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NIMS and the NCR: Trials and triumphs at the operation level

Written by Joseph Watson

Creation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS)—which requires federal, state, and local jurisdictions to work together during and in the aftermath of what are called incidents of national significance—has done much to improve the working relationships between and among first-responder agencies and organizations in neighboring states or municipal jurisdictions. There have, of course, been some implementation problems, but more and more agencies are in fact buying the same equipment, using the same communications systems, and training together.

The goal of these and other cooperative efforts is to facilitate the intergovernmental joining of various emergency-services communities within the same general geographic area into a cohesive whole that would synergistically upgrade the emergency-preparedness capabilities of the entire region. In that context, it is worth studying successful, real-life examples. In one recent, multi-jurisdiction effort, groups demonstrated an extraordinary—perhaps unprecedented—level of cooperation among not only a broad spectrum of federal, state, and local government agencies but also across several functional first-responder disciplines, including law enforcement agencies, the fire services, and emergency medical services units and personnel.

That well-publicized effort concluded earlier this year with the sentencing of convicted terrorist Zacharious Moussaoui in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The fact that the sentencing proceedings went so well—i.e., without major disruptive incidents—was due in large part to careful and extremely detailed planning by a host of federal, state, and local agencies with overlapping missions and responsibilities in the greater Washington, D.C., area—also known, for operational purposes, as the National Capitol Region (NCR).

It is not the presence of numerous federal, state, and local jurisdictions within the same geographic area that gives the NCR its unique status but the fact that the region is home to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the U.S. government and to hundreds of federal offices and agencies, large and small. Almost any major event or incident that occurs within the NCR has national and, usually, international repercussions.

The Aftermath of an Airplane Crash

It was not the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that led to the creation of the NCR but an earlier disaster. The Air Florida crash of 1982 led to formation of the Washington’s area’s Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG). Over the past two decades, the COG has, despite some areas of disagreement, initiated a number of innovative multi-jurisdiction programs and achieved an uncommon degree of success in regional planning and the implementation of mutual-aid agreements.

Working through numerous committees—with jurisdiction, for example, of law enforcement and fire-service matters, HazMat issues, or local transportation problems and resources—COG developed and reached agreement on many regionwide plans that, to be successful, required the cooperation of many agencies from a multitude of political jurisdictions throughout what was evolving into today’s National Capitol Region.

COG’s long-term experience in both planning and training—without which the most perfect planning would not be effective—gave the region a leg up in emergency-preparedness planning in general. The regionwide response to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon served as an acid test that demonstrated both the significant strengths in regional emergency services cohesion that had been developed as well as the many difficult challenges that remained.

Inter-Agency Cooperation and Interoperability

The Moussaoui trial provided another challenge, as well as the opportunity to develop and validate intergovernmental integration plans and preparedness capabilities over a longer period of time. The high-risk legal proceedings, dubbed Operation Enduring Justice, required close and continuing cooperation from the United States Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorneys Office, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Protective Service, the Alexandria Police and Fire departments and Sheriff’s Office, and the Fairfax County Police Department. At some points during the proceedings, there were as many as 80 personnel manning key positions on the ground, with others flying air cover overhead and still others assigned to the unified command-and-control center that had been established. A multi-unit intelligence cell also supported the event.

Protective and critical incident-response measures were planned ahead and carried out by interagency interior and perimeter security personnel, rapid-response special operations and hazardous materials teams, and various tactical and counter surveillance units. Because of the increased threat posed by the potential use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), full route security was provided for the daily movements of the defendant between the courthouse and the Alexandria Adult Detention Center.

Planning and Training Emphasized

The interagency planning for the proceedings started four years ago and continued from the defendant’s initial court appearance to, through, and beyond the actual sentencing.

The original interagency planning team evolved into a working group that met monthly to resolve various training and operational issues. The interagency team also reviewed individual agency operations plans to guard against a confliction of responsibilities and ensure the operational cohesion of the participating agencies involved.

Training was emphasized throughout, and included not only tabletop exercises but also two dynamic modeling and simulation exercises (using the “EPiCS” tool provided by Advanced Systems Technology). The principal lessons learned from the simulation exercises were incorporated in later operational plans, with improvements added when and where needed. The final training event, not too long before the start of the trial, was a full boots-on-the-ground exercise.

Special-operations teams, HazMat-response units, and EMS personnel had full access to the U.S. Courthouse. The result was an unprecedented level of intergovernmental, multi-disciplinary situational awareness of the venue. During and following the preliminary training and robust final exercise, operational plans were constantly strengthened across both governmental and functional disciplinary lines.

Dealings with the Public and the Media

Because of the U.S. Courthouse’s close proximity to residential buildings, commercial businesses, and other federal buildings, a concerted effort was made to educate local residents and businesses about the impact of such a long-term event on their own lives and livelihoods. To allay community concerns and uncertainty, such issues as traffic, parking, noise, safety, construction schedules and disruptions, and civil disturbances were fully and repeatedly addressed. In large part because of these effective community-outreach initiatives, local residents felt a part of the total security and protective operation, as evidenced by the large number of calls placed to the Alexandria Police Department warning of suspicious activity in and around the U.S. Courthouse.

From the start, communications interoperability was one of the most pressing concerns that had to be addressed. Fortunately, the NCR already had in place a reliable system known as the ACU-1000 (as well as a portable version, the TRP-1000–provided by Raytheon JPS). Those systems facilitated interagency communication and permitted the use of each agency’s own communications equipment in an encrypted mode, regardless of megahertz range or the type of system used. (The system is currently available throughout the NCR for other regionwide uses. Work continues, however, on the development of secure voice-over Internet protocols that will both provide a system without barriers or boundaries as well as a redundancy in work stations.)

To summarize: Although the Moussaoui trial was not a no-warning weapons of mass destruction incident, it had the potential of becoming one by attracting a major terrorist attack. The long-term sustained preparedness requirement for the operation undoubtedly stretched local resources to the limit. It was successful in that there were no security breaches and that the region’s responders were able to show the surrounding community that the many agencies involved could plan, coordinate, communicate, and carry out a long-term event with multiple agencies operating seamlessly with one another.   

During the course of the sentencing proceeding, interestingly, a Congressional committee was holding hearings during which the ability of federal, state, and local agencies to communicate and operate in a cohesive manner was being seriously questioned. It was coincidental that those hearings about the NCR’s emergency-preparedness capabilities were taking place at the same time that an ongoing operation was demonstrating an unprecedented level of effective intergovernmental operational preparedness in the community of Alexandria, VA, only a few miles from Capitol Hill.


Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2006

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