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Is Mandatory ICS Training Working?

My March Disaster Zone column for IAEM.

I am absolutely positive that everyone will not agree with what I’ve written below. Perhaps it will provoke some discussion on the topic where you live and work. I have noted that where I live, some emergency managers are no longer keeping centralized records on who has had Incident Command System (ICS) training.

See what you think, print out my picture and use it on the dart board if you like!

Is Mandatory ICS Training Working?

Lately I feel a bit like a negative Nelly. It seems I keep coming up with things to write about that challenge, what we are doing as a profession. Sometimes we do things because “That is the way we always did them.” At other times, we are slow to adopt new technologies and techniques. I would toss social media into that pot for something that is underutilized by emergency managers.

Today I’ll focus on a topic that was shall I say, “forced upon us by higher authorities.” That being the who, what and how of conducting Incident Command System (ICS) training.

First let me say that with the adoption of ICS people came to believe that it was the solution to world peace, solving hunger in the United States, and the absolute best way to plan and execute a wedding. As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?

I agree that ICS is a way to manage a field response by first responder organizations. Wildfire Type 1 teams live and die by ICS and all the forms used in executing the system—good for them!

Go to any structure fire and ask the person in charge if they are using ICS and they may well say, “Why yes! I am the Incident Commander!” After that statement, it might be difficult to find any other evidence of the ICS system being used.

I’ll summarize emergency management’s use of ICS by saying, generally, not always, but more than likely—we bastardize ICS to fit how we want to operate as emergency managers in our Emergency Operation’s Centers (EOC). Actually, the term used instead of “bastardize” is that we have “a hybrid system for operating” which means they use some ICS terms and mix and match with other systems, such as the Emergency Support Functions (ESF) used in the Federal Response Plan (FRP). And we call it good!

However, this article is not about how we utilize ICS, but the terrible waste of people hours that we have foisted on this nation and our emergency management partners by requiring anyone who might be involved in emergency response to take FEMA Independent Study courses. The basic ones being ICS-100: Introduction to the Incident Command System; ICS-200: ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents; and IS-700: National Incident Management System, An Introduction.

I can pretty much categorically state that you can take any “average Joe or Sally” who does not work in emergency management, have them take the courses and they will successfully pass the post-test—and we call it good. Come back to them in six months and they will not be able to pass that test again. The half-life of the learning and retention of that information is a nano second! The best we can say is that maybe they have been “familiarized” with what ICS is all about.

In the beginning, emergency management agencies were assiduously collecting information on who had taken the above courses and documented that since it was required by FEMA to have such records on hand to justify continuing to receive Homeland Security (HLS) grant funding.

A number of months ago I spoke with someone who does in-person and remote training on ICS-300: Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents, and ICS-400: Advanced ICS for Command and General Staff. He stated that the only people who could take a pre-test on their knowledge of the basics from the 100, 200 and 700 courses were those who had “just taken the course” prior to attending his training. These people coming to his classes were emergency responders from the fire, law enforcement, and other disciplines.

Even if we take those people who finish the training and then toss them into our EOCs and we are “not following the entire system” ourselves, what does that say about us, and the national requirement for online training and the waste of resources. Remember, time is the only non-renewable resource we have. Once wasted, there is no way to get it back.

If I were King, which I’m not, the only course I’d require is ICS 700 National Incident Management System which gives them the general information they need to understand how they fit into the big picture. Save the other courses for the people who are in the field and actually using ICS, or at least saying they do.


by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management Magazine
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.