By now, most of the public-safety first responders in the United States have heard about the National Incident Management System, or NIMS.  Every public safety agency that receives DHS (Department of Homeland Security) grant funding must meet the goals of NIMS by October of this year.  Following is a snapshot view of how this still relatively new way of handling major national incidents affects the law-enforcement community – starting with a brief explanation of the NIMS concept itself. 

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 provided strong impetus to develop a system for first responders, including the police, to mount a coordinated and multi-disciplinary response to major incidents. Before creation and implementation of the National Incident Management System, cooperation between state, local, and federal agencies was limited, particularly when it involved  the handling of major incidents such as terrorist attacks and/or natural disasters caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, and/or tornadoes. The NIMS concept was developed to enable state, federal, and local agencies and organizations to work together seamlessly toward a common goal.  Each jurisdiction made its own decisions on how, and whether, to coordinate its efforts with other jurisdictions and disciplines.   

The lack of interoperable communications has been cited many times as a major problem during and in the aftermath not only of such major disasters as the 9/11 attacks and the floods in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina but also during lesser but well publicized incidents such as the Columbine massacre.  During 9/11, local fire and police departments could not talk directly to one another. The same was true during the Columbine incident, when the numerous agencies responding also could not communicate with one another. In each case, the result was the same: Rescue and relief efforts were complicated and needlessly delayed. The Key Ingredients: Uniformity and Interoperability The NIMS concept was developed to solve the communications difficulties and other problems, and to enable state, federal, and local agencies and organizations to work together seamlessly toward a common goal. President Bush signed the National Incident Management System into existence when he issued Homeland Security Presidential Decision Directive 5 on 28 February 2003.  The president and his senior advisors, particularly those in decision-making posts in the Department of Homeland Security, had determined that America’s first-responder communities all would benefit by the establishment of a uniform response capability that would enable first responders across the nation to join forces and work together in an interoperable response environment.    

Establishment of the NIMS methodology created a path that allows mutual-aid assistance to come from anywhere in the country and from any discipline – and from any level of government. NIMS also makes the integration process relatively seamless by requiring that all federal, state, and local first responders be trained in the NIMS philosophy, goals, and operating procedures. One of the core components of NIMS is the Incident Command System, or ICS, which provides the foundation for first-responder inter-operational training and capabilities. The incident-command concept was developed in California during the 1970s as a response to the vast number of forest fires in that state –and the need for mutual-aid agreements involving numerous jurisdictions not only within California itself but also in many neighboring states. It soon became obvious to decision makers at all levels of government that a common operational language was needed, and that common equipment standards also had to be established.  

Before the standardization requirements were implemented, fire-service agencies had been speaking different languages and using equipment that usually could not be shared or linked.   The Creation of a Truly National Capability Standardization enabled equipment sharing, and communications sharing, during multi-jurisdictional events in California. Today, ICS and NIMS have permitted the creation of standardized operational procedures, equipment specifications, and language for first-responder agencies and organizations throughout the entire country. The expected outcome of the creation and mandate for the use of the NIMS protocol is to provide first responders at the federal, state, and local levels with a set of uniform standards with which to create a coordinated, unified response to domestic all-hazard incidents within the United States. A look back at Hurricane Katrina brings the problem of interoperability to the forefront. In New Orleans, the best known example, a large number of police officers were not able to report for work for one reason or another. To take their places, a call went out for law-enforcement officers and other responders from other states throughout the country to help support the troubled Gulf Coast officers and citizens. 

Because the transition to NIMS had already started, those who responded to the Gulf Coast were able to integrate their operations quickly, more easily, and more effectively. To summarize: NIMS helps to define what police and other first responders do during and after major national incidents. Significantly, it also removes the language barrier, because all radio transmissions are communicated in plain language, regardless of the agencies and disciplines involved. Here it is worth noting that some police agencies expressed early concerns about eliminating the use of what are called “10-codes” during major incidents. A particular concern was that the public would be able to intercept the police communications. In reality, though, it became obvious that many private citizens already had scanners that intercepted police communications. Moreover, during life-saving operations there really should be no secrets – all agencies and individuals directly involved in a disaster-response situation should be on the same page. Moreover, for decision-making purposes it is mandatory that all first responders assigned to an Incident Command Post must be able to immediately understand what is going on at any given time.  

The speed with which major events can escalate seldom gives decision makers enough time to translate communications from personnel who do not speak the same language. The use of plain language was and is the answer to all of these problems. The implementation of NIMS within and between fire-service agencies was relatively easy because so many fire departments already had broad ranging mutual-aid agreements in place, and their personnel were familiar with Firescope and similar programs. Moreover, because many fire-service organizations operate from fixed stations, they are more readily available for group training. For police departments, however, implementation of the NIMS philosophy and working procedures is a different matter. Most police officers are routinely trained to act, and react, as individuals rather than as a team.  Police training en masse usually is possible only during yearly in-service training sessions. To pull officers from their assignments during periods other than these in-service sessions becomes a very expensive decision for the jurisdiction that does so, and that in turn could result in making the more advanced NIMS/ICS training sessions available to fewer officers.

Practice for Success: The Voice of Experience 

Gary S. Simpson is director of the Office of Domestic Preparedness for the City of Annapolis (Md.). In that post he is directly responsible for implementation of the NIMS/ICS policies and procedures within his own agency. “I did not immediately embrace the NIMS concept,” he told DPJ, “but my understanding and appreciation of the benefits to be gained were changed when my department participated in a full-function drill that included nine agencies, including two federal agencies. “Because I was assigned the task of preliminary coordination,” he continued, “it became very clear that to meet the goals of the planned exercise we would have to operate in a highly coordinated manner.  The DHS-required NIMS/ICS guidelines provided a ready answer that immediately spoke to how we would communicate, who would be responsible for what, and who was in charge at any given point in the process – and that resolved, in advance, the major issues that might have caused problems.

“Most police officers work their beats in single-unit vehicles,” Simpson also noted. “NIMS requires thinking more in a team concept. Fire personnel always think in a team concept. This difference required a ‘paradigm shift’ of sorts for police officers – but there was and is much less change in thinking for fire-service personnel.  Although the NIMS concept will take a number of years to be fully integrated across the entire first-responder continuum, it seems to me to be the ‘best game in town’ right now.  In fact, responder agencies that have not met the NIMS standards may start losing their DHS grant funds within a couple of months.  My final word is that NIMS/ICS has to be practiced to be successfully implemented.”

Gary Simpson

Gary Simpson is a 32-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department who, after he retired (in the rank of captain), was hired back to serve as the emergency management director for the City of Annapolis. Two years later, he shifted back to the police department as director of domestic preparedness and in that post was responsible for the department’s anti- terrorism planning, technology management, and intelligence operations. He also has served in CID, the Arson & Explosives Unit, Public Affairs, Patrol Operations, Special Operations, SWAT, the White Collar/Fraud Crimes Unit, and Communications. He left the department earlier this year to start Simpson Security Strategies LLC, a security consulting company.

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