Preparing to Use the Incident Command System

For a bit of context, if you haven’t already read them, please take a look at these other ICS related articles I’ve posted:

Incident Command System Training Sucks

ICS Training Sucks… So Let’s Fix It

Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough

The crusade to improve ICS training and implementation continues…

We invest a lot of time and effort into training people in the use of the Incident Command System (ICS).  However, as a broad statement, the training we provide is massively inadequate.  We don’t actually train people to do anything – we simply tell them about ICS through an increasingly repetitive and complex series of courses.  At the risk of being repetitive myself, I refer you to the articles linked above for many of my foundational thoughts on the current state of ICS training.

The ICS core training curriculum aside, we – as both individuals and organizations – need to be better prepared to actually use ICS.  The thought that people are able to use ICS the minute they walk out of an ICS course is totally and completely false.  By ‘use ICS’, I don’t mean to simply function within an organizational chain of command that uses ICS, I’m referring to being a driving force within the system itself.  ICS isn’t something that happens automatically, it requires deliberate and constant actions.  This typically involves functioning at the Command or General Staff levels, but also within many of the subordinate positions which are absolutely critical to managing a complex incident and driving the system.

So how do we prepare to use ICS?  I often refer to the preparedness capability elements of POETE (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising) when I’m talking about preparedness activities.  These same concepts apply here.  We need to remember that planning is the foundation of all preparedness efforts.  If it’s not documented, then why are we doing it?  So we have to have plans, polies, and procedures which call for the implementation of ICS and direct us in the nuances of how we will manage an incident.  I’m sure everyone’s plan has taken a page from the NIMS Doctrine and includes language about the requirement to use NIMS and ICS.  That’s all well and good, but like many things in our plans, we don’t reinforce these things enough.

I’m not talking about simply giving NIMS and ICS lip service.  I’m talking about procedure level integration of these concepts.  This begins with good planning, which means plans that are implementation-ready.  Would you consider your plans implementation-ready?  Do they describe how to use the ICS structure and concepts to actually implement the plan?  Maybe yes, maybe no.   If not, your team has some plan updating to do.

Your organization must be ready to respond using ICS.  That means that everyone is familiar with their assigned roles and responsibilities.  Often ICS training falls short of this.  This article: Training EOC Personnel – ICS is Not Enough, details many of the reasons why, at least for an EOC environment.  Many of the points made in the article, however, can be reasonably applied to other environments and organizations.  While ICS provides us with overall concepts, the application of those concepts will differ for various organizations and locations.  Every location, county, region, and state have different protocols which must be integrated into incident management practices.  (Refer back to planning).  Our organizations, both those that are static as well as those which are ad-hoc (assembled for the response to a particular incident or event) need to be ready to act.  This means familiarity not only with ICS or our specific applications of it, but also with our plans.  How often do ICS courses actually talk about the implementation of emergency plans?  Rarely.  Yet that’s what we are actually doing.  Do you have people assigned to ICS roles?  Are they ready to take on the responsibilities within these roles?  Do you have backups to these positions?  I’m not necessarily talking about a formal incident management team (IMT), although that may be suitable and appropriate.  Absent an IMT, the responders within a jurisdiction or organization should have a reasonable expectation of the role/roles they will play.  This helps them and your organization to be better prepared.

The implementation of ICS generally doesn’t take much equipping, but there are some basics.  Responders love radios and we use them often.  How about people who aren’t traditional responders, but may be called on to function with your ICS organization?  Do they know how to use a radio?  Do you have a standing communication plan to help you implement their use?  How do you track incident resources?  I didn’t just ask about fire service resources – I mean all resources.  Do you have a system for this?  T-Cards are great, but take training and practice to use them – plus they require that all responders know their responsibilities for accountability.  The same goes with a computer-based solution.  For whatever equipment or systems you plan on using, you must ensure that they are planned through and that people are very familiar with how to use them.

