Updated ICS Training Courses – a Critical Review

It’s been quite a while since I’ve last posted, but, as I’m sure many of my followers expected, the updated ICS training materials would bring me out of my absenteeism.  For those not aware, in March of this year, FEMA released IS-200.c, an updated Basic ICS course; and earlier this week released updated ICS 300 and ICS 400 courses.  Let’s take a look at them…

First, ICS 200.  The biggest indicator of what a course is about is the course objectives, so let’s compare.

ICS 200.b Objectives ICS 200.c Objectives
Describe the Incident Command System organization appropriate to the complexity of the incident or event Describe how the NIMS Management Characteristics relate to Incident Command and Unified Command.
Use ICS to manage an incident or event Describe the delegation of authority process, implementing authorities, management by objectives, and preparedness plans and objectives.
  Identify ICS organizational components, the Command Staff, the General Staff, and ICS tools.
  Describe different types of briefings and meetings.
  Explain flexibility within the standard ICS organizational structure.
  Explain transfer of command briefings and procedures.
  Use ICS to manage an incident or event.

Obviously, the updated course has more objectives.  Is this better?  When we compare the relative content of the two courses, it’s pretty clear, first of all, that ICS 200.b only having two terminal learning objectives was the result of poor instructional design.  What is laid out in ICS 200.c is really how the previous version should have been.  The content between the two courses is largely the same, with the major exception of the updated course having a capstone activity.  Comparing the classroom time-plan, the previous version clocks in at 735 minutes (without breaks), while the updated version is almost two hours longer at 845 minutes, bringing the new course to a full two days of course delivery vs the day and one half which the course has been throughout its history.  The inclusion of a capstone activity as a standard in this course absolutely makes sense, helping the material become more relevant to students and starting to bring us into the Application domain of learning.

What concerns me considerably is the time plan for independent study, which totals 240 minutes (four hours).  I still don’t understand how such a difference in time can be justified when the two delivery formats are supposed to be equivalent in learning outcomes.  We all know they aren’t.  More on this in a bit…

On to ICS 300.  As before, let’s look at the objectives first.

ICS 300 (2013) ICS 300 (2019)
Describe how the NIMS Command and Management component supports the management of expanding incidents Given a simulated situation, identify roles and reporting relationships under a Unified Command that involves agencies within the same jurisdiction and under multijurisdictional conditions.
Describe the incident/event management process for supervisors and expanding incidents as prescribe by ICS Develop incident objectives for a simulated incident.
Implement the incident management progress on a simulated expanding incident Create an ICS Form 215, Operational Planning Worksheet, and an ICS Form 215A, Incident Action Plan Safety Analysis, using a given scenario.
Develop an incident action plan for a simulated incident Create a written IAP for an incident/event using the appropriate ICS forms and supporting materials and use the IAP to conduct an Operational Period Briefing.
  Explain the principles and practices of incident resources management.
  Identify demobilization considerations for a given scenario.

Note the big difference here in the increased use of verbs of higher learning domains such as develop and create in the updated course.  It certainly makes me wonder if the folks behind the ICS 300 update had read my post from 2015 ICS Training Sucks and other related posts, as this was one of the primary issues I focused on.  While there are, again, more terminal learning objectives, many of the general content areas of the ICS 300 remain the same, though when we look at the details, it seems the content is refined and more focused on implementation, especially in regard to breaking down the planning process into more digestible pieces.

One of the most notable differences in structure is seen in Unit 2, which serves as the ICS fundamentals review.  Previously, this was largely a didactic unit, with the instructor leading the review.  The module now is a bit longer, but oriented toward student-led learning as a scenario is provided up front and used to support a refresh on what is essentially the learning which should have been obtained in ICS 200.  Interestingly enough, in the webinar hosted by EMI about this update, the facilitator stressed the obvious differences in learning outcomes between the online version and classroom version of ICS 200, even going so far as saying that people should be taking the classroom version and not the online version.  SO WHY IS IT STILL BEING OFFERED???  I really won’t accept the excuse of convenience, either.  This is public safety and we need to take our training more seriously.

Another difference in the overall structure of the new ICS 300 delivery is the inclusion of a pre-test.  This has long been a standard in DHS Consortium training and helps to identify how much learning took place and in what areas.  It also helps identify weak areas in instructional design, supporting more meaningful future updates.  The new course is 21 hours long, upping the time of delivery from 18 hours.  This brings us to a full three days, much of which provides greater practical application.  As with the previous version, they provide a slate of scenarios from which to draw upon throughout the course, providing relevant context based on your local hazards and the response focus of your audience.  I’ll be delivering this new course in the summer and am very much looking forward to it.

Lastly, the ICS 400 course was also updated.

ICS 400 Objectives (2013) ICS 400 Objectives (2019)
Explain how major incidents pose special management challenges Given a scenario and review materials, apply key NIMS doctrine concepts (NIMS Management Characteristics, Unified Command, Incident Command System structure and functional area responsibilities, IAP Preparation and the Operational Period Planning Cycle, and incident complexity) to the management of a complex incident or event.
Describe the circumstances in which an area command is established Apply the appropriate structural option to manage a complex incident.
Describe the circumstances in which multiagency coordination systems are established Given a scenario, develop an Area Command organization.
  Identify the complex incident management issues that can result from a lack of multiagency coordination.

This revision comes at you with much more confident and meaningful objectives.  You can see that the scope is similar, but the taxonomy is at a higher level.  Time-wise, the updated course is just an hour longer at 16 hours vs 15.  They again implement a pre- and post-test and use a scenario to facilitate the Unit 2 review.  The multi-agency coordination unit is replaced with one that describes not only multi-agency coordination, but also discusses the interconnectivity of NIMS command and coordination structures, which is absolutely relevant, as the use of various commands, operations centers, and other incident facilities can be confusing during a disaster, even for those of us in the know!

I’ll also be delivering this course later in the summer and am excited to see how much better it is received than previous versions.

This rollout also accompanies a new Planning P video, which I’ve not yet looked at but will be using in my upcoming deliveries.

While I reserve more detailed commentary for once I’ve had an opportunity to examine specific content more closely and deliver the courses, what I’m already seeing is quite encouraging.  I’m hopeful that these courses can support development of local capability to use the concepts provided to better manage incidents and events.  If designed and instructed well, this training, combined with quality plans and exercises, has the potential to make a big difference.  Thanks to FEMA and EMI for listening!

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®℠

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ICS Training Sucks… So Let’s Fix It

A great many of you are familiar with the piece I wrote in June called Incident Command System Training Sucks.  In it, I identify that the foundational ICS courses (ICS-100 through ICS-400 – but especially ICS-300 and ICS-400) simply do not provide the skills training that emergency managers across all disciplines require to utilize the system efficiently, effectively, and comfortably.  ICS Training Sucks turned out to be a popular piece which had a great deal of support from the first responder and emergency management community – which I am very grateful for.  The amount of comments and feedback was indicative to me that I was on the right track and that I need to revisit the topic and explore more.

At the center of my argument stands Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s is a learning hierarchy which helps to identify the depth of instruction and learning.  Here is Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.  We’ll be referencing it a bit in the examples I provide.

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Take a moment to read through the descriptions of each of the ‘orders of thinking’ in Bloom’s.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Done?  Good.  Most would agree that courses such as ICS-300 and ICS-400 should attempt to convey learning at the Apply level, correct?  Unfortunately, that perception, while wildly popular, is wrong.  Most of the learning objectives of the two courses (objectives are our reference points for this) are at the Understand and Remember levels.  Yeah, I was a bit surprised, too.

In ICS Training Sucks, I provided a greater detail of the background analysis (it summarized the narrative of a Master’s research paper I wrote), so if you want more, simply go back and check it out.  While I make a few broad recommendations in that piece, there has been a need to examine our path to fixing this more closely.

In the development of curriculum, there exist several models.  The most commonly used model is the ADDIE model, which stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.  The first step, Analysis, is really the most important, although often the most ignored or cut short.  People think they know what the need is, but often don’t really understand it.  If you are interested, I’ve written a piece on the topic of Analysis for Training Magazine last year.

Even though we are suggesting a re-write of the ICS curriculum, or parts thereof, Analysis is extremely important.  The roots of the current curriculum we use goes back to circa 1970s wildfire ICS courses.  These are good courses, and while I’m not sure if they fully met the need then (although they did advance us quite a bit), their evolved versions certainly DO NOT now.  There is no sense in repackaging the same product, so let’s first figure out what people need to know to do their jobs effectively.  Essentially, this leads us to identifying a list of key core competencies in ICS.  Core competencies will define the level of competence needed in a particular job or activity.  We can easily use the levels of Bloom’s as our reference point to establish common definitions for the levels of competence.  What am I talking about?

Let’s pick one key activity in ICS to examine.  Resource Management is a great example as it shows the disparity between what exists and where we need to be.  Resource Management is discussed in Unit 6 of the ICS-300 course.  I think most would agree that we expect most every jurisdiction to be able to implement sound resource management practices.  Implement is the key word.  Implementation is indicative of the Apply level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  When looking at unit objectives in the ICS-300 course for unit 6, the key words are identify and describe.  Identify is indicative of the Remember level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, while describe is indicative of the Understand level.  Both fall short of application.  While we aren’t looking for this curriculum to create incident management teams, we still expect most jurisdictions to be able to manage resources, which is certainly a core competency of incident management.

I think the NIMS doctrine provides a good starting point for identifying core competencies.  In an effective study, there may be other competencies identified – perhaps topics such as leadership, that may not necessarily be found in a revised ICS curricula, but can be obtained through other training courses.  This could lead to an important differentiation between core competencies (those that MUST be included in ICS training) and associated competencies which can be sourced elsewhere.

Further, we can capitalize on what we have learned through implementation of the current ICS curriculum and previous iterations.  We know that multidisciplinary training is most effective since larger incidents are multidisciplinary.  We also know that training must be interactive and maximize hands-on time.  The past few updates to the ICS courses have done a great job of encouraging this, but we need more.

Making more detailed recommendations on fixing ICS training will take time and effort, as a solid Analysis must first be done.  Once core competencies can be identified and defined, then a strategy for revamping ICS training can be developed.  As mentioned in ICS Training Sucks, this approach should be multi-faceted, using both new and (good) existing courses to support it. Let’s not be bound by what currently exists.  We don’t necessarily have to create a ‘new’ ICS-300 or ICS-400 course.  Let’s create courses within a broader program that meets the needs of the emergency management community.  They may no longer be called ICS-300 and ICS-400.  Perhaps these two will be replaced by four smaller courses?  Who knows where this path will take us? The bottom line is that we need to be responsive to the needs of the learners, not bound by “the way we’ve always done it.”

As always, feedback is appreciated.  Perhaps there exists an institution that has the desire and funding to pursue this further?  I’m fully onboard!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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