Emergency response has changed drastically over the past several decades, especially since 2001, and the utilization of Amateur Radio operators has been affected by it. The days of showing up unannounced with your HT and “go kit” have pretty much gone the way of the vacuum tube.

The September 11th attack and Hurricane Katrina both acted as wakeup calls to a variety of emergency response agencies all the way from the courthouse to Washington, DC. Longstanding issues, like the inability for local public service agencies to communicate with each other (such as fire and sheriff) as well as inability for state and federal agencies to interoperate with each other and local entities was a major embarrassment during the September 11th and Katrina responses.

In addition to the technical challenges, there were also the tactical ones.  Every entity operated with with its own command structure, terminology, and protocols. Quite often there was no clear chain of command, leading to poorly coordinated response. Police would use 10-codes, which are not consistent across jurisdictions and often not understood by members of other agencies. Each organization had its own methods and procedures, creating confusion among those working side-by-side.

The result was a call for a general standard to operate by, one that was structured enough to help bring organization to an emergency situation, while being loose enough it didn't tie the hands of first-responders. The solution is a modified version of an emergency response system developed in California, called the "Incident Command System" (ICS for short) and its big brother the "National Incident Management System" (NIMS). During the first decade of this century almost every federal, state, and local government has adopted the ICS and NIMS as the standard operating protocol.

The federal government, through FEMA, provided incentives and free training programs to entice broad acceptance.  FEMA, GEMA (Georgia's Emergency Management Agency), and local EMAs have largely adopted the program and require anyone who will be involved in emergency response to meet minimum training requirements.

Now, to be a valued emergency responder you have to know acronyms like ICS, NIMS, EOC, EOP, IAP, and ICP. You’ll need to know what terms like “Incident Commander”, “Incident Management Team”, and “Unified Command” mean.

There was once a time when solely Minutemen defended us, now we have full-time soldiers supplemented by well-trained Reservists. Disaster response has changed similarly. FEMA, state emergency response organizations like GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and many others now have teams of people formally trained to respond and interact with each other using predefined command structures. Many Non-Government-Organizations (NGOs) have built their own teams of amateur radio operators trained in the same procedures. To be a useful asset to them you must have compatible training – in the same way military reservists train to work side-by-side with active military.

Virtually any volunteer organization, including members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES for short) will expect their members to take these training course.

The good news the courses are free. You can visit http://training.fema.gov/IS/ and have access to a wide range of courses. The ones you should take (in this order) are IS-100.b, IS-700.a, IS-200.b, and IS-800.b. The ARRL has training programs as well (EC-00x) that can be found at: http://www.arrl.org/online-courses, and we’ll be discussing those later.

Why take these courses? Because you’ll understand the “management structure” that will be in place when you are deployed. As a result you’ll be more effective in knowing where to report, how to conduct yourself, and the procedures you’ll be expected to follow while working with whatever entity you are assigned to.

In addition to the above, most organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, have their own teams of amateur radio operators – so if you wish to volunteer with one of them they will likely look favorably upon you if you already have these courses completed. You can be certain that you’ll be required to take the courses.

Then there is the most significant reason to learn ICS: because most organizations will not deploy you in an emergency if you haven’t taken the courses. If you are deployed (and it's unlikely you would be without the training), it’ll be as a last resort or in a very non-critical capacity, and not likely utilizing your amateur radio skills.

In conclusion, if Amateur Radio is to be relevant and Amateur Radio operators are to have value to the professional emergency response organizations we must dispense with “amateur” and think “professional”.