Administered by DHS under Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5, the NIMS directs all U.S. first responder agencies to use a common approach to incidents, with the details being made available online at www.fema.gov.
In its simplest terms, “The NIMS is designed to create a unified, integrated, and complete approach to incident command and management,” said Steve Detweiler of the International Association of Emergency Managers. “The clock is ticking on the process. To maintain their access to federal dollars, all public safety agencies must be fully NIMS-compliant by September 30, 2007.”
In general, first responder agencies contacted by PSIT magazine support the goals of the NIMS—both for its positive impact on multi-agency incident management and in fostering radio interoperability between departments. “I do feel strongly that NIMS is a very good process, and it should be an integral part of every operational event, either within one agency or multi-jurisdictional,” said James Wadsworth, manager of the Fairfax County (VA) Radio Services Center. “You are what you practice, and if we practice correct communications procedures every day, then when we need to implement a large scale, multi-jurisdictional comm-[unication]s plan, it will go much more smoothly.”
“Having had a national disaster in an adjoining county (Flight 93) has also shown our people that the ‘big one’ can happen anywhere,” added Brian Feist, executive director of the Cambria County Department of Emergency Management in Pennsylvania. This is why first responders in Cambria County are backing the NIMS. “Seeing the incident first-hand has shown many of our people the enormity of such an incident and what will be expected of them if and when an incident occurs.”
The NIMS: A Quick Review
The NIMS began on Feb. 28, 2003, when President Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5 ordering DHS to develop a comprehensive, nationally applicable set of incident management policies and standards. Crafted as a response to Sept. 11, 2001, and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, HSPD-5 explained that the NIMS “will provide a consistent nationwide approach for federal, state, and local governments to work effectively and efficiently together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size or complexity.” It added, “To provide for interoperability and compatibility among federal, state, and local capabilities, the NIMS will include a core set of concepts, principles, terminology, and technologies covering the incident command system.”
A year later, DHS released its 152-page “National Incident Management System.” [www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nims/nims_doc_full.pdf] It is composed of six sections, each detailing a specific aspect of the plan. They are:
• Command and Management
Preparedness • Resource Management
• Communications and Information Management
• Supporting Technologies
• Ongoing Management and Maintenance
When it comes to compliancy, deadlines are the most effective means any regulatory body has in making things happen. In the case of encouraging first responder agencies to become NIMS-compliant, DHS established a series of deadlines tied to federal funding.
Specifically, “All future federal preparedness grants will be contingent upon NIMS compliance by the end of FY2006,” according to www.fema.gov. “To be considered NIMS-compliant, the recipient of the funds must have adopted and/or implemented the FY2005 and FY2006 compliance activities.” Included in this group are grants from:
• Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
• Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
• Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) • Department of Justice (DOJ)
• U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)
• Department of Education (DOE)
FY2005 and FY2006 were incremental years as far as NIMS compliance is concerned. However, FY2007—which ends on Sept. 30, 2007—is “the big one.” By this date, any first responder agency that has not fully implemented the NIMS to DHS’ satisfaction is in serious trouble.
The Rubber Hits the Road: First Responder Reactions to the NIMS
So much for the plan: How has the NIMS deployment faring in reality? Here’s what first responders in agencies large and small are saying to PSIT magazine.
Let’s start with buy-in: Do first responders believe that the NIMS will actually work as planned? On this point, opinions are mixed.
“In my opinion, it will work as planned as long as everyone buys into the concept,” said Captain Larry K. Aiken of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in Pensacola, FL. “We have seen the benefits first hand and know that the key to disaster management is consistency among the disciplines. You can’t achieve the highest level of interagency cooperation without consistency in the management system utilized during a disaster.”
But does this mean the NIMS will fill this gap? “In short, [the answer is] yes,” said Sergeant Paul M. Hanley of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Emergency Operations Bureau. “It has also helped that the federal guidelines have now adopted an ‘all hazards approach’ to management and not just focus on terrorism.”
