ICS: Who doesn’t need it?

In a recent discussion thread, someone shared some material for a new program that promotes resiliency for disaster housing.  While the intent of the program is good, there was one thing that struck me – it stated that it was based on the incident command system (ICS).  My question – why?

ICS is a great system.  It’s proven to be effective WHEN APPLIED PROPERLY.  That’s the catch, though, isn’t it?  A great many after action reports (AARs) identify areas for improvement relative to various facets of ICS after incidents, events, and exercises.  The organizations that the AARs are usually focused on are professional response organizations – fire, police, EMS, public works, public health, emergency management, etc.  These are organizations that generally get LOTS OF PRACTICE in applying ICS.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that most organizations that do use ICS don’t get enough practice in applying ICS beyond smaller incidents.  So if responders, who are using ICS, have difficulty with expanded application despite some practice and more advanced training, how are organizations who don’t use it all expected to be able to remember it much less apply it properly on even the most basic of incidents?  (More on my issues with ICS training here, in case you’ve missed posts over the last year or so.)

So back to the main topic of this post – who doesn’t need ICS training?  I would suggest that those persons and organizations that don’t fit the broad definition of responders DON’T NEED IT.  While this may be blasphemous to some, consider the time and effort wasted on getting people trained to understand ICS who will NEVER USE IT.  “But what if they do need it?” you ask?

I’m challenged to really find that need.  Why does the management of an apartment complex need to know or understand ICS?  I find the thought of that foolish and wasteful.  Sure, they can be a partner in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.  Does that make them a responder?  No. Will they become part of the ICS organization?  NO!  Is there any reason why they would need to use ICS to manage their own organization?  NO!!! They manage their organization every day through what should be a very effective model for them.  Why the hell do we want to change that?  We need to stop pushing our complex shit on other people who don’t need it.

I’m of two thoughts on this… One, there are people who are so gung-ho over including everyone under the sun into emergency management that they feel compelled to bring them into the profession.  News flash people – if they wanted to be emergency managers, they would.  There is no practical reason for them to be trained in the vast complexities of emergency management.  Two, there are people who don’t really understand the applications of emergency management themselves, and therefore try to make adaptations of the system for every variety of stakeholder out there.  This is something I’ve struggled with very often as people try to adapt ICS to their organization and, in doing so, change the foundational principles of ICS (span of control, terminology, organizational structure, etc.).  Further, every organization thinks they have an INCIDENT COMMANDER.  STOP!!!

ICS is not for everyone.  I’m not being elitist or exclusionary, I’m being practical.  That’s not to say that certain stakeholders shouldn’t at least be familiar with what it is, but still not every stakeholder or partner, and they certainly don’t need to know how to actually apply it.  For many, simply having a point of contact with certain departments or through the 911 center is enough.  Certainly if some have an interest in it they can ask, or take a class either in person or online.  (I would never withhold a training opportunity from anyone.)  This should certainly give them enough to satisfy their curiosity.

Along with my crusade to make better ICS training for responders (even non-traditional ones), I would suggest that we need to do a better job of advising other organizations about how they interact with the system.  Simply throwing ICS training at them DOESN’T WORK.  It creates false expectations and generates more confusion.

So please, fire away with your thoughts.  Who do you think shouldn’t have ICS training?  What would you change about the current ICS training model/requirements? 

Shameless plug time: Need ICS training or training in other areas of emergency management?  How about meaningful and practical emergency plans you can actually implement?  Exercises to test those plans and give staff an opportunity to practice implementing plans?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!  Link to info below!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

16 thoughts on “ICS: Who doesn’t need it?

  1. About time! I am glad someone has made the distinction between which agencies / class of operators may need ICS or not. In my not so humble opinion, ICS is great for a single agency or alike agency operations system.

    But as mentioned above, if you don’t use it often or fully understand the escalation of a functional section/s and span of control issue then you could fall into so many traps.

