Ongoing Training Needs: Virginia's Solution

In a remote rural area – far from customary amenities, distractions, and other conveniences – players are faced with challenges and must learn to adapt and overcome in order to reap the benefits, otherwise face the consequences. No, this is not a reality television show, but it is an effective “reality” training model that Virginia has perfected to ensure that its emergency responders are prepared to take command if and when needed.

Flooding, wildfires, winter storms, and an array of other natural calamities have headlined daily news continuously, not to mention the first cases of the Ebola virus in the United States, and now increasingly virulent threats to national security and prosperity from both homegrown and external terrorist sources are daily news across the country. Since the promulgation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) following the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. emergency response community continues to see an ongoing demand for delivery of training addressing the Incident Command System (ICS). The good news is that with the promulgation of NIMS has been a concerted effort to upgrade training capabilities for emergency responders nationwide. The primary intent of NIMS is to foster continuity and consistency in the fundamental practices for managing emergency incidents.

The Good, the Bad & the Forgotten

Although there is a broad spectrum of threats and potential consequences are great, the occurrence of significant incidents has been relatively infrequent. This is a “good news-bad news” situation. The good news is that major and calamitous incidents do not strike everywhere continuously.  The bad news is the same. Thus, the opportunities to apply much of the knowledge, skills, and abilities promoted by the training provided are limited.

More bad news is that, although there is a wealth of training programs related to NIMS, there has been minimal attention directed toward maintaining the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are promoted by the training.  The 2011 edition of the National Incident Management System Training Program lists 28 different courses of instruction in the so-called “Core Curriculum” for NIMS. Most of these courses offer a building-block progression that typically begins with IS-700 (“National Incident Management System, An Introduction”) and continues through the four primary Incident Command System courses (ICS-100 through 400). Additionally, the listing includes all-hazards position-specific training courses. Since 2011, more position-specific courses also have been introduced.

In addition, there is a variety of other related or affiliated training programs listed in the Emergency Management Institute’s Independent Study system.  A cursory review of the EMI Independent Study menu listing at shows approximately 100 different self-study programs, most of which have some applicability to NIMS. Therefore, training related to and supportive of the development of NIMS is readily available. However, very few of the current courses available are specifically intended to facilitate or support ongoing maintenance of training previously received. In essence, to date, most of the training has been a “once-and-done” check-off process for NIMS compliance. For many, NIMS-compliant training was completed as long ago as 2004, with little, if any, follow-up training since then.

Therefore, it can be surmised that there are gaps between the initial training that has been provided over the past 10 years and the ability of many individuals to recall or apply that knowledge in the absence of application or practice over time. Thus, there is now a question regarding the capabilities or ability to recall past training of a significant percentage of “emergency response providers” (Homeland Security Act of 2002 – Public Law 107-296, 25 November 2002) who were initially trained years ago. An evolving challenge is to formulate and provide training and exercise opportunities by which prior training can be refreshed and reinforced for the potential expanding incidents – that is, emergencies that transcend or exceed typical emergency conditions.

This challenge is being met in a variety of ways. In some cases, state and local authorities have stipulated that individuals must repeat certain training courses periodically. In other cases, individuals may be required to attend the next upward level of training. In still other cases, individuals may be required to “retest” at the level to which they are required to be qualified. Of course, in some instances, there are currently no requirements for maintenance training or the ability to demonstrate any level of competence.

Action Plans & Incident Command Forms

In Virginia, there are two programs that provide review, refresher, and update training to the emergency responder community. Although having had limited activity, both programs have received favorable feedback from participants. The first is a one-day room program entitled, “ICS Planning Process and Forms.” The curriculum consists of extracted components from Units Five and Six in the ICS-300 (“Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents”) training course. The emphasis is on the planning cycle (Planning “P”) and the standard forms typically used to develop an incident action plan (IAP). This program targets individuals trained through ICS-300.

The program begins with a review of two key forms, the ICS-211 documenting response resource check-in and the ICS-214 (“Unit/Activity Log”), followed by a review of the component phases of the Planning “P.” After the review, students are presented with a generic, but realistic (for Virginia), scenario using both detailed written information (for continuing reference) and a newscast-like video of the incident elements to provide realism and intensity for the students. Students are provided basic information such as that which would probably be captured on an ICS-201 form or on a typical command/status board, which is frequently carried by fire department command officers such as battalion chiefs. In small groups of six to eight students, they are then charged with developing an IAP to address the challenges presented and given several hours to assess and develop objectives, strategies, and tactics to compose the key documents needed for a basic IAP.

Following a review of their tentative products with the course instructors – as reviewed in a mock planning meeting – the students then finalize and prepare their IAP for delivery in a simulated operational period briefing. Following all mock operational period briefings, the instructors moderate a review session to identify strengths and areas for attention in the future. There are no grades given for the program because the purpose is not to rate students’ accomplishments, but rather to provide review and refresher training (and for some, exposure to the new forms) under the typical time constraints and pressures often encountered when suddenly confronted with a situation that requires an organized approach for effective management.

