Updating ICS Training: Identification of Core Competencies

The crusade continues.  ICS training still sucks.  Let’s get enough attention on the subject to get it changed and make it more effective.

If you are a new reader of my blog, or you happened to miss it, check out this post from last June which should give you some context: Incident Command System Training Sucks.

As mentioned in earlier posts on the topic, the ICS-100 and ICS-200 courses are largely OK as they current exist.  Although they could benefit from a bit of refinement, they accomplish their intent.  The ICS-300 course is where we rapidly fall apart, though.  Much of the ICS-300 is focused on the PLANNING PROCESS, which is extremely important (I’ve worked a lot as an ICS Planning Section Chief), however, there is knowledge that course participants (chief and supervisor level responders) need to know well before diving into the planning process.

First responders and other associated emergency management partners do a great job EVERY DAY of successfully responding to and resolving incidents.  The vast majority of these incidents are fairly routine and of short duration.  In NIMS lingo we refer to these as Type IV and Type V incidents.  The lack of complexity doesn’t require a large organization, and most of that organization is dedicated to getting the job done (operations).  More complex incidents – those that take longer to resolve (perhaps days) and require a lot more resources, often ones we usually don’t deal with regularly – are referred to as Type III incidents.  Type III incidents, such as regional flooding or most tornados, are localized disasters.  I like to think of Type III incidents as GATEWAY INCIDENTS.  Certainly far more complex than the average motor vehicle accident, yet not hurricane-level.  The knowledge, skills, and abilities applied in a Type III, however, can be directly applied to Type II and Type I incidents (the big ones).

It’s not to say that what is done in a car accident, conceptually, isn’t done for a hurricane, but there is so much more to address.  While the planning process certainly facilitates a proactive and ongoing management of the incident, there are other things to first be applied.  With all that said, in any re-writing and restructuring of the ICS curriculum, we need to consider what the CORE COMPETENCIES of incident management are.

What are core competencies?  One of the most comprehensive descriptions I found of core competencies comes from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, which I summarized below.  While their description is largely for a standing organization (theirs), these concepts easily apply to an ad-hoc organization such as those we establish for incident management.

Competency: The combination of observable and measurable knowledge, skills, abilities and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and ultimately result in organizational success. To understand competencies, it is important to define the various components of competencies.

  • Knowledge is the cognizance of facts, truths and principles gained from formal training and/or experience. Application and sharing of one’s knowledge base is critical to individual and organizational success.
  • A skill is a developed proficiency or dexterity in mental operations or physical processes that is often acquired through specialized training; the execution of these skills results in successful performance.
  • Ability is the power or aptitude to perform physical or mental activities that are often affiliated with a particular profession or trade such as computer programming, plumbing, calculus, and so forth. Although organizations may be adept at measuring results, skills and knowledge regarding one’s performance, they are often remiss in recognizing employees’ abilities or aptitudes, especially those outside of the traditional job design.

When utilizing competencies, it is important to keep the following in mind:

  • Competencies do not establish baseline performance levels
  • Competencies support and facilitate an organization’s mission 
  • Competencies reflect the organization’s strategy; that is, they are aligned to short- and long-term missions and goals.
  • Competencies focus on how results are achieved rather than merely the end result. 
  • Competencies close skill gaps within the organization.
  • Competency data can be used for employee development, compensation, promotion, training and new hire selection decisions.

So what are the CORE COMPETENCIES OF INCIDENT MANAGEMENT?  What are the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that drive organizational success in managing and resolving an incident?  Particularly for this application, we need to focus on WHAT CAN BE TRAINED.  I would offer that knowledge can be imparted through training, and skills can be learned and honed through training and exercises; but abilities are innate, therefore we can’t weigh them too heavily when considering core competencies for training purposes.

All in all, the current ICS curriculum, although in need of severe restructuring, seems to cover the knowledge component pretty well – at least in terms of ICS ‘doctrine’.  More knowledge needs to be imparted, however, in areas that are tangential to the ICS doctrine, such as emergency management systems, management of people in the midst of chaos, and other topics.  The application of knowledge is where skill comes in. That is where we see a significant shortfall in the current ICS curriculum.  We need to introduce more SCENARIO-BASED LEARNING to really impart skill-based competencies and get participants functioning at the appropriate level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Aside from the key concepts of ICS (span of control, transfer of command, etc.), what core competencies do you feel need to be trained to for the average management/supervisor level responder (not an IMT member)?  What knowledge and skills do you feel they need to gain from training?  What do we need a new ICS curriculum to address?

