Preparing to Use the Incident Command System

For a bit of context, if you haven’t already read them, please take a look at these other ICS related articles I’ve posted:

Incident Command System Training Sucks

ICS Training Sucks… So Let’s Fix It

Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough

The crusade to improve ICS training and implementation continues…

We invest a lot of time and effort into training people in the use of the Incident Command System (ICS).  However, as a broad statement, the training we provide is massively inadequate.  We don’t actually train people to do anything – we simply tell them about ICS through an increasingly repetitive and complex series of courses.  At the risk of being repetitive myself, I refer you to the articles linked above for many of my foundational thoughts on the current state of ICS training.

The ICS core training curriculum aside, we – as both individuals and organizations – need to be better prepared to actually use ICS.  The thought that people are able to use ICS the minute they walk out of an ICS course is totally and completely false.  By ‘use ICS’, I don’t mean to simply function within an organizational chain of command that uses ICS, I’m referring to being a driving force within the system itself.  ICS isn’t something that happens automatically, it requires deliberate and constant actions.  This typically involves functioning at the Command or General Staff levels, but also within many of the subordinate positions which are absolutely critical to managing a complex incident and driving the system.

So how do we prepare to use ICS?  I often refer to the preparedness capability elements of POETE (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising) when I’m talking about preparedness activities.  These same concepts apply here.  We need to remember that planning is the foundation of all preparedness efforts.  If it’s not documented, then why are we doing it?  So we have to have plans, polies, and procedures which call for the implementation of ICS and direct us in the nuances of how we will manage an incident.  I’m sure everyone’s plan has taken a page from the NIMS Doctrine and includes language about the requirement to use NIMS and ICS.  That’s all well and good, but like many things in our plans, we don’t reinforce these things enough.

I’m not talking about simply giving NIMS and ICS lip service.  I’m talking about procedure level integration of these concepts.  This begins with good planning, which means plans that are implementation-ready.  Would you consider your plans implementation-ready?  Do they describe how to use the ICS structure and concepts to actually implement the plan?  Maybe yes, maybe no.   If not, your team has some plan updating to do.

Your organization must be ready to respond using ICS.  That means that everyone is familiar with their assigned roles and responsibilities.  Often ICS training falls short of this.  This article: Training EOC Personnel – ICS is Not Enough, details many of the reasons why, at least for an EOC environment.  Many of the points made in the article, however, can be reasonably applied to other environments and organizations.  While ICS provides us with overall concepts, the application of those concepts will differ for various organizations and locations.  Every location, county, region, and state have different protocols which must be integrated into incident management practices.  (Refer back to planning).  Our organizations, both those that are static as well as those which are ad-hoc (assembled for the response to a particular incident or event) need to be ready to act.  This means familiarity not only with ICS or our specific applications of it, but also with our plans.  How often do ICS courses actually talk about the implementation of emergency plans?  Rarely.  Yet that’s what we are actually doing.  Do you have people assigned to ICS roles?  Are they ready to take on the responsibilities within these roles?  Do you have backups to these positions?  I’m not necessarily talking about a formal incident management team (IMT), although that may be suitable and appropriate.  Absent an IMT, the responders within a jurisdiction or organization should have a reasonable expectation of the role/roles they will play.  This helps them and your organization to be better prepared.

The implementation of ICS generally doesn’t take much equipping, but there are some basics.  Responders love radios and we use them often.  How about people who aren’t traditional responders, but may be called on to function with your ICS organization?  Do they know how to use a radio?  Do you have a standing communication plan to help you implement their use?  How do you track incident resources?  I didn’t just ask about fire service resources – I mean all resources.  Do you have a system for this?  T-Cards are great, but take training and practice to use them – plus they require that all responders know their responsibilities for accountability.  The same goes with a computer-based solution.  For whatever equipment or systems you plan on using, you must ensure that they are planned through and that people are very familiar with how to use them.

