Unified command for spill response

Unified command is an important aspect of the Incident Command System (ICS) for environmental emergency planning and response in British Columbia, Canada. Unified command allows governments and companies to work well together. 

About unified command

Unified command of government  (provincial, federal, and local) with the responsible party (spiller) is pivotal to effective and timely response. Unified command is part of the BC Emergency Management System (BCEMS) standard. Unified command is often described in industry response plans, provincial emergency response plans (for example, B.C. Marine Oil Spill Response Plan, B.C. Inland Oil Spill Response Plan and the B.C. Hazardous Material Response Plan) and in some federal plans (for example, CANUWEST Transboundary Plan for British Columbia and the States of Washington, Idaho, and Montana). Unified Command is also endorsed by the Pacific States/BC Oil Spill Task Force under a Pacific Coast agreement.

The effective management of a large emergency requires the coordination, participation, and support of those that have functional responsibilities (fire fighting, police, ambulance); jurisdictional responsibilities (local, provincial, federal governments); and legislated responsibilities (spiller or responsible party). The approach to address these varied interests is by unified command and responder integration: the joining of forces. There is a common desire to achieve mutually-agreed-on response strategy and tactical action plans. Unified command assists in meeting these common goals and response objectives.

Rationale and concept

The need for unified command is created by incidents having no regard for jurisdictional boundaries, and authorities not normally legally confined to a single jurisdiction or agency.

The concept of unified command simply means that all departments (police, fire, ambulance), agencies (local, provincial or federal governments) and industry who have a functional, jurisdictional, or legal responsibility at an incident contribute to the process of:

  • determining overall response strategy and objectives
  • insuring that joint planning for response activities will be accomplished
  • insuring that integrated operations are conducted
  • making maximum use of all assigned resources
  • keeping track of financial costs

The process of unified command encompasses consensus decision-making, teamwork, sharing or delineating activities, and sharing responsibilities, rather than the more traditional 'Command and Control' approach whereby there is one authority. The latter model often leaves important stakeholders only as advisors, providing input only when asked.


A unified command structure is implemented when the incident:

  • involves more than one jurisdiction (for example, local government, provincial or federal agencies)
  • one or more jurisdictions and a company (for example, spiller)
  • multiple types of emergency services (for example, fire, police, ambulance, public health, haz-mat responders, social services)

Types of unified command

Unified command can be single-jurisdiction or multi-jurisdiction.

Single-jurisdiction: Unified command occurs when several departments such as police, fire, ambulance, and/or public health share management responsibility within one jurisdiction such as a municipality. An example would be a railway accident that released a hazardous product within a single municipality. For single jurisdiction, a unified command structure could consist of an official to represent each responding agency such as fire, police, ambulance, and the responsible company/owner.

Multi-jurisdiction: This occurs where the incident crosses jurisdictions such as federal, provincial or local governments, or one or more jurisdiction is involved with a company (for example, spiller). An example would be a marine oil spill affecting provincial crown lands and a federal harbour. For multiple jurisdictions, a unified command structure could consist of an official to represent each jurisdiction involved such as: the provincial government, the federal government, and the responsible party. An Incident Commander within the unified command would be selected as the overall spokesperson. This person would also be responsible for final arbitration of strategic and tactical decisions. The overall spokesperson/arbitrator can change to reflect an evolving incident situation (for example, from an initial vessel casualty to protracted shoreline cleanup operations). Each Incident Commander can also speak on behalf of their government or company.

Action plans and operations

Unified command goes beyond the joint development of a response strategy by the Incident Commanders. Unified command may also include the sharing of action planning (planning section), tactical operations (operations section), supply and services (logistics section), and financial management (finance section). It would be mutually agreed by the Incident Commanders which agency or department would assume the roles of general staff (section chiefs and command staff). The objective is to full integrate functional elements (fire fighting, health services) or jurisdictional elements (shoreline protection, vessel salvage, communications) into one team that co-locates at one facility (Command Post).

Decisions for these staff roles are generally based on greatest jurisdictional involvement, individual qualifications, and accountability. The unified command should establish a mutually satisfactory incident management organization that reflects all interests, resources, skills and knowledge of the stakeholders.

Roles in unified command

Members of a unified command bring with them their own titles and representation. For example, there may be a Fire Chief representing a municipality, a Provincial Incident Commander representing a provincial response team, and an Incident Manager representing a company. As a spokesperson, however, you must clearly specify between being the 'spokesperson for the unified command team' versus a 'spokesperson for your affiliation'. The former takes a neutral role and speaks on the mutually agreed on response strategy and the unified command organization. The latter addresses your affiliation's specific involvement.

A typical scenario would be a media conference where participants of unified command are seated. Each may introduce themselves according to their original or official titles, but only one person is the 'spokesperson' for the unified team.

Stakeholder involvement

Unified command begins with the primary (lead, key) stakeholders being identified, meeting and selecting a spokesperson (and final arbitrator of issues). Unified command should include the primary stakeholders with functional, jurisdictional, and/or legal responsibilities. A company who has a corporate and legal responsibility to respond would be a primary stakeholder (such as, 'polluter pay principle'). The overriding premise of effective response is the protection of people, property, and the environment as the foremost goal. To ignore a primary stakeholder with the equipment, personnel, and funds to respond could compromise this goal.

Other supporting provincial ministries, federal departments, non-government organizations (NGOs), and interest groups can participate in response or planning. For supporting ministries (agencies), such as health or social services, they can fulfill a function, or groups (branches) of functions such as health impact monitoring. An important function the planning section is to identify other stakeholders affected by an incident, and bring them together so that they may air their concerns or provide legitimate information to assist in action planning. The role of the Liaison Officer within Command is to ensure stakeholder interests are heard and met.

Note: The Canadian Coast Guard (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), though adopted the Incident Command System for major marine spills, does not endorse unified command as stated in their national policy (4.2) within their National Marine Spill Contingency Plan. Where there is a Responsible Party, the Canadian Coast Guard will take a monitoring (oversight) role, but where there is no Responsible Party (for example, mystery spill) or poor performance, the Canadian Coast Guard policy calls for takeover of response management.