    Some agencies or groups of agencies that are rarely or spontaneously thrown together might simply be better off with a controller and the liaisonal operations structure.

    Tim, like your thinking. Keep it up.

  2. I have tried to follow along with your previous posts, but didn’t really get it. This article makes it clear…and I cannot completely agree with your position.

    Any successful organization of any sort usually has a pretty clearly defined chain of command. Each individual knows who their boss is, what responsibilities they have within the company, all done within a manageable span of control. Is this not the very definition of ICS?

    So they already KNOW ICS. They may not know exact terminology (hell, even I struggle with it at times), but they are familiar with the concept. So they may not need to know the purest form of ICS, but they certainly need to know how their current hierarchy relates to an emergency and how all of that relates to public safety response operations.

    1. Hi Dave,
      Thanks for the comment. You are certainly right that most organizations use those principles, however I would argue that while those concepts form much of the foundation of ICS, they alone are not ICS. Those concepts actually form the basis for many management systems, but those systems distinctly are not ICS. The problem I have is that we ask/force organizations who have (presumably) a perfectly good management system already in place to change to ICS when they interface with emergency management/public safety. While many of the concepts are the same, there are certainly some that are distinctly different, especially when it comes to terminology and organizational elements.

      I fully agree with you that organizations should know how they interface with EM/public safety, but that doesn’t require ICS. Very often catering companies are hired to provide services to an EOC. From our perspective, they are dealt with through the Logistics Section. From their perspective we just another customer. They don’t care what our organization is nor do they need to change their organization to interface with us. Now if a company is coming in to provide all Food Unit services, then they should absolutely have some people trained in ICS. I think it all comes down to practical application. It’s rather presumptuous of us to compel other organizations to be trained in ICS when they really don’t need it.


  3. Why not use ICS for all-hands? It’s adaptable. It is already used by most companies, ex. chain of command, logistics orders stuff, planning schedules people,

    The National Incident Management System requires it.

    Walmart uses it.

    Even #hamradio folks have trained on it.

    You may not call it the Incident Command System but use it anyway.

    1. Thanks for the comment Lloyd.

      I had a similar comment from someone yesterday. It’s quite true that most organizations already apply many of the foundational principles of ICS as part of their daily management systems. But systems are distinctly not ICS. And really they don’t have to be just because they have an association to EM/public safety that doesn’t have them integrated into our system. Ham radio folks are often integrated into responses. Wal-Mart not only has a great business continuity program, but they also are also one of the strongest public-private partnerships we have in EM.

      There are plenty of organizations that are not integrated into our ICS. These organizations are doing their own thing and may only have a tangential relationship to our ICS. Consider the apartment management referenced in my original post, or a food vendor contracted for the EOC. They aren’t part of our organization. Why should they have to change their management structure, using our terminology and organizational positions, simply because they have this relationship? There is really no good reason for it. Just because it’s a great system doesn’t mean we need to push it on those who don’t need it.


      1. The apartment manager may be a Red Cross or Salvation Army volunteer. The Food Vendor may be a ham radio operator interested in disaster communication.

        ICS is SO much a part of our life, even part time folks, either paid or volunteer, have been exposed to it.

        Who NEEDS it? Everyone.

        Who USES it? Everyone, some better than others.

      2. Lloyd,
        Between WordPress and postings to LinkedIn discussion groups, I’ve gotten some great responses to this and some very good dialogue, both for and against.

        I agree that many of the people who are involved in emergency management in various capacities are found across the entire community. I think those folks, in their emergency management capacity, will get the training they need for the role they play.

        Training is rarely ever a bad thing, and I’ve never been one to withhold training opportunities from someone. In fact it might even be that bit of training they receive that convinces them to become more involved. That said, we need to be sure to train people to the role they will play. ICS training has such a high degree of decay – if they don’t use it, they lose it. If we are going to push training to non-emergency management folks, we might be better off with something more directly applicable to them, likely starting with more foundational personal, family, and workplace preparedness.