Training… I think I’ve talked about the need for better ICS training quite a bit, so I’m not going to continue with that point here.  What I will mention is a need for refresher training and jurisdiction-specific training on incident management.  This isn’t necessarily ICS focused, but it is ICS based.  For many years now, FEMA has believed that by including three slides on NIMS in every training program that they are helping with NIMS compliance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You have to actually talk about how these concepts are key to implementing plans.  Responders need to be familiar with the emergency management system they are working within.  Train people to the plans and procedures.  Let them know who is in charge of what and when, who the decision makers are, and any other training needs identified in the earlier POETE activities.  Prepare them to implement ICS!

Lastly, exercises.  Incident management should be something that is practiced and tested in almost every exercise.  Applying these concepts is not something we do on a regular basis, therefore knowledge and skills erode over time.  Certainly we have to be familiar with the system, not just at an awareness level but at a functional and operational level.  Regardless of the state of the current curriculum, that involves practice.  Exercises don’t have to be elaborate, remember that they can range from discussion-based to operations-based.  Table top exercises are great to talk things through, drills are good for focused activities, and even full-scale exercises can be small and contained.  So long as the exercise is designed, conducted, and evaluated well, that’s what counts.  Don’t forget that evaluation piece.  The feedback to the entire system (plans, organization, equipment and systems, and training) is extremely important to continued improvement.

This is public safety, not a pick-up kick ball game.  We can do better.

Thanks for listening… what are your thoughts?

Does your organization or jurisdiction need help preparing to implement ICS?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Gauging Return on Investment in Preparedness: Organizing

As a continuation of the Gauging Return on Investment in Preparedness series (read the first one on Planning here), this post’s focus is on the POETE element of Organizing.  There are a number of ‘organizing’ efforts we engage in through our preparedness endeavors.  Some are temporary, like establishing working groups to solve a certain problem; while some are intended to be long-term, like forming an incident response team.

Why organize?  Most organizational efforts are fueled by the need to capitalize on the power of many.  What one person can do, more people can do better.  Problem solving, responding, etc.  Often our organizational efforts are internal, but, particularly in public safety, we coordinate with other agencies.  We might be building a professional response organization, such as an Incident Management Team (IMT), or perhaps we are building a community organization, such as a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

What costs are associated with organizational activities?  Foundationally, it’s simply the staff time needed to prepare for, attend, and perform follow up work from meetings and other organizational efforts.  Depending on how complex our efforts are, however, and the intent of our organizational efforts, this can take on full time duties.  You also have to consider who is being drawn into these efforts and what the ‘replacement cost’ is of their time – meaning, what is the cost of someone else performing their work while they are involved in the meetings, etc.?  We also need to identify what costs might be associated with organizing?  The remaining POETE elements (Planning, Equipping, Training, and Exercising) can probably lead you to identifying these.

What are the benefits (value) of organizing?In order to identify the return on our investment, we need to be able to ascertain the benefits our organizational efforts bring – some may be tangible and relatable in dollar figures, others may be more intangible and amorphic.

As with many preparedness efforts, we find ourselves needing to make reasonable assumptions to identify cost savings or value.  We need to follow the bouncing ball of our efforts.  As an example… If we create a CERT team, citizens will be better able to tend to their own needs in the event of a disaster.  This leads to less immediate need of limited resources (first responders), allowing them to focus on more critical needs (i.e. saving lives and protecting infrastructure).   In this example we can make some assumptions about the types of infrastructure to be impacted by a certain incident and the costs associated with it becoming incapacitated.

In regard to saving lives, it’s difficult for us to attach a dollar value to that.  We often say that lives are priceless, and while that may be true, we sometimes need to make an educated guess.  Depending on who you are reporting figures to, they may be satisfied with a reasonable number of lives being saved… others may want to actually compare apples to apples (that is, dollars to dollars).  If you engage the use of your favorite internet search engine and search ‘what is the value of a life’, or something similar, you will find a number of results.  In perusing some of these results myself, I found that the dollar figure assigned to a life is obviously subjective and very much related to the industry in which the question is being asked.  This particular article makes for an interesting read on the subject.  Spoiler alert: they peg the value of a human life at $5M USD (2011).