(hint: this is the interactive part!  Feedback and comments welcome!)

As always, thanks to my fellow crusaders for reading.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Musings of October – and the Crusade to End Bad ICS Courses

Last month sure was a busy one!  Much of the focus was on marketing for our company Emergency Preparedness Solutions.  I had the opportunity to meet a number of county and local government representatives in a reverse trade show in the Poconos and see some old and new faces at the Vermont Emergency Preparedness Conference.  Pictures of our booth are below.  I also had the opportunity to present with their State Training Officer on the State-Wide Emergency Management and Homeland Security Training Needs Assessment project we completed for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security a few months ago.  We also need to congratulate Doug Babcock for being honored as Vermont’s Local Emergency Manager of the Year!

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While those trips were great, the highlight of the month was a trip to Toronto.  The impetus for the trip was the Emergency Preparedness staff of Public Health Ontario, who, after reading my blog posts on the necessity for improvements in Incident Command System (ICS) training, extended an invitation for me to sit in on some training they offer that came about from just that need.  The course I attended was Public Health Emergency Preparedness – An IMS-based Workshop.  Fear not – this is not a reinvention of ICS (or Incident Management System – IMS – as they refer to it in Canada), rather this is an enhancement to the current curriculum.

The Canadian provinces have each adopted curricula for their IMS which are near 100% mirrors of the ICS courses we use here in the States.  While in Toronto, I also had the opportunity to sit in for a bit on an IMS-200 course being conducted by the Toronto Office of Emergency Management.  They were great hosts and have made excellent enhancements to the curriculum for a Toronto-based audience.  (Thank you Sherry and Sarah!) The course offered by Public Health Ontario is truly workshop based, with little lecture and a lot of group work to walk participants through concepts of IMS.  The workshop is positioned between IMS-100 (which most took online) and IMS-200, and is public health focused.

While I’m often weary of discipline-specific courses in emergency management, since the essence of emergency management is cooperative, this workshop absolutely made sense.  Why?  Two big themes built the foundation for this… First, practitioners must be comfortable with their own sand box before they can play with the neighborhood kids.  Second, this particular application works for public health (and several other disciplines) because most of the public health response occurs at the population level, not necessarily at an incident site.  Because of this, public health will almost always function (at least the higher echelons of their incident management structure) from an emergency operations center or departmental operations center.  As such, it pays to invest some training time on a homogeneous audience.  That said, the scenarios that drove the workshop were in no way introverted only to public health concerns and the instructors encouraged thought and discussion toward other activities and associated agencies which would be involved in an incident.

With the positioning of this training between IMS-100 and IMS-200, Public Health Ontario has armed participants with better knowledge and familiarity of the IMS, allowing those who will progress through further (and multi-disciplinary) training a better perspective of how IMS is applied by public health which allows for a better understanding of the system itself.  Not only does the workshop address some internal incident management training needs for public health, it also addresses some of the issues I’ve mentioned previously with ICS training as a whole.  The workshop is expertly designed by the Emergency Preparedness team at Public Health Ontario, and embraces concepts of adult educational methodology which we need to pay more attention to.  The high level of interaction lends to improved transfer of knowledge and better outcomes.  They included information such as the phases of emergency management and the need to reference deliberate planning efforts such as Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs) and Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs).  This is certainly something we don’t have enough of in ICS courses yet is critically related.  Do you think the majority of our attendees know what these are, much less what is in theirs?  Guess again!

More information on this workshop can be found at https://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/About/Departments/Pages/Incident-Management-System-for-Public-Health.aspx.  Many thanks to Moira, Richard, and Evanna for the invite and the hospitality!

With my road trips complete, I am returning back to the normal pace of work and preparing for another graduate course which begins next month.  I’ve also considered the need to ramp up my concern on this matter of poor ICS curricula from an occasional rant to a crusade.  This is a matter of public safety – from a sociological perspective there is nothing more important than our ability to effectively respond to save lives, stabilize the incident, and preserve property.  Let’s make some changes!

As always, many thanks to my readers; and if you are with a government entity, not for profit, or private interest that is seeking consulting services in the areas of emergency and disaster planning, training, exercises, and anything in between, please feel free to contact me.

© Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC