In the ICS Classroom … a Guest Post by Tom Cox (PART 1)

Over the next couple weeks, I am thrilled to present a piece written by my friend and colleague Tom Cox. I have had the good fortune to have “Tox” as an instructor for the majority of my ICS and ‘hands on’ education during multiple EOC activations. To receive next week’s post in your inbox, subscribe here.

Tom Cox is the Senior ICS Consultant with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and an instructor trainer with ICS Canada.   He has written a number of papers on teaching ICS, available at Tom specializes in instructor training and professional development as well as speaking on a variety of emergency topics at conferences across North America.    


When teaching Incident Command, one of the key steps is to choose which strategy or strategies will be used to achieve your Objectives.  As an Instructor, I have used everything from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (and the potential to detonate a nuclear weapon as a strategy) to the Thai cave rescue and wildfire strategies to plain language examples like my dog Austin wanting an extra bowl of dog food or emptying all water out of a bathtub if the plug cannot be pulled.    But in every case, there has been one unspoken assumption:

The strategy should be effective.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a different understanding on the choice of strategies when getting away from the classroom and dealing with actual incidents.    

Looking at a house fire, putting water on the fire is a sure-bet way of putting out the fire. But what if the strategy was not 100% effective?  What if the fire department arrived on scene and told the homeowner “We’re going to try something that is usually 75% effective and it should generally work most of the time…”?     


The Strategy Meeting during the Planning P is rarely given anything more than a cursory overview.  The discussion is a brief overview of “this always works.”   In fact, in the FEMA Planning P Video, the AHIMTA spends exactly 49 seconds on strategies … and there is no presentation of alternatives. Most of the meeting is centred on information sharing and meeting schedules. Vacuum trucks will work, we will have a limited evacuation and if we need to, let it burn. Done!  

While the FEMA Planning P video is meant to give an overview, it provides a dangerous example with a number of hidden assumptions:

  • We know what the problem is.
  • We know the best strategy to use and, therefore, do not need any alternative strategies
  • The strategies are near 100% effective
  • People will not deliberately try it make the strategy ineffective.   

You always want to have effective strategies when dealing with an Incident.     Ineffective strategies add a whole new dimension to the Strategy meeting.   


The Covid-19 response around the world is using a myriad of methods to try to contain and control the spread of the Coronavirus.    None of them have proven to be 100% effective, some are known to be less effective, some are believed to be ineffective and virtually every government in the world is throwing as much spaghetti at the wall to see what will stick.   Here are some examples:

  • We don’t know exactly how it is spreading.    Wiping surfaces with alcohol has been a huge effort, but if the virus is spread 99% by air, then is all the wiping worth the effort?
  • We know masks work, but there are different types of masks and some are less effective than others.    If you can’t obtain N95 masks and have them fit tested for everyone, is a mask that is 60% effective going to stop the spread?
  • Vaccines may have 70% to 95% effectiveness.    With a virus that is extremely transmissible, is even 95% going to be enough?     Will 70-75% be enough to slow it down?   What about logistics of a 95% effective vaccine that takes extreme cold to store and ship versus the 70-75% effective vaccine that can be held in a household freezer?   
  • We quarantine people for 14 days but that has proven to be a tremendous burden for those stuck in small apartments, small hotel rooms, or without access to medications, food or other essentials.   If we reduce it to ten days, people are more likely to stay in quarantine, but it will be less effective.   
  • We know kids spread the disease, but keeping kids at home is a huge burden on both the kids and the parents.    The children are generally not severely impacted (with exceptions) but if we send them to school, we solve one problem, but increase the risk of spread.    
  • We close internal borders (Canadian provinces/territories and Australian state to state travel) and external borders (international flight bans) but those are often instituted after the virus has already spread, such as the British/South African variants.    Closing the barn door after the horse has left appears ineffective, but we never discuss how many horses are potentially still within the barn.
  • We reduce gathers from 500 to 100 to 25 to 10 to 5 to 1 and yet the virus is still spreading.   We know we can’t isolate families from each other, we would find it difficult to shut essential businesses to prevent any human transmission, and we don’t know what the number is to stop the spread when one business or one gathering is resulting in 20 to 100 new infections.

What strategy would you recommend? How can we incorporate more strategy into the ICS Planning process?

Watch the blog next week where Tom discusses the consequences of less than 100% effective strategies in depth. Subscribe here to receive the copy in your inbox.

Author: Alison Poste

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