NIMS Training Plans: An Effort Without End

From George Washington’s days to the present, U.S. leaders have adhered to the credo that “Eternal Vigilance” is “the price of freedom.” Today, those wise words of warning are applicable, with only a slight modification, to the efforts of federal, state, and local officials seeking to meet National Incident Management System (NIMS) training expectations.

In fact, in respect to NIMS training, the word “eternal” might well be an understatement. The “On-Going Maintenance and Management” component of the NIMS guidelines is intended to ensure that all aspects of NIMS will always be “works in progress,” with the overall goal being the maintenance and continuing improvement of all aspects of the NIMS policy statement, operational and training programs, and all other components of the nation’s incident-management mosaic. What makes this effort a never-ending task is the fact that, even as localities train to improve their response and incident-management capabilities – which are based on the core elements of the Incident Command System (ICS) – new and improved training programs are being developed to expand on the existing curriculum. Then, of course, when the after-action reviews of current incidents and exercises are completed, the lessons learned are used, appropriately, to guide the development of newer and even more advanced training.  

During the past three years, numerous political jurisdictions and emergency-response organizations have committed significant personnel and other resources to accomplish or complete various NIMS-related training programs, often with the understandable but not quite accurate expectation that they would be “done” when they reached the next level or step in the training framework. More specifically: Since 2007, the nation’s emergency-response organizations have focused on training managers and supervisors in what is described as “Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents” (also called ICS-300).  This effort was driven by the former NIMS Training “Tier” system in which ICS-300 was identified as a “Tier 1” compliance goal that was expected to be met by 30 September 2008.

Earlier this year, DHS issued its initial “Five-Year Training Plan.” For those not familiar with this recent addition to the NIMS guidance specifics, that plan more clearly describes the training expectations over the coming five-year period to achieve and maintain minimum NIMS performance capabilities. In that context, it is important to note that the Five-Year Training Plan itself will not be a static document but will, rather, be periodically updated.  Emergency-response organizations should not assume, therefore, that the training completed this year (or previously) will suffice for the indefinite future. It also should be pointed out that, as time passes, personnel who are not now expected or required to complete certain training programs may in the future – because of promotions or other attrition – assume positions that necessitate additional training, more advanced or specialized in nature, to maintain their NIMS-compliance status.

One Step Follows Another in a Long and Winding Road

According to the Five-Year Training Plan, the next significant training step should be completed no later than the end of fiscal year 2009 (i.e., by 30 September 2009). To reach that step will require, among other things, training senior administrators – e.g., agency directors and department heads – in the course “Advanced ICS for Command and General Staff for Complex Incidents and Multi-Agency Coordination” (ICS-400). 

The ICS-400 course, structured for delivery in about two days, provides participating students with further background as well as practice in the nuances of establishing policy and direction for managing complex incidents – including coordination of the efforts of numerous agencies, jurisdictions, and levels of government; optimally, that coordination is achieved by using several tried and proven systems spelled out elsewhere in the ICS literature. 

Among the more important concepts presented in ICS-400 are the establishment of an Area Command (to manage multiple incident sites within a complex or widespread incident) and the creation of a Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC) Group to ensure the effective coordination of all functioning elements in incident operations. ICS-400 training is currently available through designated state training agencies – e.g., state fire training and/or emergency-management training agencies.

Until recently, “compliance-oriented” training strategies often coupled the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses into a course continuum that presents both courses back to back.  Several drawbacks to that approach have become evident, though.  One is that the typical student in ICS-300 and/or ICS-400 classes does not necessarily possess the experience or background in ICS needed at the intermediate or advanced level to absorb the volume of information provided in the two training programs, particularly in a compressed room setting. A second problem is that the difference between site-specific incident command training and that needed for the coordination and oversight of large-scale, multi-faceted, complex situations cannot be easily reconciled in a room environment. Both courses require practical application, either through actual situations or through simulations and other exercises, but the most important consideration is that the student should develop a sound foundation in ICS-300 before progressing into ICS-400. 

Train, Qualify, Exercise, and Move Forward

Although the experienced incident commander and command and general staff leaders usually are capable of managing the specific resources under their command, they often either are not experienced enough and/or lack the authority to make policy decisions outside of their own operational spheres.  This is the major distinction between ICS-300 and ICS-400.  Consequently, a common-sense training strategy should reflect the recognition that personnel expected to advance to training in ICS-400 should first have the opportunity to hone their knowledge, skills, and abilities at the Intermediate ICS level prior to undertaking the complexities of ICS at the advanced (ICS-400) level. 

