Incident Management is a Technical Skill

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Rob Burton on his Tea and Chaos webinar. We talked about the Incident Command System (ICS) and what can make it successful. Since our conversation, I’ve had some continued thoughts about ICS and the complaints people have about it. One of the complaints I hear more often is that it is the system that is flawed because it’s too challenging for people to use. They argue that it should be easier to implement with little training.

I believe I mentioned in the webinar that using ICS is not like riding a bike or tying a shoelace. It’s not something you can be trained on then expect to be able to perform years later (with no interim training and application) with little to no difficulty. ICS, a tool of incident management. Incident management is not only a perishable skill, but also a technical skill.

A technical skill is something you are trained on and hone with practice over time. Technical skills are typically industry specific and require a specialized knowledge set. It could be anything from video editing to surgery. In either of these examples, people learn the knowledge needed and acquire the skills to implement. They learn and perform every detail, becoming proficient in the practice, processes, and associated tools. If they want to stay current and relevant, they take opportunities for continuing education. They learn about new approaches and tools. They maintain proficiency through repetition and application of new knowledge.

Incident management is no different. ICS is just one of the tools we use in incident management, and as such it is something we must learn, practice, hone, and maintain. If you aren’t using it and learning more about it, those skillsets will diminish.

Let’s continue to change our perspective on preparedness for incident management. If you aren’t familiar with my years-long crusade to improve ICS training (ICS Training Sucks), here is some background reading. It’s not only the curriculum we need to change, but also our expectations of learners. What do we want learners to be able to do? Continuing on with one of the examples… not every doctor is a surgeon. So not every responder or emergency manager is an incident manager. They should know the fundamentals, just as most doctors are trained in the fundamentals such as anatomy and physiology, cell biology, etc. We certainly want our responders and emergency managers to have awareness of incident management concepts, as they may certainly be called upon to play a role in a greater organization, though if incident management isn’t their specialization, they likely won’t actually be part of the core ICS or emergency operations center (EOC) staff, even though they will be functioning within the system.

Some will need to learn more, though. Which means they need training – not just on WHAT incident management is, but HOW we manage incidents. Much of our core ICS training is focused on what ICS is, with very little on how to use it. Expecting people to become good incident managers just by taking ICS courses is foolish. It would be like expecting a doctor to become a proficient surgeon because they have learned about the tools in the operating room. So before we even get to the tool (ICS), we need to be teaching about the function (incident management). Incident management is composed of a variety of capabilities and skillsets, such as leadership and project management, which are barely touched upon in existing training. Once those are learned, then we can teach the tools, such as ICS.  

Most who are candidates for incident management should become generalists before they become specialists. General surgeons have a broad knowledge and perform the vast majority of surgeries. Some go on to be specialists. In incident management that specialization could be subject matter expertise in the management of certain hazards or impacts, or performing in a specific function. I see this as being the difference between local incident management capabilities and formal incident management teams. Specialization is supported by position-specific training, among other mechanisms. Yet we don’t really have anything to support incident management generalists.

For all that we’re accomplishing with building incident management capability, we still have a significant gap at the local level across the nation. To expect specialization within most local jurisdictions simply isn’t realistic. We define a lot of the practice through NIMS position descriptions and task books, yet we are skipping some critical steps. We are going right to focusing on the tool instead of the practice, yet at the foundational levels we aren’t teaching enough about how to implement the tool – and in fact spending far too much time on higher level implementations of the tools that most will never see (that’s the ICS 400 course, by the way). We are wasting time and resources by training people in position specific courses when what they really need for their jurisdiction is to become good incident management generalists.

Those complaining that ICS is too difficult, are failing to see the bigger picture the technical skills needed to build professions. Professionals must keep up on the rigors and requirements of their technical skills. If you don’t want to keep up on these things, then I’ll argue that you aren’t dedicated to the profession.

While I feel that what we are doing to build formal incident management teams is great and largely on target, it’s everything that comes before that which needs to be completely reimagined. We need a group of incident management professionals to come together on this. Professionals who understand the gaps that exist and are willing to deviate from current practices and expectations to build what is needed to address those gaps. They can’t be afraid of the traditionalists or those who are only focused on building high-level capability. All disasters begin and end locally, and we are ignoring the incident management needs of most local jurisdictions. We are also building a system focused on high-level capability that doesn’t have a firm foundation, which makes me question sustainability. We can do better. We must do better.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®