Training, Exercises, and the ICS: A Natural Fit

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) established a training standard stipulating that emergency responder personnel must be trained to certain levels in the U.S. government’s incident command system (ICS). The required levels are generally related to the responders’ degree of responsibility during emergency incidents – i.e., the greater the responsibility, the greater depth of ICS training required. Most emergency response organizations have adopted and adapted to the general standards since those criteria were published. In fact, many states, cities, and agencies have implemented ongoing annual schedules or calendars: (a) to provide training for personnel whose responsibilities change; and (b) to provide adequate training to new employees who are replacing those who resign, retire, transfer, or for various other reasons are no longer on the job.

Since 2008, many of the organizations providing ICS training have come to recognize a new challenge – i.e., finding a way to maintain the core competencies and skills associated with the ICS training provided in the past. While continuing to provide the standard training courses – Introduction to ICS (ICS-100), Basic ICS (ICS-200), Intermediate ICS (ICS-300), and Advanced ICS (ICS-400) – those organizations have discovered that at least some personnel could not effectively recall or perform the objectives of their previously completed training. Usually, the original knowledge base had atrophied – often, it seemed, because of the lack of application.

In addition, other ICS training has been promulgated and incorporated into state, local, and organizational training strategies. In 2009, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released the first eight Position-Specific Training courses for Command and General Staff in the ICS. Since then, FEMA has continued to develop and deploy unit-level training courses within the General Staff structure of an incident command organization. Among the courses now readily available for individuals and organizations seeking to refine their knowledge of the ICS are training for: (a) Division/Group Supervisors in the operations section; (b) Resource and Situation Unit Leaders in the planning section; and (c) unit-level positions in the logistics and finance/administration sections. For that and other reasons, the NIMS Training Plan provided by FEMA is now considered by many to be a “living document” that will probably never die.

Maintenance & Upkeep vs. Few & Infrequent

The old adage, “Use it or lose it,” has manifested itself with regard to ICS training and applications. Personnel who completed a particular level of ICS training have, in many cases, simply allowed the knowledge so hard acquired to stagnate through inactivity. Although most organizations expect to require the routine review and maintenance of tactical or positional skills, less attention has been focused on maintaining the knowledge and competencies that may be needed for establishing and implementing an incident command organization. This is quite simply because the types of situations (emergency incidents or major events) in which a formal ICS might be needed are, fortunately, few and infrequent. Largely for that reason, the maintenance of specific ICS skills is often overlooked. However, some organizations are beginning to direct more effort toward the maintenance of ICS knowledge and skills.

For many years, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has used a system in which all personnel must maintain their skills and competencies through both recurring training and observed demonstration – e.g., actual incidents – on a three-year cycle. Personnel who pursue national credentialing for wildfire positions receive training in the classroom first. That training is followed by skills development activities similar to those used in many other high-level disciplines. However, unlike the practice in at least some of those other disciplines, the NWCG training phase is typically followed by a relatively intense period of “shadowing” in which the trainee performs the required skills in practical situations under the supervision and tutelage of experienced practitioners who evaluate the trainee’s performance.

Over time, the trainee’s demonstration of skills is documented through a Position Task Book (PTB). When the PTB has been completed, it is verified by the individual’s supervisor or organization – who then submits the documentation to the NWCG for recognition. Once approved, the individual is issued a credential (certification) – commonly referred to as a “Red Card” – that includes, among other information, the personal data and documented qualifications of the individual.

Over the past decade, this documentation has also been entered into a national IQS (Incident Qualifications System) database – which is maintained by the NWCG as a “registry” of individuals who have met the criteria required to be assigned specific positional roles on an incident occurring anywhere within the United States. Experience has shown that this process generally works very well for the limited U.S. community of wild-land firefighting resources.

When used in conjunction with the Resource Ordering and Status System (R.O.S.S.) database system, the IQS provides the NWCG and its member organizations a comprehensive national inventory of qualified and available personnel resources for all ICS positions. However, such a system does not yet exist for the “all-hazards” incident-management system being promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security. Hence, there is no driving force to acquire or maintain ICS credentials for a large number of emergency personnel working outside of the wild-land firefighting realm.

Creating Opportunities: The Mirroring Approach 

In the broader scope of all-hazards incident management, a welcome challenge has been that the nation does not experience the volume of incidents that would necessitate establishing fully staffed incident command organizations on a regular basis. Consequently, although skills maintenance at the tactical level is relatively easy through routine practice and actual response activities, the maintenance of management and command skills is a much more challenging requirement. Incident Commanders and Operations Section Chiefs generally have sound experience levels, and Safety Officers and Public Information personnel can usually practice their skills on a regular basis. However, the other general staff positions – i.e., Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administration – as well as unit-level positions often do not have as many opportunities to review or hone their skill sets on a continuing basis.

One way to maintain and reinforce previous ICS training that is gaining popularity is to implement a deliberately structured incident command organization even in situations when the formal staffing of some or even most positions is not actually needed. For example, a more expansive ICS organization may be established to plan and manage a relatively routine activity such as a group outing or conducting a public affairs event for school children. This strategy may be particularly useful in cases where local personnel are not seeking national credentials (which require the more detailed completion of a PTB). In the much less urgent structured situation, personnel have an opportunity to practice and apply their positional skills without the intense urgency automatically provided by a major incident.