In fact, the Five-Year Training Plan “strongly recommends” that there should be an interim period (suggested to be at least six months) between completion of ICS-300 and the beginning of ICS-400 training.  During this interim period, those personnel might reasonably be expected to accrue the experience needed to effectively understand and execute ICS functions at the intermediate level. That experience, of course, would provide a stronger foundation for – and the ability to successfully advance into – the ICS-400 training.  Following completion of ICS-300, therefore, personnel would be well advised to take full advantage of drills, exercises, and other training opportunities to apply the intermediate ICS principles and practices needed to lay the foundation for the more advanced training required in ICS-400.

One of the more attractive features of the NIMS Five Year Training Plan is the concise overview it provides of the training programs currently available or under development. Table 3 of the Plan displays the current “menu” of courses as well as helpful information about their present status (computer-based, room, under development, or in pilot testing).  There are currently 22 courses listed in the table. Although the primary focus to date has been on basic courses focused on the NIMS and ICS fundamentals, there is an obvious need for the more sophisticated training required to achieve and maintain the “core competencies” that have been identified to meet “NIMS compliance” standards.

Worthy of special attention in the current list of courses are several computer-based classes that are intended to enhance the student’s understanding of some of the more sophisticated NIMS components. These courses focus on such topics as: Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (IS-701); Public Information Systems (IS-702); Resource Management (IS-703); and Intrastate Mutual Aid (IS-706). Other courses, now under development, will address such important concepts as Communications and Information Management (IS-704); NIMS Preparedness (IS-705); and Resource Typing (IS-707).  These classes not only can help participants prepare for the training provided in other NIMS or ICS training programs but also can be used to augment and supplement those programs.  According to the Five-Year Plan, most of the courses now under development should be completed by 2012.  

Also included in the previously mentioned Table 3 is a list of courses related to the nine Command and General Staff (C&GS) positions identified in the ICS, including the recently introduced All-Hazards Information & Intelligence (now Intelligence and Investigations) Function.  These programs, which are based on a training system that has been used for many years by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), are intended to establish baseline training that, when coupled with practice and experience, will enable those participating to meet the core competencies mandated for the C&GS positions. For that reason, these courses are particularly recommended for those individuals who would most likely be tasked to fill the C&GS positions during major incidents or events. 

However, as pointed out in a footnote to another table (Table 4) in the Five-Year Training Plan, these courses will not be mandatory for NIMS compliance. What is basically position-specific training will be required under the national credentialing system for individuals (single resources) or IMTs that are likely to be deployed – under Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs) – for interstate assistance during major emergencies or disasters. However, completion of any position-specific will not, by itself, satisfy the credentialing criteria postulated for the various positions. 

Credentials, Criteria, and Documented Experience

In addition to completing the training programs specified, the criteria for being credentialed in ICS command and general staff functions will include documented experience in performing the tasks assigned to the specific positions. That documentation will usually be provided through completion of Position Task Books (PTBs), much like the system employed by the NWCG.  When the position-specific classes are released for delivery (sometime later this year, it is expected), the details for use of the PTBs also are expected to be provided.

Table 4 also provides a yearly benchmark schedule that can be used to chart progress toward maintaining NIMS compliance, and therefore also can be used to guide planning and budgeting for agencies that may be struggling to determine where to focus their efforts.  Table 4 is not intended to provide a strict schedule for training, it should be emphasized.  It does, however, provide a framework that any locality or agency should be able to use to plan, budget, and track progress toward the achievement of NIMS compliance.

To summarize: The NIMS Five Year Training Plan provides comprehensive guidance that could and should be used: (a) to identify the training needed; (b) to plan and budget for whatever is needed to acquire that training; and (c) to track the progress made toward NIMS compliance.  The Plan also provides better continuity to NIMS compliance training efforts in the state, local, tribal, and private sectors and, finally, serves as a helpful template that numerous agencies and jurisdictions can use to develop a training strategy, and set benchmarks, for achieving the goals previously identified to effectively implement the National Incident Management System.

In short, NIMS compliance is the goal, and the Five-Year Training Plan provides the training steps needed to achieve that goal. Finally, although the goal of NIMS compliance may always be yet one additional step forward, the pursuit of NIMS compliance will in itself continue to improve the nation’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the threats now facing the American people.

For more information about the NIMS Five-Year Training Plan see

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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