“NIMS works to bridge the gaps and provide a uniformity that everyone can understand and operate within,” he said. “I believe the benefits will make interoperability of voice and data systems easier to overcome because NIMS fosters cooperation locally, regionally and nationally.”
“NIMS has to work,” said Cambria County’s Brian Feist. “We have given people the knowledge on how they should operate during an incident. Persons need to remember that they must practice during the small incidents so that the larger ones will go smoothly. In other words, adopt NIMS in their everyday activities. Since more people in our area have received the training, I have noticed a great positive difference in the interaction between agencies and entities during incidents.”
However, other responders are less certain. For instance, when asked if he thinks the NIMS will go as planned, Chief Charles Werner of the Charlottesville, VA Fire Department replied, “Eventually. It does for us for the most part, but there are still some culture changes that will have to occur.” This said, “As the NIMS becomes more mainstreamed and all the new public safety responders are taught the ‘new way of thinking,’ it will evolve and become second nature, just as Incident Command System (ICS) did for the fire service,” Werner said.
“Only time will tell,” observed Sharon Nalls, the city of Houston’s Emergency Management coordinator. “The NIMS concept as a whole has tremendous merit. Jurisdictions must focus on NIMS as a whole and not become centered on only the ICS portion of NIMS. The effort begins with preparedness and addresses issues like critical resource management, qualifications, credentials, and supporting technologies.”
News: Compliance Has Been Relatively Easy to Achieve
Whatever their views about the NIMS, first responders are generally upbeat about complying with the plan’s deadlines. In fact, most report that becoming NIMS-compliant has gone quite well, all things considered.
“NIMS hasn’t been too difficult in the early stages because our department has been using SEMS [Standardized Emergency Response Management System] for years,” said the LACSD’s Sergeant Hanley. “We train and operate under these principles of emergency management. As new requirements are brought in, we have had to wait for the state to determine or interpret what those standards would be. It’s a slow process.”
In Houston, “The NIMS implementation is progressing as expected,” Nalls said. “As additional guidance and requirements are established, the bar gets raised. The goal of a national standard, while ambitious, was needed. NIMS implementation will provide a standardized framework and better facilitate coordinated catastrophic incident response.”
In Werner’s region—the city of Charlottesville, county of Albemarle, and University of Virginia—the NIMS deployment has gone “relatively smoothly,” he told PSIT. “We now have a collective emergency operations plan (EOP) and a regional Emergency Communications Center Manage-ment Board (police, fire, EMS and emergency management) as board members. We went about this as a regional approach and have collectively met the deployment schedules.”
“We also have a joint public safety radio system (Motorola 800 MHz Trunked System) with a regional mobile data system (MA/COM),” he added. “Because of the relationships, our regional structure and the technology to create free interoperability across jurisdictions and disciplines, it hasn’t been hard.”
As for Cambria County, PA? “Knowing a little about my agency may help you understand my answers,” Feist said. “My department encompasses three divisions—the Cambria 9-1-1 Center, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency, and the Cambria-Allegheny Regional Highway Safety Network. As for the 9-1-1 Center and EMA, we were NIMS-compliant very early on. We take a very proactive stance on training, and NIMS was added as one of our routine training programs.”
Meanwhile, “In Pennsylvania, the County EMAs have been directed to oversee the NIMS training and progress,” he said. “Remember, [Pennsylvania] is a ‘true commonwealth’ where local government has oversight of their respective entities. In Cambria County, we have 62 local municipalities. As of right now, 61 are in compliance, and the last one (a community with less than 250 residents that may be merging with another municipality) will soon make compliance. So local government is on board.”
“As for the response communities, fire and EMS have also taken a proactive approach and have been doing quite well also,” Feist concluded. “As part of their annual updates, municipal police officers have had to take the necessary NIMS training as a mandate from the commonwealth of Pennsyl-vania. So Cambria County is proud to say that we have achieved compliance. On a similar note, my staff has taken NIMS training to municipal public utilities (water, sewer etc.) school districts, and agencies in county government that may become involved in NIMS.”
