Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough

Back in October I wrote a post about ICS training not being enough for EOC personnel.  You can give it a read to see my reasons, which essentially boil down to the specific role of the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) in the incident management structure and the unique processes which take place in an EOC both not being addressed in ICS (Incident Command System) training.

As I continue to work in various jurisdictions to enhance their preparedness, I am expanding my thoughts on ICS training not being enough – this time for all of preparedness.  In meeting with jurisdictions and discussing their current state of preparedness, many believe they are well prepared to respond to any incident simply because their personnel have received ICS training.  Why am I concerned by this?

Folks, in the grand scheme of things, ICS training alone does not teach you to do very much except how to function within a system.  First off, I’m a huge believer in ICS and the success it can help facilitate in incidents and events.  Not only have I seen it work, but I use it and advocate for it as a chief practice of emergency management.  I’ve been teaching ICS courses since 2001 and have led hundreds of course deliveries amongst the various levels.  That said, in seeing the faith that people are putting in ICS as their savior from disaster, I think that faith has become exaggerated and misplaced.  While ICS gives us guidance on structure, processes, and standards, it still doesn’t tell us HOW to manage the incident and its impacts – and it never well.

The structure, processes, and other standards that ICS provides – when properly applied – are greatly beneficial to our ability to manage a disaster.  Let’s not forget, though, everything else that is needed to be successful.  There is an abundance of training available for personnel to address identified needs to make them better at what they do and thus enhance the capabilities of the jurisdiction or entity.  Some of this may certainly include higher level and more functional training in ICS (i.e. position-specific and incident management team training), but we can’t forget that we must focus on our needs and developing to meet those needs.  More on identifying training needs here and here.

The best way of identifying those needs, comprehensively, is through our plans.  Planning is the cornerstone of preparedness and serves as the foundation of our response.  Planning to appropriate depth is not often performed and always needs to be enhanced (more training in the activities of planning is certainly an identified need!).  Once plans are in place, we need to train all stakeholders on the contents of those plans and of course exercise them.  The process of planning and the exercises we conduct will identify other gaps in preparedness efforts that the jurisdiction or entity should address.  These gaps are most easily analyzed through through five key elements – Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising (POETE).  More on POETE analysis here.

When a plan is being written or reviewed, we need to follow the bouncing ball for each of the identified activities.  Is it enough for the plan to say that certain stakeholders will be contacted when an incident occurs?  Of course not – we need to identify WHO will contact them, HOW they will be contacted, specifically WHEN they will contact and what is the trigger event, and WHAT they will be told.  Also, what happens if someone is unreachable?  What actions are they expected to take?  Do they then need to make any notifications?  If they are doing nothing with the information, WHY are we even contacting them?  This simple task requires planning (process and decision mapping as well as a specific procedure), organizing (identifying specific personnel and alternates to do this), equipping (the equipment needed for them to make contact; including access, maintenance, operation, and redundancies), training (training and job aids in the procedures and equipment), and exercising (to ensure that all the previous elements function appropriately).

The example above is simple, but shows how far-reaching and complex a seemingly simple activity can be.  ICS training won’t address this.  While ICS practices should be penetrating the deepest aspects of our incident response organization, ICS as a concept is fairly high-level and conceptual.  While it helps structure our tactical resources, ICS itself is not a tactical application – it is simply the structure we perform in.  The processes it provides are not tactical processes, they are incident management processes, but we still need to know about the incident and what to do – ICS will not provide those answers.  ICS is a great tool, but just like a carpenter we must have a variety of tools to do the job properly.

What needs have you identified?

If you need assistance with your preparedness – planning, training, exercising, or needs assessments – reach out to Emergency Preparedness Solutions!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC  

7 thoughts on “Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough

  1. Quite thought provoking, fully agree that ICS alone will not allow you to manage an emerging disaster or incident: pre-incident plans, standard operating procedures and a well rehearsed and exercised existing and agreed to disaster management plan are required. ICS in its raw form is about managing by function and is at best a set of guiding principles that as you have identified, nothing more than tools in the toolbox for disaster managers to select when and as required.

    1. Thank you Brian. Have you read my pieces on ICS training? I’m interested in your thoughts on the effectiveness of ICS training. I’m quite familiar with how things are here in the States and have gotten quite a bit of feedback from folks in Canada. Going back about 15 years when I visited NSW, it appeared that Australia used the same training as we did in North America. I suspect that is probably still true.


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