This one-day program addresses an important need for refresher training for personnel who infrequently apply or review some of the critical core ICS practices. However, it is not necessary to create or adopt a course such as this. Rather, by extracting the key curriculum elements (as determined by the organization’s needs), instructors with practical experience in ICS can readily provide a brief refresher program using the existing materials in ICS-300. Simply devoting an hour to forms such as the ICS-215, ICS-215A, and the core forms used to create an IAP can be extremely beneficial to refresh personnel periodically.

Evolving the Command Structure With Rewards & Consequences

A second program developed in Virginia is entitled “Command & General Staff – Practical Evolutions.” This program is fundamentally a functional exercise in which the participants are placed in command and general staff functions and charged with developing an IAP for a scenario. The added twist to this program is that it is conducted in an “unrestricted” environment – that is, the activities are not scripted as is often the case in many exercises. Some have dubbed the conduct of the program as a “consequence-based activity.” In simple terms, the exercise is based on the general principle that “for every action, there is an equal (and sometimes opposite) reaction.” When the players plan and execute a logical and effective action for any challenge as determined by the exercise controllers and simulators, their decisions and actions are “rewarded.” To the contrary, should the players make questionable decisions or fail to take action, adverse consequences often will ensue.

Conducting this program necessitates having an experienced exercise control and simulation team. Fortunately, in Virginia, most of the controllers and simulators conducting the program have many years of on-the-job experience with which to work when conducting the program. This keeps the exercise under control, but unrestricted by artificial constraints or scripting. The Command & General Staff – Practical Evolutions program can be conducted for an organized incident management team with staff performing the functions they are assigned within the team, or those who are not members of a team can be assigned functions based on their interests, skills/experience, or a combination of both.

At a remote, but readily accessible training and conference facility operated by the Department of Forestry, the program formally commences with an agency administrator briefing at a pre-designated time in which students are briefed on the scenario and the rules of engagement are detailed by the activity controllers. The participants then are given time to identify their organizational challenges and prepare to take action. Among the challenges beyond the impending scenario are decisions related to: (a) accommodations (determining who will bunk with whom in the available facilities); (b) development of a food menu for the operational period; (c) identification of who will prepare meals and snacks; and, in general, (d) the internal organizational needs that affect team performance and sustainment. In a typical training environment, these types of issues are transparent to the students/participants.

Within two hours of the designated reporting time, the scenario injects generally commence. Typically, the activities become an adapt-and-overcome situation for the participants. Indeed, this is similar for the controllers and simulators, but the eventual outcome generally provides the participants a greater appreciation for their challenges and outcomes.

During the course of the program, the participants experience virtually all of the steps or components of the ICS Planning “P,” beginning with the agency administrator briefing and continuing through the various briefings and meetings identified in the standard planning cycle.  Generally, the program concludes with an operational period briefing, after which the program facilitators and controllers provide feedback, and all participants discuss strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for future improvement.

The schedule for the program is flexible. However, the timeline that has been most stimulating for participants begins with their arrival in early afternoon and concludes the next afternoon.  This requires the participants to identify and address factors associated with meals, accommodations, scheduling of briefings and meetings – possibly at unusual hours – and ensuring completion of all aspects of conducting a planning cycle. In addition, beginning and ending in the afternoon facilitates travel to and from the activity during daylight hours. As with the ICS Planning Process and Forms program, the participants are not graded on performance.  Rather, it is expected that they will identify their individual and collective (team) strengths and areas that require further work.

In general, past participants in these programs typically have remarked that they did not expect the intensity of the activities and the breadth of demands. Most incident management team deployments are prearranged, with facilities, services, and accommodations provided. However, there may be challenges beyond being given a reporting location, receiving an agency administrator or transition briefing, assuming command, and commencing incident management operations with conducting a tactics meeting, developing an IAP, and conducting an operational period briefing. The Command & General Staff-Practical Evolutions program provides an opportunity to identify challenges that extend beyond simply being an incident management asset.

A Model for National Change

Certainly similar and perhaps better programs are being employed around the country. The two programs presented herein are two efforts currently employed by Virginia to address an identified shortfall. The primary challenge is to recognize the need to provide practical and realistic training accompanied by opportunities for refreshing through exercises and application of knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Perhaps one of the most urgent challenges confronting the emergency response sector is directing attention to a broader effort to train and exercise the entire population of emergency responders, thus ensuring that there is a measure of competence to perform within the ICS framed by NIMS. There is a need to provide review and refresher training for a large contingent of emergency responders and to develop and provide opportunities to exercise under reasonably realistic conditions to ensure that not only critical command and general staff positions can be staffed by personnel familiar with and comfortable in their position responsibilities. When needed, professionals from any discipline must be able to integrate their identified position assignments or task proficiencies with the greater needs associated with any incident. Thus, training must have a clearly identified target of performance, not simply meeting an imposed requirement.

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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