Finally, in Escambia County, FL, “The requirement that everyone receive the IS-700 and IS-100 training by September of 2006 was met with time to spare,” Captain Aiken said. “My agency made it a priority and incorporated the training into our biannual block training. This helped to eliminate any overtime issues.”
“FEMA was very helpful in getting us the training material in a timely manner in order for us to proceed as scheduled,” he said. “As far as the other requirements, we began the real transition after 9/11. We implemented ICS and began working very close[ly] with the Escambia County Emergency Management in order to refine ICS into a truly unified command. This agency is also an active member of the Northwest Florida Regional Domestic Security Task Force, and we participate in state and regional exercises. This has been very effective in honing our skills as an agency. Due to the implementation of ICS after 9/11, our compliance with NIMS has led to a smooth transition overall.”
In addition to completing NIMS training courses and exercises, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department has already followed NIMS procedures in “lots of real- life circumstances that have forced us into action from Hurricane Ivan, which devastated our area, to Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, which affected areas close by,” Aiken said. “With Katrina and Wilma, we activated our newly created Disaster Response Team and responded to the affected areas to assist in any role necessary. We provided command and control for mission tracking using a newly acquired computer aided dispatch (CAD) program that was modified specifically for the tracking by public safety software company, CTS-America. We supplemented local law enforcement in their regular assigned duties as well as providing telephone and data capabilities through a satellite system and VoIP telephony system provided by Edge Access Inc. During the Hurricane Katrina deployment to Harrison County in Mississippi, we also provided hot meals to anyone—including over 1,000 a day to public safety workers from all over the nation—who came to assist in the recovery.”
“Each of these deployments was NIMS-compliant,” he said. “It has been a smooth transition.”
The success reported above does not mean that NIMS deployment has been trouble free. In fact, all of the agencies with which we spoke reported challenges that had to be overcome and some that still remain.
In Los Angeles County, “The biggest challenge has been the size of our department in meeting the new training requirements,” Sergeant Paul Hanley said. “Our department is approximately 18,000 personnel. To get all the required personnel to the minimum training within a short time period has been a logistical nightmare.”
In Eastwards, in Houston, “The major challenge experienced thus far has been related to the number of personnel requiring the initial training,” Sharon Nalls said. “In an MSA [metropolitan statistical area] of nearly 6 million people and a local jurisdiction of over 2 million, just the requirement of staff training is daunting without contemplating the inclusion of private sector and non-governmental responders.”
In Pennsylvania’s Cambria County, “The primary challenges have been to get people to take the training,” Feist said. “Everyone knows that they have to do it, but especially with volunteers and local elected officials [who] govern local governments, it was sometimes difficult. However, the ‘carrot or stick’ principle that said that you may be denied funding for federal government sources if you do not become compliant has helped. In addition, since we have used the ICS system for years, people have seen the benefits and know that ICS works.”
The same has been true for the Charlottesville FD and its regional partners, Chief Werner said. It’s been an issue of “mainly getting the training completed and then having everyone get the testing done.” Escambia County’s Captain Aiken echoed those remarks. “The challenges only seemed to be the logistics of training all of our sworn personnel,” he said. Fortunately, “FEMA was very helpful and responsive to our needs.”
As for Radio Interoperability
One of the core drivers behind the NIMS is creating radio interoperability between first responder agencies. However, a true solution to this problem will require new equipment and open standards, plus increased cooperation between agencies. NIMS can’t do it all by itself.
So how is the United States progressing in achieving public safety radio interoperability? To answer this question and assess NIMS compliancy directly, DHS recently collected “Tactical Interoperability Communication Scorecards” from 75 urban/metropolitan areas. According to a report recently released by DHS (www.dhs.gov), “These scorecards were developed by subject matter expert panels that reviewed documentation on current communications plans, exercises, and a self-assessment to arrive at consensus findings and recommendations for each region on how to best improve that region’s communications capabilities.” So how have American first responders done in achieving radio interoperability to date? “Overall, the scorecard results show that urban/metropolitan areas have come a long way in improving their tactical interoperable communications capabilities,” said DHS in its summary of the report.
Specifically, “The technology exists to permit interoperable communications, but solutions are often not available regionally and are far from seamless in many areas,” the DHS online summary reported. “Continued training on available technical solutions and procedures for their use is critical to operational success. Even in areas that have demonstrated success at the tactical, command-level of communications interoperability, there is still work to be done. Multi-agency communications have been addressed within many of these jurisdictions, but regionalizing the existing communications strategies to identify longer term interoperability goals across multiple jurisdictions and levels of government still needs to be addressed.”
Digging into the 179-page “Tactical Interoperable Commun-ications Scorecards: Summary Report and Findings” document at www.dhs.gov, one finds more specific conclusions. On the subject of radio interoperability, the news appears to be good, with 68% of the areas surveyed having “effectively established regional interoperability.” Moreover, “More than 80% of urban/metropolitan areas use shared systems or shared channels daily to provide communications interoperability.” However, because this percentage includes talk groups on trunked radio systems and shared analog radio channels, it is not as impressive an indicator of true interoperability as it appears.
As for completing strategic plans for regional interoperable communications, for instance, 58% of the 75 urban/metropolitan areas surveyed have “No Plan/Plan Under Development,” the DHS report said. Another 18% have a “Plan Developed but not yet Adopted,” and only 24% have a “Plan Developed and Adopted.”
On the subject of NIMS compliancy, “Ninety-seven percent of urban/metropolitan areas report that they are in the process of implementing NIMS,” the DHS report said. “However, less than half of these agencies have had these command and control policies instituted for more than one year.”
At face value, the “Tactical Interoperable Communications Scorecards: Summary Report and Findings” report indicates that real progress is being made in the areas of radio interoperability and NIMS compliancy.
However, this progress isn’t enough for Steven Jones, executive director of the First Response Coalition (FRC).
“The Department of Homeland Security’s just-released Nationwide Interoperable Communications Assessment shows that while some cities may be making some progress on public safety communications interoperability, many have a long way to go,” Jones said in a statement released Jan. 3. “First responder communications are still compromised by inadequate planning, insufficient resources, and a lack of coordination. The findings in this DHS study and the dire warnings in many other government reports on interoperability failures cannot continue to go unheeded.”
“It is time to put words into action,” Jones said. “The FRC urges President Bush to immediately follow the release of this report with the establishment of a national strategy and target date within the next decade to achieve interoperable first responder communications so they can better protect our communities.” So far, Bush hasn’t heeded FRC’s earlier calls to action.
Radio interoperability notwithstanding, “We’re well on our way to NIMS compliance all across the nation,” said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff on Nov. 28, 2006, while delivering the keynote speech to the Grants & Training 2006 National Conference in Washington, D.C. “This, by the way, was a 9/11 Commission recommendation. And it’s important work we have to complete.”
“By having a common set of protocols—a playbook so to speak—that emergency responders at all levels understand, train against and exercise with, we’re going to be much closer to having a nation that can be robust and better prepared when a cross-jurisdictional catastrophe actually occurs,” he said. “We want to make sure that as we get into FY2008, we continue to build measures of effectiveness to make sure that we are training to NIMS, managing our resources to NIMS, and exercising to NIMS.”
By all accounts, Chertoff is right: NIMS compliancy appears to be on schedule. As a result, when the United States faces another Katrina-sized catastrophe in the future, this country’s first responder agencies should be speaking the same language and working from the same incident management playbook. Even with the FRC’s concerns about radio interoperability, this represents real progress.
James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.