ICS – Assistant Section Chiefs

Somehow this one snuck past me, but luckily I have some friends and colleagues who brought it to my attention and talked it through with me. The latest ICS curricula (not consistently, however) identifies that Section Chiefs can have Assistants. It’s been a long-standing practice for General Staff to have Deputies rather than Assistants. So where did this come from?

Page 82 of the NIMS document, as pointed out to me by someone at EMI, provides some language that seems to be the root of this. Here are the definitions provided:

Deputies are used at section and branch levels of the incident organization. A deputy, whether at the command, section, or branch level, is qualified to assume the position.

Assistants are used on Command Staffs and to support section chiefs. Unlike deputies, assistants have a level of technical capability, qualification, and responsibility subordinate to the primary positions and need not be fully qualified to assume the position.

None of those I spoke with are aware of the actual source of this change or why it was changed. Of course, I initially balked at it because it wasn’t the ICS I ‘grew up with’. Given some thought, however, it provides some organizational opportunities and certainly doesn’t violate any of the primary tenets of ICS.

There are absolutely some occasions in the past when, as a Planning Section Chief, I could have used this option. Planning Section Chiefs end up in a lot of meetings, and while I always felt comfortable with leaving the personnel staffing the section to their own tasks, it’s good to have another leader there in the absence of the Section Chief, both for the benefit of the section staff as well as the rest of the organization. However, if there was no one technically qualified to be a Deputy Section Chief but still capable of leading the staff and serving as an interim point person for the section, we would be (and have been) stuck in an organizational nuance. By definition, they couldn’t be assigned as a Deputy, but we didn’t have another option. This is a great opportunity to assign an Assistant. This is somewhat like an ‘executive officer’ type of position, whereas they have authority but can’t necessarily fill the shoes of the principal position.

To add to the myriad options for the Intelligence function, I also see the potential in the use of an Assistant, either in Planning or Operations, to be a viable option. This is someone qualified to lead the task, but not necessarily the Section they are organized within. I similarly see possibilities for addressing other defined needs within the incident organization. Sometimes we take some liberties, again for example in the Planning Section, to create Units that are non-standard, perhaps for tasks such as ‘Continuity Planning’, or ‘Operational Planning Support’ – of course being non-standard, you may have some different titles for them. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, as we aren’t violating any of the primary rules of ICS, nor are we creating positions that actually belong elsewhere (as I often see). Planning is planning, and there may be necessity to have personnel specifically tasked with functions like these. Instead of creating a Unit, which could still be done, you could assign the task to an Assistant. Consider something like debris management. There is a significant planning component to debris management, separate from the operations of debris management. This could be tasked specifically to an Assistant Section Chief to handle.

Another consideration, and somewhat tied to my first example of a de facto leader/point of contact for a section in the absence of the Section Chief, is that an Assistant Section Chief seems to carry more authority than a Unit Leader. That level of authority may need some doctrinal definition, but I think is also largely dependent upon the task they are given and the desires of the Section Chief assigning them – though this can make for inconsistencies across the incident organization. Having someone with a measure of authority, depending on the needs of the task, can be extremely helpful, particularly with the bureaucracies that incident management organizations can sometimes evolve into.

It’s important for us to recognize the need for doctrine to evolve based on common sense approaches to addressing identified needs. That means that the ICS we ‘grew up with’ can and should change if needed. As NIMS/ICS (and other standards) continues to evolve, we need to have discussions on these needs and potential solutions. Every change, however, has consequences, or at least additional considerations. I don’t feel this change should have been made without further exploration of the topic and answering questions such as the level of authority they may have, qualification standards, and support staff assigned to them (let’s be honest – things like this were never well defined for Assistant Command Staff positions either).  I also see a lot of value in doctrine offering best practice examples of use. Once doctrinal changes are made, curriculum changes certainly need to follow. In just examining the ICS 300 and ICS 400 course materials, the inclusion of Assistant Section Chiefs is simply not consistent or adequate.

Where do you find yourself on this topic? For or against Assistant Section Chiefs? What potential uses do you see? What potential problems do you see? How can we address these and ensure good implementation?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

2 thoughts on “ICS – Assistant Section Chiefs

  1. This one has left me on a “slow simmer” for some time now, now that you have brought it up, you just turned up the dial to a “slow boil” which is prompting a response to the topic. 😉

    Assistants to Section Chief…. its is absolutely doable but we need to be careful in how we get there. First, what is an assistant (and lets look at the definition of Deputy and THSP while at it)?

    Deputy: A fully qualified individual who, in the absence of a superior, can be delegated the authority to manage a functional operation or to perform a specific task. In some cases, a deputy can act as relief for a superior, and, therefore, should be fully qualified in the position. Deputies generally can be assigned to the Incident Commander, EOC director, General Staff, and branch directors.

    Assistant: A title for subordinates of principal Command Staff and EOC director’s staff positions. The title indicates a level of technical capability, qualification, and responsibility subordinate to the primary positions. Assistants may also be assigned to unit leaders.

    Technical Specialists: These personnel have special skills and are activated only when needed. Specialists may serve anywhere within the organization, including the Command Staff. No specific incident qualifications are prescribed or required, as technical specialists normally perform the same duties during an incident that they perform in their everyday jobs, and they are typically certified in their fields or professions.

    So somewhere and somehow, we need to fit in Section/Unit Assistants in a way that is consistent with ICS management principles and doctrine.

    For the purpose of this discussion, I will take an approach from an IMT perspective.

    It is clear that a Deputy is “fully qualified”, but not so clear in the definition of an assistant for sections/units. So in the absence of a functional position course for the assistant position, they really should hold a qualification of some sort to be able to effectively function within the section/unit. The definition of ‘assistant’ states “a level” of quals of some sorts. If it isn’t equal in qualifications, then it should be the next level below. I am assuming that the purpose of an section/unit assistant position is to over see a task/activity that does not fit into a supervisor role in Ops, a Unit Leader role in the supporting Sections, and Manager positions within Units. It is a position that needs a person with a level of “functional” ICS certification/training/experience (unlike a THSP). For example an assistant in Operations should be DIVS qualified, An assistant in any of the other sections should be Unit Leader qualified within the section and an assistant in a Unit should be “manager” qualified…. but they all hold an assistant title to indicate that their role or position is not aligned with any of the other activities within the section. They could also be a Section Chief Trainee, but that isn’t an ICS position… so the quals are the subordinate position below a Section Chief.

    I would offer that unlike the other functional positions that can supervise other supervisors, leaders or managers, functional assistants un sections and units may be responsible for only personnel reporting to them. They will not supervise other “supervisors”, otherwise you should be able to default to current ICS structure of Branches, Groups or Units.

    Another thought is to avoid using the title “Assistant”. Not being privy of the context and discussions that went into why Sections Chiefs and Unit Leaders need Assistants, I am assuming that is it the intention of the position to take on a specialized task/assignment that requires a a particular “technical expertise” but unlike a THSP, the position should also require “Functional Position” training/experience/certification for the Section or Unit that they are being employed in. Maybe we assign a designation of “Specialist” rather than “Assistant” and precede the designation with a functional description… Operations Specialist, Planning Specialist, Supply Specialist. They are subordinate positions reporting to a Section/Dep Section Chief and do not fit anywhere within the traditional organization. Right now we have assistants in Area Command and Command Staff positions… and they are very different in what they represent – AC Assistants are highly qualified/experienced, Command Staff Assistants can be quite junior and “green” within thier role… adding another variation of Assistant may contribute to a bastardization of current ICS doctrine/principles.

    I would also offer that if a Functional Assistant or Functional Specialist (whatever we call them) is required, it is to “support” the Section Chief or Unit position. The Section Chief/Unit Leader position is always activated and an assistant should never be in a position to assume the responsibility of a section or unit.

    These thoughts are exclusively my own and not representative of any group(s) or organizations that I may be affiliated with.

    1. Solid thoughts on this Sandy.

      My take on THSPs is more of an advisory capacity, and generally temporary. Positions like fire behavior analyst and GIS have become so commonplace that they are now permanent positions within many an ICS organization. Also, I usually don’t expect a THSP to be able to function within an ICS structure other than simply doing a very defined job and reporting to their supervisor. I agree that an Assistant may be a THSP that is given greater responsibility and/or authority, which I also equate to more ‘permanence’, at least for the incident. I would also expect them to have greater knowledge of and ability to work within an ICS organization.

      We definitely need a better handle on qualifications for an Assistant. There really needs to be a standard. There is no NQS for any form of Assistant, even within Command Staff. While someone might be a SME, that doesn’t make them capable of working within an ICS structure (i.e. contributing to incident action planning, being familiar with terminology, etc.). So there certainly should be some sort of minimum training (i.e. ICS 300 should suffice for most, but you also bring up a good point about supervision capability and training).

      What really dissatisfies me is the overly casual treatment of this in both the NIMS document and ICS training. It’s not the most important thing, but it does have some significance that should be acknowledged and addressed.


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