        I do appreciate your thoughts on this, as a fellow professional and blogger. Thanks Lloyd!


  4. Hi Tim:

    I have to agree with you. I work at an international airport as Fire Chief. It is a new position for me here and I was hired from the municipal sector, although I have extensive experience in the airport community. I have found that the airport authority even has cleaners and restaurant workers on the emergency management committee. The concept of emergency management and ICS is getting watered down. While everyone may have a role, not everyone needs ICS or to be involved in emergency planning or response like a responder.

    My thoughts


    1. Hi Todd. Thanks for the comments. While I am very much in favor of ‘whole community’ preparedness, I think we need to identify the practical extents to which people are involved. In your example, certainly the head of maintenance and a representative of the managers of the private entities on the property would be more suitable and better able to provide resources and make decisions based upon their authority and responsibilities. Perhaps you, being new, have an opportunity to make some changes to build a more effective committee?

      I’m curious as to what airport you might be with. I have an airport-related project you might be interested in. Send me an email at tim@epsllc.biz.



  5. I think there is something to be said about the management of partner support organizations having an awareness of ICS, so that they at least understand what it is that they are walking into. (Using your own example of a catering company). The level of training depends upon their level of integration. Are they simply a supplier, or a single resource like a dump trucker or a crane, or are they Emergency social Services where it would behoove them to organize their own shelter and reception system under ICS?

    I think you are right in many aspects, but any organization that interfaces with or potentially becomes a branch or resource within your own operations, should be familiar with ICS. I suppose the alternative is having a very busy Liaison officer.

  6. I have 30 plus years of EM experience and started using ICS in the early 90s when I worked with Santa Monica Fire Department. We were always looking for ways to apply ICS to the private sector and actually built some workable models that were most applicable to medium and large businesses. When I retired in 2012 and entered the world of consulting, I started writing plans for a variety of small businesses. They all were told they should use ICS. I struggled mostly with the idea of giving the a store manager or a facility manager the title Incident Commander. I found it was a difficult transition for them to make from their day to day language and operations to the occasional emergency.

    I also personally think that it’s confusing when a Fire IC shows up and connects with the IC on site. Do they argue over who is the real IC, because they don’t understand Unified Command? UC is just another somewhat unfamiliar concept not used everyday. ( BTW, I am being a bit facetious in this scenario.) However, I do beleive some flexibility is needed in how the ICS structure is applied. The notion of having some organization and structured response makes sense and is necessary when first responders can not get there, especially following a disaster or catastrophic event.

    I agree these are not first responders. However, they are first on scene and if we can better equip them with CERT and LISTOS training which familiarizes them with ICS then we are all better for it.

    Ultimately, I think that the use of the five functional areas makes sense and can be applied to apartment complexes as well as small businesses. I think that we need to let go of how we practice ICS in its purest form and exercise flexibility when it comes to training our communities and businesses.

    On another somewhat related note, consider the NIMS Training requirements. I think many EMs have scaled back on who they train in the I-300 and 1-400 courses. Do these government workers really need to know the details of how ICS works in the field? Perhaps not. But, I wouldn’t want to be the one jurisdiction on CNN who suffers a loss as result of not training our personnel.

    I want to thank you for raising this issue. It can go against the grain of how we have been trained as emergency managers. You are a brave soul for raising this issue 😉

    Looking forward to reading more solutions to this issue.

    1. Hi Laura,
      You offer some great perspective – thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      While ICS is a great system, we really need to look at applicability. While the emergence of NIMS through HSPD-5 was certainly a boon, it also created a false sense of security. Many don’t look at it critically, and think that just because people are trained in ICS there won’t be any problems when an incident occurs. The NIMS training requirements had been pushed so aggressively that anyone who even thought about disaster needed to at least be trained in 700 and 100, and, as you indicate, the requirements for 300 and 400 were a bit over the top as well. Over time some of that has been tempered, but even if we look at the content of 400, how many people REALLY NEED it? The concepts are quite high-level and few would ever even consider applying them, much less remember them.