Another option sometimes being adopted is the practice of “mirroring” personnel – i.e., by having two members of the same unit not only to function in the same position but also, while doing so, allowing them to affirm or reinforce their knowledge and skills and even correct or coach one another, as and when appropriate. The mirroring approach requires the two participants to work collaboratively both in making decisions and in taking the actions needed to accomplish the stated objectives postulated by the IC leader. One cautionary note:  This approach presents the potential challenge of conflicting perspectives for decision-making, making it imperative that the paired individuals resolve their differences both quickly and effectively in order to issue a single directive. (An after-action review is often conducted, in fact, to enable each participant to review all aspects of the activity just completed.)

The Routine Rotation of Relationships & Responsibilities

A third option is to apply the fundamental ICS principles ICS in the organization, planning, and managing of routine activities. For example, some (perhaps most) ICS position responsibilities can be delegated to participating staff for a training program. The program manager or training officer may designate, from the students participating, an incident commander as well as safety, operations, planning, and logistics officers.

Subordinate positions also may be designated to manage or supervise various aspects of the activities planned. The program administrator or training officer then would serve as the “Agency Administrator,” providing overall guidance and oversight. If the training program is an ongoing activity, different personnel can be rotated to various positions throughout the course of the activities. This option not only helps reinforce positional knowledge, but can also broaden the various individuals’ understanding of the relationships between different position responsibilities in the overall ICS scheme. Another advantage is that, although it should not be considered a means to qualify individuals for credentialing at the highest levels, it does provide more routine review and reinforcement of basic knowledge and skills.

Some organizations have implemented other, and more specific, training and exercise programs to assist in the maintenance and reinforcement of ICS core skills and competencies. The Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP), for example, offers a one-day refresher class, “ICS Planning Process and Forms” – which is basically a sequence of tabletop exercises and activities to refresh trainees on the standard ICS forms used in developing an Incident Action Plan (IAP). As the class progresses, the students work through development of the forms to compose their IAP for a specific scenario.

The class concludes with all of the students, generally in working groups of six to eight individuals resembling an incident management team (IMT), providing an “operational period briefing” using the IAP materials they developed. The net outcome is a controlled but nonetheless challenging environment in which students refresh their fundamental knowledge of IMT functions. A particularly attractive aspect of instituting this type of class is the minimal costs involved (as determined by the facility and student materials used and, if necessary, instructor salaries).

Coming Next: A Just-in-Time Refresher Course

FEMA also is currently developing an online refresher course for those who want to review the most commonly used ICS forms. Information about this course is expected to be released later this year and may serve as a valuable annual refresher and/or – prior to mobilization for a significant incident – for the “just-in-time” training of personnel with limited experience or practice.

Another VDFP-developed program, “Command & General Staff – Practical Evolutions,” features a “full-functional exercise” in which the participants are typically assembled as an IMT under “restricted” conditions and presented with a scenario for which they must perform the three critical elements for realistic incident management: (a) establishing a viable management organization; (b)entifying and resolving needs for sustenance (food) and accommodations (sleeping arrangements); and (c) developing a complete IAP within a pre-designated time frame – generally 12 to 24 hours from the beginning of the activities. Throughout the cycle, program controllers and simulators provide input and exercise “injects” requiring adaptation and adjustment by the team in ways very close to what often occurs in a real-life situation. All activities do take place in real time and inputs are “consequence-based” – i.e., if a decision is made or an action taken that is inconsistent with expected practices, the controllers and simulators will create an adverse response.

For example, if the trainees are preparing a grocery list for meals and forget to list mayonnaise, they do not get any mayonnaise. Conversely, when the expected action is actually taken, the controllers and simulators provide reinforcing inputs or simply allow the actions to continue unaffected. The participants are thus placed in a situation that closely resembles an actual deployment with minimal amenities – which they (the students) will personally plan and execute.

This VDFP program is typically conducted in a remote location (to minimize distractions) and offers few, if any, conveniences often associated with a regular training class – e.g., no hotel bars, restaurants, or other amenities. The result is a bare-bones scenario that both enhances and intensifies the focus of the participants. As with the ICS Planning and Forms refresher class, the participants are required to deliver an Operational Period Briefing, using the IAP forms which they themselves develop in accordance with the ICS planning cycle postulated. An after-action review is then conducted by the controllers to: (a) highlight the sound practices emphasized; and (b) offer corrective suggestions to remedy actual and/or potential deficiencies.

This same program can be conducted for one or several consecutive cycles either with the rotation of personnel or the scheduling of additional cycles for the same team. A peripheral benefit is that the program enables the managers and administrators to practice the same organizational taskings using ICS as the participants must do to “manage” their scenario. Admittedly, there are somewhat greater costs for this program – e.g., for lodging, meals, and staffing a cadre of qualified controllers and simulators. However, the overall cost can be minimized both by detailed and thorough advance planning and by the use of qualified in-house staff to conduct the program.

In summary, training and exercises are the best and by far most effective way for establishing and maintaining a fundamental ICS organizational capacity. In addition, the creative application of ICS for routine activities provides a natural fit both for managing those activities and maintaining – and usually upgrading – personnel knowledge and skills in applying ICS principles.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.

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