It’s sad to say that in the past four and a half years of stumping for changes in ICS training, we have seen little progress. I was recently sent a response org chart developed by an agency that completely tore apart ICS and rebuilt it in a fundamentally different image. ICS is a standard. It shouldn’t be changed. Once you change it, especially at fundamental levels, you no longer have a standard. It has innate flexibility, but those are applied without changing the fundamentals. I vented some of my frustration about this last night on Twitter, to a mix of celebration and naysayers, as expected. Some of those naysayers think the system simply doesn’t work. Others think the system simply can’t accommodate their type of agency.
(note that I’m using the word ‘agency’ here to mean any type of government, non-government, or private sector organization. I decided to use it since I’m also heavily using the term ‘organization’ in regard to the structure we apply for a response)
So let’s back up a bit. Why is this happening? It starts with people having some knowledge of ICS and, with good intentions, wanting to adapt it to their agency and their circumstances. But there is simply no reason to do any adaptation. The functions outlined in ICS are all you need in a field-level response. I’ve heard all the excuses – “We need to make it work for us.” “FEMA needs to build an ICS for our type of agency.” “It’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve worked with a lot of stakeholders across a lot of sectors across the whole country, and I have yet to find a field-level response that I can’t organize without violating the fundamentals of ICS.
I’m sure I’ve said this before, but adhering to the standard is important because if we don’t adhere to a standard, we are out of the loop. If enough people don’t adhere to a standard, it’s no longer a standard. Either way, the benefits of having a standard are crumpled up and thrown away.
One problem is that a lot of entities, particularly large agencies with multiple components, like to ensure that every function or department within their static structure is represented in an ICS model. This isn’t what ICS is built for. If you are seeking specific representation, you can assign agency representatives to the ICP or the EOC, or use a department-based EOC model, but the foundational ICS structure itself isn’t intended to reflect your static organization. You have an animal control officer. Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart? No, they are brought in as a resource if needed, likely in Operations. You have an IT department. Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart? Not as a department. But their capability is identified, likely for assignment within Logistics. It’s not about recreating ICS to fit your static organization. It’s about knowing the capabilities of your static organization and applying them within the established ICS structure when and how they are needed.
Let’s put this out there… ICS isn’t just for you, it’s for everyone. What I mean is that the greatest benefit of ICS (the prime reason it was actually devised) is for multi-agency operations. In a local incident of any significance, your agency is likely to be part of a multi-agency response. Depending on the type of incident, scope, location, and other factors, certain positions will be staffed with personnel selected from the agencies with primary responsibility and, hopefully, with qualified staff. So that carefully crafted org chart you have developed for your agency’s response is largely irrelevant in a multi-agency operation. Yes, your agency certainly should have a go-to model for single-agency responses, but consider that a single-agency response probably isn’t going to need a full-blown org chart.
There is a difference, though… and that’s for EOCs, or more specifically departmental emergency operations centers. These are, by definition, not multi-agency, and established to support your own agency’s needs for deployment, sustainment, internal coordination, and matters that may not be addressed at the field-level. EOCs have a variety of organizational models available to them, which don’t necessarily need to be ICS. A problem I often see is agencies trying to accomplish everything in one org chart. They are trying to fit executive level positions in with field response. Stop. Take a breath and figure out what you are trying to accomplish. It’s OK (and perhaps necessary) for your agency to have two organizational models to accomplish what you need, depending, of course, on your agency’s role, responsibilities, and capabilities. You may need a field-level organization that addresses a tactical response (this is ICS-based) and an EOC organization that supports that response and the needs of your agency as a whole in regard to the incident (again, lots of options for the EOC organization). Also consider, depending on your agency, that a policy group may be necessary to guide things. A policy group is non-operational and they essentially exist to make the broad-reaching decisions on behalf of the organization.
Why are we seeing such extensive mis-applications of ICS? First, people still don’t understand ICS. Second, they aren’t truly considering the needs of their agencies. The irony is that many of the people doing this DO think they understand ICS and that they are making changes to it to better serve the needs of their agencies. So… we’re still maintaining that ICS Training Sucks. Do I have a total solution to that problem? No. But in the articles you find in that link, I certainly have some ideas. I’ve also found a great many kindred spirits in this whole crusade that agree with the need for change in how we train people in ICS.
What I do know is that the solution isn’t as straight forward as we would like it to be. Considerations:
First, we are considerably tainted by our knowledge of current and past ICS curricula. When talking with people about how to fix ICS training, I have to regularly remind myself to push that knowledge aside and look at the problem with fresh eyes. Lessons learned aside; we can’t move forward when we are still planting ourselves in what is in use now.
Second, we need to consider that there may not be a single solution that fits all needs. I still think we may need a curriculum structure similar to that used for HazMat training, which addresses the needs of different user groups (i.e. Awareness, Operations, Technician, Planner, Commander).
Third, we need to actually teach people how to apply ICS. At present, with only a bit of exception, true application of ICS isn’t deliberately instructed until someone takes position-specific and incident management team training. This in no way meets the needs of most agencies, many of which are volunteer, and have limited availability to go away for several weeks to get the training they need.
Fourth, recognize that if you aren’t using ICS regularly (and I mean at a large scale), your knowledge and skill degrades. Refresher training should be required and scenario-based learning should be incorporated across the curriculum.
Fifth, stop trying to re-develop ICS. Trust me, all the needed capabilities of your agency for a field-level response fit within an ICS org chart. It’s not about your static organization, it’s about capabilities. Identify and assign capabilities.
I love the continued dialog and attention this topic gets. The only way we will see positive change is by continuing that dialog. Please share these blogs and your ideas with colleagues. Let’s keep spreading this and striving for change.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEPD
In memoriam: I humbly dedicate this post to a friend and colleague who recently lost a battle with cancer. Phil Politano is known by many for his good nature, his gregarious laugh, and his incredible knowledge as a Public Information Officer. I’ve known Phil since about 2002, and had worked with him on incidents, taught classes with him, and learned a lot from him. Phil eventually left Central NY and moved his family a bit south, taking a job with FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. There, his talents were applied to their greatest extent. He reshaped PIO training, spread that gospel to people from all around the world, and supported large scale responses with his knowledge, skills, and abilities. He was a master in his craft and shared his mastery with anyone who wanted to learn. He was an incredible practitioner, a great friend, and a wonderful person. He made us all better simply by knowing him. He is missed by so many. Rest well.