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Communications Unit Leader Training Can Enhance Response Safety and Effectiveness

Five years ago, Congress created the DHS Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) with the mission to lead and unify efforts to improve emergency communication capabilities across all levels of government.

Looking back at the progress made since then, one achievement stands out: OEC’s Communications Unit Leader (COML) training program that prepares emergency responders to oversee communications during disasters and large-scale events.

Under the National Incident Management System/Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS), the position of COML is the focal point within a communications unit. Through the COML training program, personnel are trained to coordinate on-scene emergency communication during a multijurisdictional response or planned event.

This training is part of OEC’s broader Technical Assistance program, which provides hands-on training, tools and on-site assistance to advance emergency communication capabilities. The COML course has been one of the most popular Technical Assistance offerings, with classes taught in all 56 U.S. states and territories, with more than 4,000 responders trained.

Trained COMLs have been successful in maintaining emergency-communication operations during disasters, including Hurricane Irene, wildland fires in Arizona and New Mexico, and tornadoes and ice storms in the South and Midwest.

In May 2011, OEC and FEMA worked together to integrate two separate COML courses into one nationally standardized course. FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute has assumed the lead role in delivering the COML training, while OEC remains the lead for all technical content in the course and continues to offer classes through the Technical Assistance program.

As in previous years, OEC is updating the Technical Assistance offerings to meet its stakeholders’ needs. For example, at the request of ICS commanders and statewide interoperability coordinators, they developed courses to train communications technicians (COMT) and support amateur radio operators in working within the NIMS/ICS. As a result, OEC now offers both COMT and an auxiliary communication course focused on volunteers from the HAM community.

This year, OEC is updating the COML program to account for developments in emerging technologies, broadband, gateways and frequency allocation. They’re also initiating an updated train-the-trainer Technical Assistance offering for both the COML and COMT workshops.

OEC working groups, made up of expert COMLs and COMTs, have updated both the COML and COMT courses for technical accuracy and have developed a brand new COMT train-the-trainer course. OEC is enhancing the requirements for the instructors that provide this high level of training. They anticipate the beta testing to be completed later this summer.

Providing this kind of assistance isn’t just a way for OEC to support state and local efforts to enhance their emergency communication capabilities; it’s also a way to build relationships with stakeholders in the field. Working together, we can ensure progress is made in enhancing communications through Technical Assistance support, like the COML training program.

Chris Essid is director of the DHS Office of Emergency Communications.

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