NIMS & ICS: The Next Level

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resumed the “next” series of its NIMS (National Incident Management System) Incident Command System (ICS) training in August with the delivery of eight ICS position-specific Train-the-Trainer (T-t-T) programs in College Station, Texas, where the Texas Forest Service (TFS) is headquartered – on the Texas A&M campus. Over a three-week period all eight command and general staff T-t-T courses were delivered.

The T-t-T classes were conducted in close collaboration with the Texas Forest Service.  Paul Hannemann, TFS Department Head for Incident Response, and his staff provided excellent practical examples showing how effective planning, logistics, operations, and finance and administration all contribute to effective “command” for a complex course such as the extended T-t-T series.  DHS currently plans to conduct two additional position-specific T-t-T series – one starting next month, the other in the spring of 2010 – at the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, Md.

There were several notable elements in the College Station series of T-t-T programs.  First, the individuals accepted for the classes represented the most qualified applicants from the federal regions represented.  Rather than following “general admissions” and “first-come” criteria, strict admissions criteria were applied.  Guidance issued in the programs’ announcement stipulated that the applicants should: (a) be accomplished instructors (in their various disciplines); (b) have significant service and experience in the ICS; and (c) be well versed in the processes and procedures used in formal ICS operations.

Greater Diversity and Value-Added Benefits

By assigning administrative responsibilities to the Emergency Management Institute (EMI, a training branch of the NETC also headquartered in Emmitsburg), the instructor recruitment sought a broad cross-section of emergency-response disciplines.  The participants were not just from fire or wildfire disciplines – the two sources that have historically dominated ICS training initiatives.

First, many of the new instructor candidates were from law-enforcement or EMS (emergency medical services) agencies; others were specialists in public health, public works, and/or other disciplines; the “value-added” benefit provided by this varied mix of students greatly enhanced the participants’ exposure to diverse perspectives that are necessary to develop an “All-Hazards” incident-management capability at all levels of government.

Second, the classes were focused on training the prospective instructors in the nuances of the programs’ delivery rather than simply presenting the course content.  A common criticism of many previous FEMA T-t-T programs has been that such programs focused primarily if not exclusively on the course content – which culminates in a “blessing” as an instructor.  Often, though, the future instructor did not have an opportunity to learn from more experienced instructors about the pitfalls that can be encountered in delivering a course.  A significant percentage of the position-specific T-t-T programs was directed toward addressing both common and uncommon challenges that the instructor may face in making his or her classes both more effective and more meaningful.

Third, the instructors presenting the T-t-T were, in fact, some of the most experienced individuals available and brought their wealth of knowledge and experience to benefit the prospective future instructors.  Significant time in each of the T-t-T programs was spent on discussion of the instructional expectations as well as the pitfalls that might be encountered with delivery of various components such as exercises and group projects within the classes with successful resolutions for many of those challenges.

Additionally – and unlike many other “federal to state to local” programs – the T-t-Ts in Texas were conducted on the thesis that the instructor candidates would contribute as much to the program outcome as the actual instructors do.  The net outcome was that there was, instead of a one-way flow of instruction, a wealth of information and experience exchanged between the instructors and the participants.

Fourth, the T-t-T programs were built on the premise that the end-user students would be given a sound grounding in the all-hazards approach needed to establish a viable incident management team (IMT) through the fundamental position training needed to begin developing competent command and general staff in the ICS.  As such, the future instructors gained a broader appreciation and ability to teach upcoming command and general staff for events and incidents beyond traditional “big fires” – including but not limited to such situations as natural disasters, terrorist acts of violence, and even pandemic flu outbreaks (a major concern now confronting the whole nation).  Indeed, many localities already have the capabilities and resources needed to manage historically common incidents.  The “next-level” T-t-T training is intended to transcend those needs.

A Consistent Template to Guide Future Progress

The ICS position-specific courses will offer the next step in developing a national capability to manage all-hazard incidents and events consistent with the intent of the NIMS principles.  This step also will be consistent with the Preface to the NIMS policy statement, which unequivocally declares that, “This system provides a consistent nationwide template to enable federal, state, tribal, and local governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents, regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity.”  The ICS position-specific courses, if used as intended, will provide practitioners the ability to take the next step forward toward achieving that ambitious goal. In that context, though, it should be emphasized that this “next level” is only one more step in a lengthy process.

Nonetheless, as the next level of training begins, it is critically important that the training should be targeted to the development and refinement of identified incident management teams and their members – more specifically, to “All Hazard” or Type 3 IMTs.  The classes are not, and should not be, “nice to have” or elective training. The prescribed training must, rather, represent a commitment by the state, the sponsoring locality, and individual team members to develop the capabilities needed to perform at the next level as a credentialed Incident Management Team.

Of course, many localities and states already possess the basic elements and capabilities needed to be effective under predictable emergency conditions.  Position-specific training, however, is by design a different, and higher, challenge – i.e., intended to go above and beyond that which is customary for a routine event or incident.

There will inevitably be temptation in various quarters to allow, or perhaps even encourage, the registration of individuals who have not met all of the prerequisites – specifically including completion of: (a) intermediate and (preferably) advanced ICS courses; and (b) additional team-oriented training.  The prerequisites for participation in position-specific training should also, therefore, include other advanced training.  For example, in the opening text of the position-specific Instructor Guides it is clearly stated that the training materials “were designed under the assumption that students have completed the following courses:  ICS-300; ICS-400, and one of the following three courses:  All-Hazard Incident-Management Team Course (offered by the U.S. Fire Administration), or Command and General Staff for Local IMT (offered through the National Fire Academy – another NETC unit headquartered in Emmitsburg), or ICS-420 (programmed by NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) member agencies).”

“Costly, Time-Consuming, and Personally Demanding”

Clearly, the intent of the position-specific training is to build upon training experiences that extend beyond the core (ICS 300 and 400) classes while focusing on the detailed position competencies needed to form an effective All-Hazards IMT. However, the training, by itself, is only a part of the process.  Another critically important step is the process of “shadowing” or applying the training during actual conditions under the supervision of experienced (credentialed) personnel who “know the ropes.”  Only after individuals have successfully completed rigorous evaluation and have their Position Task Books validated by qualified mentors can they be considered fully qualified to fill one of the command or general staff positions in an All-Hazards IMT.  (A Position Task Book (PTB) is required to be completed for each position within the ICS.) And only when the IMT has been fully staffed with credentialed personnel capable of sustaining their operational functions 24/7 for an extended period (herein defined as lasting from three to as much as 10 days, or even longer) will the Next Level be attained.  (In reality, this process may require several years, significant effort, and quite possibly substantial cost.)

Failure to understand and enforce the training prerequisites; failure to train the “right” personnel (and enough of them); and failure to follow up on the training with “shadowing” will result in serious deficiencies at the IMT level as well as in the NIMS itself.  Finally, and of perhaps the greatest importance, if the IMT, once established, does not consistently train and practice as a team, it will be unable to maintain the level of competence and capability commensurate with its responsibilities.

In simple terms, establishing an IMT is not simply an administrative matter that can or should be undertaken lightly.  It is costly, time-consuming, personally demanding of the personnel involved, and – perhaps most important of all – definitely not a “once-and done” proposition.  In order to fully establish and to ensure an ongoing capability to manage incidents at the next level, IMT members, leaders, and sponsors – at the state, local, and federal levels – must make individual and collective commitments that have not previously been expected.  No one said it would be easy – or quick – but the next level can be reached with perseverance, commitment, and sustainment.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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