Training… I think I’ve talked about the need for better ICS training quite a bit, so I’m not going to continue with that point here.  What I will mention is a need for refresher training and jurisdiction-specific training on incident management.  This isn’t necessarily ICS focused, but it is ICS based.  For many years now, FEMA has believed that by including three slides on NIMS in every training program that they are helping with NIMS compliance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You have to actually talk about how these concepts are key to implementing plans.  Responders need to be familiar with the emergency management system they are working within.  Train people to the plans and procedures.  Let them know who is in charge of what and when, who the decision makers are, and any other training needs identified in the earlier POETE activities.  Prepare them to implement ICS!

Lastly, exercises.  Incident management should be something that is practiced and tested in almost every exercise.  Applying these concepts is not something we do on a regular basis, therefore knowledge and skills erode over time.  Certainly we have to be familiar with the system, not just at an awareness level but at a functional and operational level.  Regardless of the state of the current curriculum, that involves practice.  Exercises don’t have to be elaborate, remember that they can range from discussion-based to operations-based.  Table top exercises are great to talk things through, drills are good for focused activities, and even full-scale exercises can be small and contained.  So long as the exercise is designed, conducted, and evaluated well, that’s what counts.  Don’t forget that evaluation piece.  The feedback to the entire system (plans, organization, equipment and systems, and training) is extremely important to continued improvement.

This is public safety, not a pick-up kick ball game.  We can do better.

Thanks for listening… what are your thoughts?

Does your organization or jurisdiction need help preparing to implement ICS?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


4 thoughts on “Preparing to Use the Incident Command System

  1. good thoughts,I would add however that now that the initial nims surge is over we are producing field personnel who have never heard the letters nims or ICS. I am in the position of mentoring several young EMTs and they can’t conceptualize the need for an ICS structure. We are failing somewhere or maybe experience is the only teacher

  2. I certainly can agree that an overhaul of the ICS curriculum is due, however another consideration that transcends the curriculum is course delivery. I keep running into organizations that want their ICS training condensed from several days to several hours. Internal instructors will “tailor” their deliveries to produce a Readers Digest version. Then the organization will declare that these students are now “fully trained” thus both checking the ICS box and setting the stage for failure. This approach is particularly bad for these organizations in that these are usually ones that do not utilize ICS on a daily basis. So their staff may only work with ICS on an occasional exercise or rare incident. Perhaps a start might be a real prohibition on allowing “credit” for ICS training that has been the subject of excessive tailoring. I have also observed that there is a significant gap between what a student learns taking ICS 100 and 200 online verses taking these two courses in an instructor-led format. With no hands on exercises, the online students are at a real disadvantage in learning and applying the principles of ICS.

    1. Hi David,
      I fully agree! Of course NIMS provides the training standards for ICS courses, both in terms of hours and objectives. There is nothing that explicitly states that the national training curriculum must be used, so long as the identified objectives are covered (by qualified instructors) and within the range of hours identified for each course. As you mention, organizations wanting an ICS-200 delivered in 4 hours are asking for something that is not only not compliant with the NIMS standards, but it’s actually worse than the current curriculum!

      I’ve commented to others that I don’t mind a little tailoring, as I’m sure you agree with. Every course, no matter what the topic is, needs to identify with the audience. That said, the general content and certainly the learning objectives still need to be consistent with the NIMS doctrine on training. Some tailoring has been excessive and, despite good intentions, has led to breaking an already damaged curriculum.

      I fought quite a bit against the online ICS-200 program when we received word about the plans from the joint NWCG, FEMA, NFA working group. Unfortunately it was a done deal and we couldn’t do anything about it. Along the lines of your observations, we’ve seen abysmal outcomes from this mode, requiring a lot more time in the beginning of the ICS-300 being spent on review of basic principles. A decrease of quality in the name of convenience. I can this this from something you by from Wal-Mart, but not for a public safety application.

      Thanks for the comments!


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