the resources needed to accomplish the tactical actions consistent with the objectives established by the IC and provides a way to identify: (a) the resources required to carry out the tactics selected (indicated by “Req” on the 215); (b) the resources on hand (“Have”); and (c) the additional resources required to conduct the tactical operations projected (“Need”).  By simply subtracting the “Have” number from the “Req” number, planners and staff can determine if it will be necessary to seek more of those resources. The ICS 215 also can be used to determine when resources on hand exceed the need (and therefore can be demobilized or reassigned).

The ICS 215A(G) is a document used in the planning process that captures specific safety concerns related to the tactical operations being planned.  When coupled, the ICS 215 and 215A(G) help the planners (and subsequently the IC) to be certain that all necessary resources and appropriate safety considerations have been identified. When all of this related information has been compiled the planning process can proceed, and development of the formal IAP can be completed. Normally, the ICS 215 and 215A(G) forms are completed during the tactics meeting, and provide the baseline information needed for the later steps in the planning process.

Once the IAP is completed and approved by the IC, it is briefed to operational supervisors in an “Operational Period Briefing” (sometimes referred to as the “Shift Briefing”). In turn, the supervisors share the assignments and other guidance with the operational staff immediately prior to beginning operations for the current operational period.  Faithful adherence to this standard process ensures that all members of the “choir” are “singing to the same sheet of music.”

In summary, Incident Action Planning is always required. Typically, though, for a “run of the mill” response, the IAP is provided or prompted verbally by the incident commander, without detailed written instructions or guidance.  But when the complexity, scope, and/or duration of a particular incident expand significantly, the Incident Command System provides the tools (forms) and structured process needed to ensure that a systematic approach is followed in the planning for and management of incident operations.

Steve Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. He has served Virginia re and emergency services and emergency management coordination since 1972 in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. As a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, he currently is developing and managing VDFP programs to enable emergency responders and others to achieve NIMS compliance requirements for incident management.