Incident Command System Training Sucks

There it is.  I said it.  Before you unleash the hounds, hear me out.

A bit of background:

As another grad course at American Military University was coming to a close last month I was racking my brain over the theme of my term paper.  In one of our final assignments I was dissecting NIMS – and that’s where it struck me.  ICS training is all wrong.  Now that my paper is all wrapped up and submitted, I wanted to get some discussion on my blog.  So, since I don’t want to bore everyone with the paper itself, what follows is a much less academic and more conversational version of my term paper.

For those of you who read my blog, you will be familiar with a few fairly recent posts that involve ICS:  The Human Aspect of ICS and Overcoming Transitional Incidents, Preparedness – ICS is Not EnoughTraining EOC Personnel – ICS is not Enough, and finally The Need for Practical Incident Command Training.  In that last one I feel I was headed in the right direction but not yet on the right road.

Before we go any further, here is my disclaimer.  I am a big believer in ICS.  If you take a look at the aforementioned posts, you’ll see that.  It’s a system that has been in use for a long time and has a proven track record of working well when properly applied.  Along with that, I’ve been an ICS practitioner, instructor, and instructor trainer – since before NIMS, in fact.  I’ve also been in positions influencing NIMS-related policy at both the state and national level.  So I have a fair amount of familiarity with the system, how it is used, and how it is taught.

Defining the need:

A great many after action reports (AARs) reflect on Operational Coordination (the current core capability which most heavily features ICS), On-Scene Incident Management (the previous iteration under the target capabilities), and just ICS in general.  These AARs often go on to recommend that responders need more ICS training.  How can they say that, though?  Following NIMS compliance requirements, darn near everyone who has been required to take ICS training has done so over the past 10 years.  So how could we be so off base?

The reality is summed up in this simple statement from John Morton: “With respect to using ICS from NIMS… training incorporated in the NIMS doctrine largely does not provide any actual skills training or development.”  If you aren’t yet familiar with John Morton’s work, I suggest you take a look here: Book Review – Next-Generation Homeland Security.  Brilliant guy.

Looking at the substance of Mr. Morton’s quote, it’s true that the foundational ICS courses (ICS-100 through ICS-400) don’t provide any skills training.  However, there is a significant expectation that taking these courses is somehow a magic bullet.

Much of my paper focuses on the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses.  The ICS-100 and ICS-200 courses are probably not far off from where they actually need to be.  There exists, however, a higher expectation from people to have learned something from the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses which can be readily applied in the field.  One of the foundations for my paper was an analysis of the course objectives from the current ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses through the lens of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s is a learning hierarchy which helps identify the depth of instruction and thus learning.  The revised version of Bloom’s is a scale of six levels, ranging from ‘Remembering’ to ‘Creating’, with remembering being pretty basic and creating being quite advanced.  The expectation of ICS training, obtained from a few sources as well as our perception, is that it falls somewhere in the middle under the taxonomy level of ‘Applying’.   The reality is that most of the objectives from these two courses fall short of that expectation.

How is it possible that we have been expecting more from people when we haven’t been giving them the proper training to do so?  In essence, all we have been training people in is theory.  Sorry, but theory doesn’t save lives, application does.  Why does the fire chief of even the small city (population ~62k) closest to me care what an incident complex or branch-level planning is?  It’s not something he can use.  He and his officers require proficiency in the system for not only the day to day type 4 and 5 incidents they deal with (which they generally have), but also enough for the type 3 incidents which occasionally occur from storms, hazmat incidents, and the like.

Yes, we do have position-specific courses for those who are members of incident management teams (IMTs).  Those courses presumably identify at a higher taxonomy level (I haven’t had a chance to do an analysis on them).  IMTs are great assets, but let’s have another brief shot of reality … not every jurisdiction is suited for an IMT.  Identifying potential members, getting them trained and experienced, and maintaining their skills is an investment that most jurisdictions simply aren’t willing or able to make.  The result is a huge gap between those who have only the core ICS training, which we have already identified does not meet the real need, and an IMT from a larger jurisdiction or region.  Jurisdictions need to be able to function for at least two days, if not longer, on their own.  Most incidents will be resolved at that point or ready for transition to an IMT.  If appropriate, the IMT can then apply things like branch-level planning.  That is the level of application expected from IMTs.

