Command Staff ICS Training

Preparing Command Staff personnel for training in the fine art of managing an Incident Command System (ICS) incident is really no more difficult than planning for the invasion of Europe in 1944.

It can be very rewarding, however, when you include in it a scenario that focuses on reality-based incidents. First, it gets the point across in a big way and it makes command staff squirm a little bit. I just make sure that it is not anyone in my chain that does so, especially if they are above me.

Over the last two weeks, it has been my privilege to be able to facilitate some reality-based training with three other instructors. Two of them are chiefs and one is a deputy chief. If any of the command staff who attended the class read this, just so you know--they made me do it. Over two three-day courses we took a group of 30 chiefs, captains, LTs and various government administrators through a class in awareness, preparation, and instruction in the way to run an ICS. The beauty of this course as opposed to other ones is that it is focused on the product and not the process of the complicated typical ICS class. The course also included, on the third day, a scenario-based training exercise in which the class was assigned to roles in a ICS command post, and had to manage a situation that was developing regarding a anti-war demonstration on a local campus. The problem was not that they had to manage the incident--they are all good planners and operations people--but that in another room connected only by radio, they had to get information about the incident from the on-scene commanders who were faced with situations that changed rapidly, and adjust their plans and operations accordingly.

Playing the game

The scenario, which played out over a three-hour period, started out with a demonstration, then a counter-demonstration in which officers were injured. It was complicated by someone dispersing CS gas into the crowd. It was not the cops that did it, but someone trying to escalate the problem. After that, we had looting, a building takeover, a firebombing and all the attendant issues--just a typical fun night in the big city. Throughout all this, plans were tested, rejected, and improvised, and eventually peace was restored. At this time, we had a debriefing and things were sorted out.

So what did we learn from this? Well, there was the obvious: like in the military, no plan in its original format, however well done, survives first contact with the opposition. The biggest issues were, as usual, in the areas of communication and intelligence. It was a point that we had hammered home throughout the class, bringing up Columbine, the World Trade Center, and other incidents. One of our students even hammered the point home a little more by telling the story during the debrief that he had been watching the History Channel the night before and a show about Pearl Harbor was on. He said it was amazing to see that in the aftermath of that incident people had complained about a lack of intelligence and communication issues. It hammered home the point that that one of the keys to prevention is to act on these issues, rather than let them linger.

A second issue that was defined was the that command staff in the ICS, even with their experience and training (and believe me, there were some very experienced and well trained people there) had difficulty preparing an adequate response to the issues we caused. It clearly identified that it is essential to have emergency plans in place and to make them of the all-hazards type for their adaptability. It also brought home the point that you have to train people about them and exercise them, or they are just a notebook on the shelf gathering dust or holding a door open. Interestingly enough, a student bought out a very valid point here. Even if we are not willing to do these activities, the perpetrators of some of the worst incidents we have ever seen are willing to do so. He correctly pointed out that in the Columbine incident, the two subjects had planned, determined vulnerabilities, and gathered intelligence effectively. They had then planned, trained, and unfortunately executed a well-developed incident action plan with horrendous results. The same can be said of the subjects who executed the attacks of 9/11 with equally horrendous results.

The results of this class brought home some points to me as an instructor, also. It stated loud and clear that, as a member of the command staff, one of my most difficult challenges will be to fight the complacency that is all too common in our folds. Too often, we are caught up in the rut of everyday-same-old-thing type of feeling. Another thing that works against us is that as we move farther away from the pulse of the street and the heightened awareness that it brings, we forget just how quick things can go wrong. We also, just by the nature of being human, want to put the bad things behind us and move on to more pleasant things. None of us wants to open the wounds caused by some of the bad things we have seen, and none of us wants to appear to be second-guessing someone who was there or in charge on those days. It is especially true if a brother or sister public safety official was a victim of one of these events. Keeping this in mind, I will put my wishes out here for you. I truly feel that if I was ever the victim of an incident in which I paid the ultimate price for a mistake, I hope that every command staff member would analyze it to the utmost to find out what went wrong. Having done that, they developed some sort of procedure or training to prevent it from ever happening to someone else. Let us challenge ourselves to pay attention to lessons learned, so that, as is all too common in this field, history does not repeat itself.