In the end, organizational efforts need to have a purpose providing a net value.  Even in routine matters and daily business, we should examine the cost of organizational efforts – particularly meetings.  Meetings are one of my biggest bugaboos, as they are often too long, have little purpose, and the objectives can be met in a much more efficient manner.

What ideas do you have on determining the return on investment for organizational activities?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz 

Effectiveness and Efficiency in Incident Management – Resource Tracking

Incident Check In

Incident Check In

I recently took part in the management of an exercise in which a Type 3 incident management team (IMT) was among the players.  As part of their initial set up they immediately recognized the importance of checking in and tracking resources.  This is an activity which is often overlooked at the onset of an incident and is a royal pain to catch up on once the need is realized.  There were a few things which they could have improved upon, though, which seriously impacted their effectiveness and efficiency.

  1. They spent time checking in each vehicle as equipment. Not every vehicle needs to be tracked in an incident.  Generally, the sedan, pick up, or SUV you come in on isn’t special enough that it requires tracking.  Huge waste of time, people, and effort.  Consider the nature and capability of the equipment that is coming through your access point.  Is it a specialized resource?  Will it be applied tactically?  Will it be supporting logistical needs?  Is it rented or leased?  These are the conditions that should be considered when deciding what equipment to track.
  2. They marked equipment using bottled shoe polish. Not a bad idea, except it rained all week, and within hours of application most of the markings couldn’t be read.  Windshield markers, similar to what car dealerships use, are cost effective, waterproof, and clean off easily with mild window cleaners.
  3. Equipment that was checked in was never logged in detail. What’s the difference between E-01234 and E-01235?  We will never know as no descriptions were entered into their tracking system.
  4. As vehicles flowed in to the staging area, people will directed to check in at the command post. This is obviously excellent, except to get to the command post people had to pass by the main access to the incident site.  This meant that many people did not check in as directed.  They got distracted by the incident and associated response activity and never made it to the command post to check in.  This severely impacted the effectiveness of accountability.

Sometimes people would try to explain these things away by saying “It’s just an exercise”, but exercises are an opportunity to do things the right way, not skimp and cut corners.  While their intent was good, their process and results were quite poor.  If we are supposed to train the way we fight, as they say, this team has a ways to go to be more effective with resource accountability.  On the surface resource tracking looks easy… but it’s not.  There is a lot of complexity, variables, and attention to detail that must all work together well in order to be successful.  The Resource Unit Leader has one of the hardest jobs in the Incident Command System.

Being who I am, I’m left wondering why this all happened.  I have little choice but to blame poor planning and training.  Planning is to blame for a lack of clear procedures, guidance, and decision models.  The training which people receive tends to be just as vague.  By now, most, if not all of you are familiar with my opinions on the current ICS training.  While the referenced article does not go into the IMT/position training curricula, from what I recall of the courses I’ve taken, there are certain things taken for granted.  It’s easy to put an item on a checklist that says ‘Establish check in’.  OK… how?  Where?  When?  What?  Why?  The answer to those questions, or guidance to help answer those questions, should be provided through training.  Let’s tell people not only why check in is important, but what people and resources should be checked in, where to establish check in (what to look for and what to avoid), etc.  Once we’ve trained people on it, let’s provide job aids… not just the ICS forms, but job aids that will actually help people do their jobs.  While it may seem like minutia and unnecessary detail, keep in mind that we are training people to operate in austere and chaotic environments which they are trying to establish order over and only do these activities on rare occasion.  Those conditions signal the need for detailed training and job aids to support sustained performance and limit the degradation of the training they received.

Bottom line – let’s take a step back, fix what we have to based upon what we’ve learned, and proceed forward so we can operate more effectively and efficiently.

