Role of the Communications Specialist in ICS: Classification and the Effective Transitioning of Operations

By Craig Nimsgern posted 04-21-2018 16:22



The Communications Specialist position for Police and Fire Agencies is often the person to make first contact during an incident and be the coordinator of resources for much of an incident. The rise of large-scale, fast moving incidents such as terrorist attacks and mass casualty incidents has raised the question, “What is the specific role of the Dispatcher in a large-scale incident?” The answer lies in addressing where the Dispatcher belongs within the Incident Command System (ICS) and how to best utilize this limited resource.

Current Communications Specialist Position

 The National Incident Management System (NIMS) established in 2004 and the subsequent Incident Command System, were created to be used for a broad spectrum of incidents.[1] These incidents range from simple single unit responses up to complex multi-unit responses with multiple operation periods. Under ICS there is no actual place for the dispatcher.  The dispatcher would traditionally be found under the Logistics Section, under the Service Branch and the Communications Unit. The title though is changed to Communications Leader, Technician, or Radio Operator.  The second option for Dispatcher placement would be underneath the Planning Section as technical specialists as a Communications Specialist.  This paper would make the argument for the latter position.

Span of Control

 The start of any incident, whether it is large or small, will often begin within the local Public-Safety Answering Point (PSAP) receiving a phone call.  This means that the first person to be in charge of the incident is the Communications Specialist.  They will triage the call and make the initial assignments; specific policies may dictate the assignment of tactical channels.  As an incident scales in size, the dispatcher in the average center may not. They will fulfill requests as needed such as additional apparatus or tactical channels and if lucky, have a partner to assist with some of the duties.  As units arrive on scene, ICS dictates that the Command is established and the span of control is needed. This sentiment needs to be shared and adapted within the PSAP.  A single dispatcher cannot effectively monitor more than three channels at once which means there are two possible choices to consider. The first is to up staff the dispatch position, which may not be financially possible or realistic due to time-constraints within the incident.  The second option is to train on a mind-set of reduced dispatch reliance as the incident expands.  This is the more natural course for ICS, although a change in mindset from the Communications Specialist.

Transition From Manager to Tracker

The transitional period from a basic response to an expanded complex incident is complicated. There may never be a clear benchmark made by the Incident Commander declaring that Dispatch should no longer be assigning resources or redirecting staged units.  Training within Dispatch needs to reflect that as the incident increases, the workload for Dispatch does not decrease, but the duties and responsibilities needs to shift. ICS dictates a vertical command structure where resource requests and information flows upwards through their chain of command.  Since Dispatch is not placed anywhere in that chain, there should be no direct contact other than at the very top which is the Incident Command Staff.  With this in mind, the only channel that should be monitored by dispatch is the Command Staff Channel.

The transitional period, as well as the later operational periods, may be very uncomfortable for Dispatchers if they are unaware of the transitioned role.  The idea that emergency traffic for an operation group should be ignored goes against the core of standard training.  For this reason, the Dispatcher was not actually included in ICS because their traditional role circumvents that of ICS.  Speaking with a former Nevada State-wide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) as well as a Communications Leader (COM-L) with a designation of multiple deployments, it was stated that a trained Radio Operator (RADO) that is found in the ICS structure, is much more preferable in longer operational periods. They have been trained to relay information, but not make decisions on the information heard.  This is why Technical Specialist is a much more desirable classification for the Dispatcher. The advanced training and techniques for multi-tasking, problem solving, and resource management should not be forcibly suppressed. It should instead be placed in a position that more effectively uses the Communication Specialist’s skill set.  ICS allows for the Technical Specialist to be moved around the structure which, in turn, allows for the transition described.  Under the Planning Branch, the Communications Specialist may start within the Resource Unit, but could potentially end up in the Situation Unit. 

Primary Role Assignment

What then should the role for the Dispatcher be after the transition away from managing resource allocation?  The primary goal should be call tracking; which is making sure that any call that comes into the PSAP is recorded, tracked, and accurate.  Detailing specific information into caller location, type of emergency, and first triage performed [2] is a necessity.   A liaison within the Command Staff needs to establish a direct line either in the Medical Branch or Planning Section in order to make sure an effective process for giving calls to the on-scene personnel is prioritized. 

Finally, additional requests from the Command Staff may be accepted. Communicating for additional resources from neighboring agencies to report to staging or performing move-ups and tracking of available resources for out of incident calls is an example of this.  It needs to be reinforced that standard call volume will remain throughout the incident and while a Dispatcher may be designated for this incident, the rest of the center will need to continue with daily operations as per usual. In smaller agencies, the Dispatcher working the incident may have to cover the daily incidents simultaneously until supplemental support can arrive.


The role of the Communications Specialist is undeniably unique.  Even though they are not specifically placed in ICS on a daily basis, they are still considered to be an integral part of the system.  This is true not only in Operations and Planning, but in Logistics as well.  The position during a complex incident is inherently reduced into a much more manageable role that needs to be explained and thoroughly trained. In order to reduce the amount of stress and level of surprise, the Communications Specialist is pushed out of their traditional role of overall incident support and inserted into a much more specialized role.

[1]United States, Congress, “National Incident Management System.” National Incident Management System, p. 91.

[2] Call triage will be based on Agency procedures such as a designated Emergency Medical Dispatch program