My Coast Guard

Reservists help revolutionize ICS courses with new training methods

By Lt. Jonathon Zocchia, Lt. Joshua Fowler, and Lt. Leah Whiddon


As Coast Guard reservists, we are accustomed to responding quickly when natural disasters, oil spills, or terrorist attacks wreak havoc. Rapid deployment in the face of a global health crisis has not historically been a Coast Guard mission—until the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. As usual, Coast Guard reservists eagerly volunteered to support a wide array of COVID-19-related missions. This was especially true at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown’s Emergency and Disaster Management School.

TRACEN Yorktown’s EDMS is responsible for emergency management, planning and Incident Command System training service-wide. In an era of increasingly frequent incidents of national significance, emergency management training is fundamental to the service’s readiness and mission execution. Readiness means qualification, and qualification means training. Innovation became paramount to developing and implementing alternative training methods, as well as keeping service members and training staff safe during the health crisis.

In the “new normal” of physical distancing constraints and mask mandates, TRACEN staff brainstormed techniques to minimize traditional in-person training, while simultaneously adapting their own work environment to maximize personal safety. This included learning new virtual communication and education platforms. The solution: remote learning, but not the way you’ve done it in the past.

Online training itself is not new to the Coast Guard, but this type of leading-edge, facilitated online training, or FOT, challenges students with engaging in interactive learning sessions facilitated by instructors. Innovative thinking and harnessing new training platforms, such as the Department of Defense’s milSuite application and Defense Collaboration Services, led to the development of the FOT delivery format. Active duty teams were established to fulfill the mission of transitioning legacy in-person courses to online (self-paced) and FOT format. The undertaking turned out to be a laborious task; to do it efficiently, additional manpower was needed. Reservists with ICS and course development experience were sought out for Title 10 orders to support.

Despite the critical need for surge operations, the challenge of safety and social distancing remained. The Coast Guard used both technology and telework capabilities to meet the demands of the ICS curriculum development project, employing a remote team of nine: Cmdr. Justin Moyer, Lt. Cmdrs. Christina Erapalli and Delyte Montoya, Lts. Daniel Chelemer, Leah Whiddon, Jonathon Zocchia, and Joshua Fowler, Ensign Rich O’Connell, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Cobie Lee. These reservists came to the table with unique emergency management, instructional, and civilian backgrounds. They worked together, albeit across the country, to re-image ICS delivery and get members trained safely.

The team initially focused on six ICS courses: ICS-344 Marine Transportation Unit Leader, ICS 430–Operations Section Chief, ICS 440–Planning Section Chief, ICS 345–Resource Unit Leader/Situation Unit Leader/Demobilization Unit Leader, ICS 404–Safety Officer, and the Emergency Management Specialist Course (EMSC). These courses help participants establish the essential core competencies required for performing the duties of each of the unit leader positions in an all-hazards Type 2 or Type 3 incident. FOT instructors lead the course training through a combination of self-paced learning, discussion, lecture, and active participation in exercises that provide a realistic, scenario-driven approach to acquire the skills and apply the knowledge required of the unit leader positions.

“It’s been great to help improve access to these courses that have been challenging for our members secure in the past, especially since many reservist’s careers are reliant on ICS quals,” said Lt. Leah Whiddon, who worked on the operations section chief course. Whiddon also said the facilitated training model is opening the course to more people than it was able to accept in the past. Making training cheaper and more accessible is necessary given the increased demand for ICS-qualified leaders in a world experiencing increasing natural and manmade disasters.

“Not only has ICS evolved to be a core component for many reservists, but also the lifeblood of incident response nationwide” said Lt. Josh Fowler. “We tend to be ultra-focused on Coast Guard [jargon, policy, forms]. ICS brings standardization to multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency emergent responses so we’re all speaking the same language.”

With a commitment to a modernization of the legacy courses, the Preparedness and Exercise course developed into the new Emergency Management Specialist course. While planning and exercise functions have always been a key component to port resiliency, the duties and functions of those doing these jobs at the sector level has continued to evolve.

The new EMSC delivery is a mix of FOT and in-person learning. Prerequisite FOT work is completed virtually prior to the student receiving orders to TRACEN Yorktown for a period of in-person learning. In-person learning consists of “hands on” exercises, meetings and briefings designed to codify relevant skills essential for successful emergency managers.

The FOT portion of training went live in December and has received tremendous reviews.

“The coronavirus pandemic gave us this opportunity to revolutionize these vital training courses,” said Whiddon, “but we’re seeing all the other benefits—decreasing costs, increased student through-put, a diversity of candidates, and a growth in qualifications.”

The team of reservists works in tandem (paired up) with the respective course chiefs at the EDMS, providing essential curriculum development and instructional support. The highly sought-after ICS courses are rolling out to the force through 2021. Whiddon said that most of the team extended for another six months to continue to working on other ICS courses, including logistics/finance section chief, communication unit leader, and the incident commander course, all of whose graduates are in very high demand.


This article is courtesy of Reservist Magazine, the official monthly publication of the Coast Guard Reserve. To read the latest issue and archived content, visit their website. Learn more about opportunities to serve as a reservist here.