Thoughts and comments are always appreciated.  What have you learned or observed from incidents or exercises that needs to be addressed foundationally?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

WWW.EPSLLC.BIZ

The Need for Practical Incident Command Training

I’ve written a couple of articles in past few months (See: Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough; and Training EOC Personnel – ICS is Not Enough) where I’ve been a little rough on the Incident Command System (ICS), or rather the trust that people put in it as a magic pill to cure all their incident management ills.  As it turns out, there is no apologia; rather I’m going to continue challenging the status quo, this time as it relates to how ICS training is conducted.

The driving force behind this is the realization of a gap that exists in ICS training and the ability of learners to apply what they have learned to a reasonable degree within an emergency response environment.  The foundational ICS courses (ICS 100 – 400) provide learners with a progressive understanding of the concepts, terms, organizational elements, and primary processes within ICS, but provide little opportunity to practically apply what they have learned.  Progressive instructional design methods through course revisions have added more hands-on activities within these courses to enhance learning, but these courses still fall short of providing the kind of practical exercising needed for learners to have any degree of confidence or proficiency.  That said, these courses accomplish exactly what they are intended to.  They are not designed to provide much practical application.

To the other side of the ICS training spectrum is training for Incident Management Teams (IMTs), which provides intensive and in depth training, mostly focused on the individual positions within an incident command organization, and the key activities and responsibilities of those positions.  IMT training also includes capstone courses in which IMTs complete a combination of didactic and hands-on instruction in a team environment.  Much of this training is coordinated by FEMA and the US Fire Administration through the NIMS ICS All-Hazards Position Specific Training Program with their focus primarily on building capability at the Type III (extended operations) level, with training at the higher (Type II and I) levels available through appropriately intensive efforts.  While some training is available for Type IV and V IMTs, this is often not taken advantage of because rural areas may not be able to assemble enough personnel for a functional team.  The training is also still fairly intensive, even at this level, and requires a number of courses, each with a team of instructors.  This comes at a high cost of time and dollars.  The need for local personnel to function within an incident command structure at the local level still exists, but goes largely unaddressed with performance level training being focused on IMTs.

Certainly exercises can provide an opportunity for individuals to work together as an ad-hoc team to resolve an incident.  While exercises provide for great practice, instructive feedback usually doesn’t occur at all, with usually only a few out of context comments coming until well after the experience by way of an After Action Report.  Structured learning environments which provide a series of simulations where individuals can practice what they have learned are ideal, particularly when immediate hotwashes are provided after each scenario, allowing learners to grow and apply what they have learned in the next scenario.

Of the learning opportunities that current exist, the Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management/Unified Command course (MGT 314) from TEEX comes closest to this type of experience.  I have direct experience taking this course at the TEEX location several years ago and found it to be a great experience.  Because of the technology used to facilitate the course it is only offered as a resident program at TEEX and seats fill quickly.  While this is a great program, we need more like it and an ability to reach down to small local governments where there is an urgent need for this type of practical training.

Several years ago colleagues and I developed a course called the ‘IAP Workshop’, which is a daylong scenario-driven training where students practice working the ICS planning process and ultimately developing an IAP.  Through the day of training, participants go through this process several times in a crawl-walk-run progression with feedback provided by facilitators.  Participants are required to have completed the ICS 300 course as a prerequisite.  This course has proven successful, despite naysayers and traditionalists who default to the ICS curriculum fulfilling all ICS training needs.  That said, there is more to ICS and ICS application than the planning process.

Practical training in any subject, particularly the Incident Command System, builds confidence and improved application of knowledge and skills.  Since most incidents are best managed locally, we need to invest in better training to enhance local capabilities.  The foundational ICS courses are just that – foundational.  IMT training may simply not be the best solution to meet this need.  Let’s talk about the ICS training gap and find some solutions.

What ICS training gaps have you identified?  Have you discovered or designed any solutions?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz