Emergency responders and public-safety professionals in jurisdictions across the United States are communicating more effectively during large-scale emergencies and planned events thanks to the All-Hazards Type III Communications Unit Leader (COML) training program. Since May 2008, the OEC has offered COML courses in every state and several U.S. territories. More than 3,500 people have been trained to coordinate on-scene emergency communications during events—anything from a large sporting event to a severe storm—that require coordinated multi-agency communications.
The COML is a position under the Logistics Section of the Incident Command System (ICS). The COML reports directly to the logistics chief or incident commander. A COML’s responsibilities include developing plans for the effective use of incident communications equipment and facilities, managing the distribution of communications equipment to incident personnel, and coordinating the installation and testing of communications equipment.
The COML supervises other members of the communications unit, such as the communications technician (COMT), radio operator and incident communications-center manager, if those positions are filled during an incident.
The emergency-response community identified the need for COML training and with DHS support helped to create this formal training program, which built on the ICS model used for many years in wildland fire scenarios. As COMLs are responsible for operational and technical aspects of communications, the training program provides instruction on different procedures to use during incidents.
The operational part of the training includes creating a communications plan, setting up a communications center and establishing field communications between incident command and dispatch centers. Technical aspects include determining the appropriate radio channels or talk groups to be used, programming and deploying the radio supply and mitigating interferences.
As part of the implementation of the NECP, the OEC offered courses at the national level so more jurisdictions would have COMLs trained to the same baseline. In addition to standardizing the role of COMLs, the training program encourages coordination and collaboration among emergency responders. As students work through their exercises, they share ideas and hear from people working in regions with similar issues. The skills learned in the classroom have proven critical to effective responses in the field. Recently, the OEC and the Emergency Management Institute integrated their COML training to jointly offer a standardized COML course.
COML training has helped jurisdictions standardize planning for an incident so all responders are working off the same plan of action. The COML course trains participants to use a series of common ICS forms to prepare for an event. These standard forms can be easily read, understood and followed by other agencies involved in the response.
COML trainers and participants alike speak of an improvement in working relationships among agencies. Trainers say they hear students making connections, exchanging business cards and growing more familiar with the way other agencies operate. This type of relationship building can make a real difference the next time these agencies need to work together.
Many emergency communications professionals report an improvement in how regional emergency plans are coming together and better participation in statewide planning.
Natural disasters remind us why it’s so crucial to have individuals in every region trained to manage communications during an emergency. COML training makes those who serve in emergency situations better prepared to protect their communities. Better technology is one part of the solution, but COML training provides emergency responders with the other part of the solution by increasing planning, preparation and leadership skills.
Chris Essid is the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications.