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."
Does this "head start" give California an advantage while working toward NIMS compliance? Common sense and Curry Mayer, chief of the State Agency Training and Exercise Section, California Specialized Training Institute, Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES), say that yes, it does. California, as well as other states that early on recognized the advantages of an integrated emergency system, is ahead of the curve, but there is still an enormous amount of work ahead, even for states that started decades ago.
"We have a good head start in compliance activities because we're already using it," Mayer says. "We simply have to add additional pieces instead of starting from scratch."
Adds Whitman, "This year POST has focused on developing and rolling out the required ICS-300/ICS-400 training. Federal requirements have not been finalized, but POST and OES are pushing ahead with training anyway. The NIMS Integration Center (NIC) has told California that we are very far ahead of the rest of the country because of our long history of SEMS and our working relationships statewide."
By the numbers
But even though California started decades before other departments, bringing training levels into compliance isn't a small matter. Whitman says there are 647 separate departments within the state in need of personnel training, with about 100,000 officers total slated to undergo that training in order to become both federally and state compliant.
"We are working very hard to assist our participating agencies in developing appropriate training," Whitman says, adding that another mission of his agency is to make that training readily available to those who need it.
What costs has POST accrued in connection with this training initiative? Whitman says that since the 2001 terrorist attacks, POST has spent approximately $3.8 million developing more than 50 training courses and working with other agencies to ascertain that training is widely available to those who need it. The NIMS development effort and approval process alone has cost POST about $100,000. Whitman says two full-time and several part-time employees work in the HSTP at POST.
NIMS compliance has taken a front-row seat in California, as well as other states, and Whitman says they are working on 100-percent compliance -- naturally. "We have approximately 600,000 first responders in California [who] need some level of NIMS training, which is daunting in itself," Whitman says.
Mayer agrees that it's a tall order and says that another big piece of the NIMS machine is achieving functional interoperable communications. "We're making sure all people talking to one another can do so with common terminology." And, adds Mayer, on the same radio frequency.
But California's biggest challenge in achieving full compliance is probably the same group of hurdles facing smaller states and departments all across the country. Mayer explains. "Up until recently, requirements changed once a year," she says. "The NIMS Integration Center expects to publish a 5-year plan for compliance activities this summer that will allow states more time to plan for their activities."
Mayer is proud of her state's progress on NIMS compliance and says that although there are still formidable tasks ahead, California is leading the pack in the race toward its NIMS-related goals. "We're sort of like the 'A' student looking for an 'A+,' " she says.
A resort community copes
Depending on the time of the year, the road to Myrtle Beach can be as slow moving and frustrating as dealing with Social Security. Packed to the gills with tourists and lined with bumper-to-bumper traffic beginning in mid-to-late spring through roughly mid-autumn, this coastal South Carolina city suffers from typical resort staffing problems. Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall has his hands full during the high season, and as the resort area picks up popularity, the crowds are sticking around even during the colder weather. Changes in state and federal laws and local ordinances, as well as personnel turnover, are reflected in the constant need to train. Factor in liability issues and training has reached critical mass in nearly every department, but none feel it more than the smaller ones.
Gall says scheduling training sessions is the toe-stubber for agencies like his. The 2007 NIMS mandatory compliance requirements make it even more of a challenge to keep up with training goals and still police the city's jurisdictional boundaries.
"The training can be time consuming and difficult to manage when trying to schedule officers and employees on shift work," Gall says. Myrtle Beach, like other agencies, has to sandwich the extra NIMS training into a slot that's already crammed with both operationally essential and government-mandated training. In addition, Gall and his training division must often sift through mountains of courses offered in conjunction with NIMS in order to find the ones that best suit both the needs of his agency and the city he serves.
"With the availability of homeland security grant funding to organizations, everyone is offering NIMS-related training. It's not unusual to have the same training classes offered the same week in the same area by competing training vendors. Choosing the right training resources has been challenging. Some are definitely better than others," he says.
But 2007 has had its up-side. Myrtle Beach, for instance, has steadily been certifying personnel to teach as instructors so that some of the compliance training can be brought in-house. Gall notes that one of the biggest challenges inherent in the process is keeping up with changes made by both federal and state governments.
Gall, like many in the law enforcement community, agrees that NIMS has a real value to Myrtle Beach, although he sees it less as a terrorism tool and more as a response to natural disasters. Of course, that's a very viable reaction for a city that perches dead in the path of Atlantic coast hurricanes.
"In terms of equipment, we have had to purchase 'First Responder' kits for all personnel hired after the initial delivery of kits from the state," Gall says. "It's one of those items that you hope you never need, but if you do and don't have it, it just adds to the disaster."
Gall's biggest criticism of the process has more to do with the funding than the process itself. "I'm not convinced that compliance should be tied to federal funding access," he says. "Most progressive agencies will seek compliance because it's the right thing to do."