What can we do about it:

So what is needed?  Here are my rough ideas.  First off, at a micro level, we need a full rewrite of the ICS-300 and 400 courses.  Let’s make them more meaningful and focus on application.  Pull out all the theory and structure them around practical learning practices.  Second, we need refresher training.  Let’s stop the argument about that.  Knowledge and skills deteriorate over time, we all know that.  So let’s go with annual refresher training.  Not a day of being lectured, to, either.  Something more involved which reflects the identified need for applicable learning.  Third, continued reinforcement through exercises.  If you don’t use it you lose it.  The last ten years or so have seen a strong emphasis on exercises which we should certainly continue.  Lastly, all of this culminates at the macro level as a restructuring of the whole training program.  Why is that needed?  Well, aside from the current one being ineffective, we need to logically identify what training is needed for certain audiences based upon their roles and responsibilities and support it through accessible training programs.

In regard to restructuring the whole training program, I would suggest adoption of the Awareness, Management and Planning, and Performance course structure (AWR, MGT, PER).  ICS-100 is certainly awareness.  Awareness level training is appropriate for most responders and staff of assisting and supporting agencies who don’t have any leadership or decision-making roles and don’t need to have a high degree of interaction with larger system.  ICS-200 has some operational application for first line supervisors, so it’s probably a suitable introductory MGT course.  The ICS-300 should continue with a focus on the planning process but obviously needs to be bolstered with more application-level content and instruction.  With that, the target here is probably higher level management and planning.  The ICS-400, still needing a rewrite, is best left for those functioning at higher levels of incident management, such as EOC management and IMTs.  It will probably serve as a good foundational performance level course.  Now, just don’t leave it at that.  Let’s pull other courses in line to support this.  Many of those courses already exist, particularly those that have a strong ICS relationship, like the FEMA EOC and ICS/EOC courses (which are also in desperate need of rewrites to focus on application), the TEEX Enhanced Incident Management course (which is excellent), and others.  Let’s build a real, viable program for incident management as we have for other technical areas.  Without incident management we remain in chaos and the impacts of other activities are greatly minimized.  Let’s give it the respect it deserves.

Now that I’ve put all that out there, I’m absolutely prepared for your thoughts, ideas, and feedback.  I’m also hoping that someone forwards this on to Doc Lumpkins at the NIC.  Doc – let’s talk!  I might have an idea or two…

Unleash the hounds!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC



21 thoughts on “Incident Command System Training Sucks

  1. I always considered ICS training the Rosetta Stone course for incident management – one learns the language but will not “know it” until they live in the country where the language is used and responded to every where. Some factors against learning and keeping ICS alive: most organizations do not have daily or even weekly incidents so practice, well, isn’t practical thus the “use it or lose it” becomes the norm; personnel turnover is major factor also – a IMT is put together over time, know each other, know ICS and the organization, and what to do and who to call but people move on ICS training has to start all over again to build a new team; exercising will keep it alive if done well – most exercises appear to be off base and unreal depending on the facilitator.

    I hate to say it but ICS appears to be “In” language for those who know it and use it, so there is a religious aspect to it or should I say belief in it by all on the IMT, Incident experience as a team (IMT) seems to dictate proper action. Use it or lose will set in due to other priorities and few incidents – so practice it.

    ICS training alone sucks and boring and unbelievable that it works at all. ICS/NIMS has to be seen as whole package to be working; training, team work, practice with exercises and real incidents over many years and, needless to say, belief that ICS works against the chaos of any incident response and recovery.

  2. I agree that skill level is a key factor in whether or not ICS is effective. Believing that ICS/NIMS training alone will address our incident management issues is like believing that buying new “interoperable” radios for everyone will solve communication problems. People still have to make them work. The skill level of responders makes incident management work. The most successful ICS practitioners are those who have years of training and experience. Emphasis on experience. An Incident Commander can make all the difference in the world, for good or bad. Revise the courses, train, exercise, give people the opportunity to hone their skills.

    1. I absolutely agree. Many think that by simply saying they will use ICS is like waving a magic wand. It takes deliberate action of a team of people (formal or adhoc) to make it come together. Experience is important, but the challenge is that most who aren’t part of an IMT don’t have much opportunity to get that experience. Quality planning, training, and exercises are the best means we have to prepare people.

  3. Again, like most here, I have utilized ICS & taught it, but in an entirely military setting. My experiences are thus; two different worlds, as a military installation has a commander who makes the final decisions on all matters, as it is ultimately his arse. Civilian ICS, as relayed through IS-300/400 does not readily translate into military speak, as ICS must be bridged IOT assimilate into the military command/staff structure. The military sees everything through a cookie-cutter approach, however, this could not be further from the truth when it comes to ICS. At the installation level, an appropriate number of ICS TtT must be kept on-hand & the ICS classroom material, while remaining FEMA approved, must be tailored to the local area’s threats, so that the students/ installation responders & staff, can actually understand what they are supposed to learn in a completely new system, as it is alien to their services planning processes & they will buck it at every chance. As 300/400 training progresses, the problems must progressively build using a threat & building or area actually on the installation. The relation of ICS & the planning process they already know must be constantly explained, so that they can be slowly be brought into the fold. The final TTX should be simple enough, but cover all areas of an actual response, as the EOC (Installation EOC/IOC) will always be stood up to some degree, with major decisions being made from there, not in the traditional sense of the First Responder Incident Commander, who will not have the full IC staff (who will be in the IOC or will not make extensive decisions concerning the incident.

  4. I am part of a cooperative effort to train Level 2 Incident Controllers for the Water Industry (primarily in Victoria – Australia). We use the relevant unit of competency and train people over a three day stretch by feeding some theory and then running a one-hour exercise and then some more theory and another exercise. Overall, across the three days the 7 participants participate in 14 exercises – 7 practice runs and then 7 assessment runs.

    The feedback is quite positive and we have noticed that there is an improvement in comfort and confidence following the course. Now, in the water industry we don’t deal with incidents on a daily basis but the effect has justified the effort none-the-less. For those in law enforcement or emergency services a similar model might be of benefit but would need to be more intense of course.

  5. I agree with your synopsis of our current ICS Training. Over the past two years I have wrote and rewrote a class for Oklahoma State University call the Wildland IC’s Toolbox. The concenpts and theory of ICS was taken and put into a practical hands on real world approach to assist our Oklahoma Wildland Incident Commanders. The traditional ICS courses seem to expect the IC to just waive their hands and magically the entire ICS structure just would build beneath them. The toolbox class takes an IC through the process of response wit him/her being the first person there and expected to provide immediate actions and than move into an ICS structure. We have received very good reviews from our class with people saying thank you finally it all ties together. Recently I have adapted the lesson once again to now have a version that is the All Hazards Incident Commanders Toolbox. I have not taught this yet but think it will help those outside the Wildland Application.

    1. Jare,
      Thank you very much for the comment! The program you have developed for Oklahoma State sounds excellent – I’d love to see it if you are able to share.

      Your phrase about the expectations of the courses assuming magical things will happen is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time – it’s spot on! Expect to see it appear in my next post!

      Thanks again!


      1. Tim I would be glad to send you some information on the class I wrote for OSU if you can send me your email address I can send it.

  6. The gold standard for incident command training on type four and type five incidence is the blue card hazard zone management system. Setting aside all the debate about terminology and blue card, the online interactive course followed by the 24 hours of simulations is exactly what prepares be able to manage those type four and type five incidents. I’m going continuing education requirements maintains proficiency at the most basic level.

    With respect to incidents that last greater than one operational., I believe that they national fire Academy courses of ICS for command and general staff as well as the all hazards incident management team provide a good starting practicum. Both of these programs approximate 48 hours of education that is primarily scenario-based and small group work preparing IEP’s using the variety of ICS forms. The downside to these two programs is that there is never an actual operational. I have any great duration that allows the planning P to be utilized for the success of operational period.

    While this blog and all the comments are spot on, the actual need regardless of the curriculum is for a highly complex and interactive simulation with multiple controllers. The simulations cannot be rushed and generally require support staff for facilitation that is equal to the number of participants. With that said it all comes down to MONEY!

    1. Hi Drew. I’m remotely familiar with the Blue Card training, and what I’ve heard has been generally positive, although there are some people who seem to have some valid constructive criticisms. My biggest concern would be the limits on availability of the program.

      Yes, money is certainly a big factor in this. While the simulation-heavy training programs, such as the ones you mentioned, offer some of the best training out there, I still believe that we can significantly improve the foundational ICS courses in a classroom with quality scenario-based training that isn’t too staff heavy.

      Thanks for the dialogue on this! Although the original post was written a while ago, it’s good to see it maintain some popularity.


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