Linked to the National Response Plan, NIMS, the National Incident Management System, provides a vital organizational method for the public and private sectors to coordinate in the event of an emergency, whether manmade or natural.
In Fiscal Year 2005 and Fiscal Year 2006, states were allowed to "self-certify" their progress toward NIMS compliance, but that's now changed. On September 30 of this year, many (but not all) of the 2007 NIMS compliance requirements not only must be met, but must also withstand closer examination through the lens of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security refer to as specific "performance-based" criteria.
This looming deadline has left some agencies scrambling, particularly smaller ones that already suffer from manpower shortages and high turnover rate. But there are notable exceptions to the many jurisdictions now stumbling through the NIMS training maze, trying to meet their deadlines. A handful of states, such as California, devised their own versions of the incident command system well before 9/11. Their experiences have taught us how critical a unified approach is to the successful limitation of damage to targets, civilians and responders. Incident Command Systems (ICS), they say, work.
California takes a point position
Good ideas are sometimes born of experience. That is certainly the case with NIMS.
What started as the ICS grew out of an enormous wildfire that burned a half million acres, destroyed more than 700 homes and cost 16 lives.
The year was 1970 and the wildfire lasted for 13 days. When it was all over, damages and the costs of emergency response added up to a staggering $18 million per day. But even though the fire escalated into a disaster of immense proportions, something positive did come out of the conflagration: California's own ICS.
Although many emergency agencies responded to and provided services while the wildfires raged, it became apparent upon dissecting the disaster postmortem that a comprehensive approach was needed. By coordinating responders and agencies, not only was better communication ensured, but it eliminated duplication of effort and many other mistakes.
Congress became involved and mandated that the U.S. Forest Service devise a method that would erase, or at least control, the problems found during after-incident debriefings following the wildfire.
In 1973, FIRESCOPE ICS came into practice. Ken Whitman, special consultant, Homeland Security Training Program (HSTP), Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), says, the state's law enforcement entered the incident command system game in 1982, when the state was preparing to host a large number of venues for the 1984 Los Angeles (California) Olympics. "All Orange County agencies came together and developed a derivative of FIRESCOPE called the Law Enforcement Incident Command System (LEICS), and every peace officer was trained in LEICS," Whitman says.
Two disasters -- the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland Hills fires in the early 1990s -- moved California officials to create the Standardized Emergency Management System Advisory Board from which also came the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS).
"The heart of SEMS is the ICS," Whitman says. "All state agencies had to train their people and use the system when responding to all of the disasters that occurred in California."
Moreover, California's local and county agencies had to show they used the SEMS in order to qualify for state and federal disaster funds to pay the bills created by a statewide response.
Says Whitman of the state's experience, "California public safety agencies have had more than 40 years of successful use of SEMS."