Working with other jurisdictions
Gall says that communications between agencies and the federal and state governments is both law enforcement's biggest problem and most important asset. Chief Michael Fallon of the State Capitol Police in Hartford, Connecticut, says NIMS has already helped his agency to develop an even better relationship with the Hartford Police Department. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Fallon spent 23 years with Hartford before retiring as an assistant chief of police.
"Knowing how the city operated has helped a lot with NIMS," says Fallon. "We've worked together in and of our own volition."
Not only do Hartford and Fallon's department share a radio frequency and often come to one another's aid, but the Capitol PD's 30 officers work in the center of Hartford's jurisdiction -- 17 acres in the middle of the city.
Fallon believes critical incident management is a tool designed to eliminate barriers to success. "It's what we do anyway, but we compartmentalize and everybody has an assigned place." He agrees that NIMS compliance has been a labor-intensive effort even for a department with an already well-established in-tandem working relationship with a contiguous agency. And he sees NIMS as an ongoing commitment as far as personnel and training are concerned, much as national accreditation has become.
Fallon's biggest criticism of the process is the addition of provisions couched in bureaucratic language -- an ironic touch considering that NIMS requires plain language radio use as opposed to law enforcement-centric 10-codes. "They make it more complicated than it really is," Fallon says.
As for NIMS compliance, Fallon is bullish overall. "It think it's a home run," he says.
In the end
As with any profession burdened by a plethora of rules and regulations, law enforcement officers find the weight of additional bureaucracy heavy to bear. But comparatively speaking, NIMS has garnered fewer complaints than most federally mandated programs. Even smaller departments, which are strapped for personnel to begin with, see the value of NIMS compliance. It's hard not to see it with car bombings, the infiltration and discovery of new terrorist cells, and plots to strike at the world's economic epicenters making news daily. Add to that a lengthy roll-call of potential natural and man-made disasters and NIMS readily becomes a stellar example of an old Benjamin Franklin adage: "A stitch in time saves nine." NIMS embodies the idea that forward thinking can limit future damage.
Although NIMS continues to evolve -- and face it, as new and unanticipated situations test the NIMS system, the need for changes will surface -- it will settle into something more concrete and less fluid. California's Mayer believes the upward climb for agencies working on NIMS compliance will end once the details have been ironed out.
"I see it leveling off, especially because they have very clear definitions for incident command system roles and responsibilities," she says. But at this time, as law enforcement's grasp tightens on the issues surrounding NIMS implementation, the private sector continues to work toward putting its role in the proper context.
"The nontraditional sector is seeing a little bit of confusion," Mayer says. "They're trying to translate 'this is what your job would be,' and are having a harder time translating into their lexicon what they might be responsible for in an emergency."
Meanwhile, back at the police or sheriff's department, law enforcement executives, state agencies and training officers nationwide look at NIMS as something that, for them, will remain a constant.
"The best thing that's come out of NIMS is an acknowledgement that incident command structure is a good tool and that we have clear roles and responsibilities in any type of disaster -- both for traditional and nontraditional players," Mayer says.
She adds: "We're talking about how we will all come together as a nation to ensure we are able to protect the public and successfully respond together."
And that really is the bottom line for NIMS: a huge amount of work, but something that can save lives, reduce confusion, and give the good guys a badly needed and much-deserved edge when an emergency strikes -- no matter what it is or where it happens.
Have training issues? Or maybe there are simply too many choices and not enough information about what's out there for National Incident Management System (NIMS) training purposes. If that's the case, perhaps it's time to look at a different approach.
Brian Couzens, president of Advanced Safety Products, located in Parker, Colorado, rides the technological wave of NIMS training by offering a NIMS video training program. Unlike the usual dry, overhead-projector or PowerPoint presentation with an instructor droning on while officers mentally zone-out, videos like the ones Couzens produces are colorful, dramatic and engaging.
Couzens says the idea behind the videos followed a massive fire in Colorado. "We were ahead of both the 9/11 Commission and the presidential directive," he says.
With a background in video and emergency management, including more than 25 years with the fire service, mountain search and rescue, and incident command, Couzens didn't simply decide to turn Incident Command Systems (ICS) into a business. He saw a gap and knew it needed filling.
"It addresses what most educational programs do not address adequately," he says. "Most people are visual learners -- especially fire and police."
Couzens says the programs bring ICS situations to life and show exactly how the knowledge already gained is applied under dramatic circumstances. Training programs already in place "don't bring reality to the people, and the people don't see how it applies to them."
Shot in documentary style, the program brings Columbine and the Oklahoma City bombing into the training arena. NIMS personnel talk about the reality of their jobs in a way that's both riveting and informational.
Couzens says it's time for NIMS to become less of a task on which federal funding is dependent and more of a national challenge. "We've got to shed our egos and start working together. This will allow everyone to work together efficiently and be able to do their jobs effectively," he says.
For more information check out: www.nimsvideo.com.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at [email protected].