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

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