      Early in my career as a trainer in emergency management, I was taught that we always needed to focus on the audience. It bothers met that so often our courses don’t take the needs of the audience into consideration. Instead we try to lay a blanket over all of them and try to get a course to apply to them all. As you mentioned, the ICS 300 course has some applicability to folks in government administration, but has too much field-level focus. We can easily create a course that teaches them what they need to know and how to apply it.

      If you haven’t taken a look at my ICS Training Sucks posts, I’m sure you will appreciate them.

      Thanks again for your comments!


  7. Mr. Tim,

    What day in history did emergency management become a forced position on those outside regular response organizations?

    Who has been teaching ICS this way?

    I am of the belief that ICS is the most simplistic non-derisive approach to managing a chaotic event. If the responders are responsible to manage the incident with the collaboration of the affected, would it not be the best playbook to use? I agree with you that we do not need to force feed the mechanics of ICS, but we need to provide the paint and canvas so when we bring our brush to help them with the portrait of response and ultimately recovery they will know the responders response. (I highlight the “response(ders))

    Having watched the evolution of those not having a clue what ICS is, is, such as utility companies, law enforcement, healthcare, schools, elected officials (their admin staff), etc then over the years embrace ICS as a way to contribute to incident action planning I call it a revolution of theory! Also, seeing the management of an extraordinary LODD event unfold with clear and defined precision under ICS by those whom have never been involved in such a situation embrace it’s tenants and then they easily see it defined within an action plan, about who is responsible for which and what task, and how to communicate if needed and understand the safety and logistics all within a few pages is testimony to it’s cohesive constitutional like frame work.

    My point is, making ICS seem as though it’s sh*t that youre trying to force on someone can be somewhat disingenuous. Most importantly though we are entitled to opinions and glean and learn from every opinion. I will disagree with your position, for its negative connotation. I understand and appreciate your ferver for… “It creates false expectations and generates more confusion.creating false expectations.” but I have not seen it play out that way when appropriately instructed.

    I must live in a bubble of an ICS Camelot I guess, not having seen what pushback or misunderstanding you must have seen. Considering your proclivity toward ICS I hope it is just an attempt to enhance the ideals of ICS and not it’s detriment.

    Respectfully, and in the spirit of debate and as a KoolAid drinker of ICS. Thank you for your viewpoint and posts.

    1. Christopher,
      I very much appreciate your response and thoughts on the matter! These are some of the most well thought through comments I’ve received!

      While I certainly agree that having all potential stakeholders trained in ICS would be helpful during a response, it’s not really a reasonable expectation. You seem to have a fair amount of EM experience under your belt, so you know the difficulties we have, even with many responders, of retaining the knowledge of ICS. While it’s fine to recall an org chart and a few terms, it really doesn’t make you functional. Over time, even the most foundational knowledge decays if it’s not used. So maintaining that knowledge would be a significant challenge.

      I would also suggest that encouraging people to learn our language as a ‘just in case’ isn’t a great use of resources or time. While I would never disparage someone the opportunity to learn, it makes just about as much sense as saying that someone should learn a particular foreign language just in case they encounter someone else who uses it. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, it does create false expectations.

      As professional responders, it is our responsibility to work with these third parties – not theirs to work with us. While it would be easier on us if they knew our language and our systems, that’s not a burden that we have a right to shift. Certainly responders and partner entities who are regularly involved in emergency management should learn ICS and be proficient at it, but it’s a false expectation to expect non-responders to learn it and use it.

      Rest assured, much of my commentary involving NIMS and ICS is to get people thinking about it and focus on what is important, all in an effort to improve the most essential factor of the system – people. It’s a great system, but unless implemented properly it will fail. If we don’t focus on where the real need is, better define our expectations, and improve preparedness, we will continue receiving largely mediocre results.

      Thanks again,

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