After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 it was recognized by authorities at all levels of government that a much improved plan of action was needed so that participating responders from federal, state, and local agencies – and non-governmental groups – could work together more effectively at the scene of a disaster. That plan would, among other things, give any and all participants in response operations a better understanding of how a disaster or emergency incident was to be handled. The plan also would prescribe a common language and common operating procedures that all participating agencies would be expected to learn and use. The intent of the plan would be to ensure uniformity of operations whether the participants involved had backgrounds in law enforcement or the fire service, were EMS providers, or were representatives of government agencies at the federal, state, or local levels.   

There were several goals considered in development of the plan. The first was to encourage the use of common terminology between and among the various responding agencies. The second was to establish a unified command structure under which all agencies could work together effectively. A third was to ensure that all agencies understood their respective roles within the command structure. This new incident management system, it was hoped, would resolve any remaining issues of contention involving communications, rank structure, and/or the filling of needs at the disaster or emergency scene. In short, the overarching intent of the new system would be to provide a uniform method of handling all types of major disasters, no matter what their size or duration. The response to these and other imperatives was the creation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which was established under Homeland Security Presidential Directive Five (HSPD-5). That directive sets forth, among other things, the rationale for an incident management system that all responders could use – and, in turn, that could be used by any agency at any level of government. Issuance of HSPD-5 resolved a number of problems, but also created a few of its own. One of the main The first goal was to encourage the use of common terminology between and among the various responding agencies. issues of concern to a number of state and local jurisdictions, for example, is that NIMS represents in some important respects yet another unfunded mandate that states and cities cannot ignore but might not always be able to comply with.                       

A brief look at some of the pros and cons of forcing the unfunded NIMS mandate on states and local jurisdictions demonstrates both the major benefits gained as well as some obvious problem areas. The first and perhaps most important benefit is that all jurisdictions involved in the consequence-management phase of a national incident, natural or manmade, would be familiar with the operational procedures prescribed and would be able to communicate effectively with one another.   

California, with its earthquakes, and the nation’s southeastern states, with their annual hurricanes, represent just two examples of the states that would benefit from establishment of a uniform incident management system: Of particular importance is that there would be less chance of a breakdown in communications (today, a “code 10-02” might have a totally different meaning in one jurisdiction than it would have in another). The use of professional jargon is another area of potential problems. The command to “charge the line” has different meanings in different professions. Police will use it to move forward with their line; fire fighters will use it when they want water surging through their fire hoses; and an electrician will use it when he or she wants the electric current turned on. The need for a common language, understood by all participating units, is very important, particularly in responding to large-scale incidents – during which, for example, a fire department from one jurisdiction may and probably would be working not only with fire departments from other jurisdictions but also from other first-responder agencies, representing different disciplines, from a broad spectrum of other jurisdictions.   

Another benefit of learning, and using, a common language is that position titles would be the same – whether the incident occurs in Baltimore, Md., or in Nome, Alaska. Rank structures thus would be more closely aligned. There are no “sergeants” in the current rank structures of some jurisdictions – but there might be several sergeants in the rank structures of adjoining counties. The use of a standard rank structure would permit everyone involved in a national incident know to whom they should report and where they would obtain the equipment needed to accomplish the tasks they have been assigned. Several but not all of the problems caused by the issuance of HSPD-5 are related to the unfunded mandate previously mentioned. State governors, city mayors, and other decision makers have no idea where to obtain the money needed to fully implement HSPD-5 if and when federal funds are not available – as might well be the case. This is not just a political problem, but should be a concern to all citizens. 

For practical purposes, unfunded federal mandates almost always translate directly into unanswered questions. A few examples: What programs would state and local governments have to reduce in scope or eliminate completely in order to provide the funding needed to comply with a federal mandate approved by Congress and signed into law by the president? Do governors and mayors find the extra money needed by reducing road repair programs – thus making it not as safe to drive the roads? Unfortunately, there are some politically easier but far from satisfactory answers to these and other questions. If full federal funding is not available the states would be tempted to do a less than adequate job implementing the mandate. Or they might do only what absolutely has to be done to satisfy federal requirements. A third alternative would be to do it long enough to complete the program, and then let it go by the wayside.

The federal government has been known to push its agenda on the states in the past. In the 1970s, for example, the federal government threatened to cut off funding for state roads if the states did not impose maximum highway speed limits of 55 mph. There are many other examples, painfully familiar to state governors and city mayors – but not to the general public – of how unfunded federal mandates were issued in the past to allay political concerns, but did not really solve a problem. Instead, they merely passed that problem on to a lower level of government.

There are other concerns with NIMS, and other questions that must be answered. Even if perfectly conceived and implemented, for example, the NIMS operational procedures might be used either infrequently or, in some fortunate areas of the country, not at all. No one seems to know, moreover, how the federal government plans to ensure that the NIMS mandates are being followed.Another consideration is what might be called the “trickle down” problem. At least some states might adopt the same unfunded-mandate approach and try to force local jurisdictions to share the cost of NIMS implementation. But how would “Nowhere, Kansas” come up with the perhaps relatively large sum of money needed for NIMS implementation? At present, many small municipalities can barely afford to keep their local governments running, and their local needs met. The citizens of these towns and cities might well ask themselves if, with resources so limited, their fire companies should put off the purchase of the new firefighting equipment they need so they can implement a program that teaches them how to communicate better with fire companies from other jurisdictions.                                                                        

Despite a somewhat slow start, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has many knowledgeable, hard-working, and dedicated employees on the job in all of its offices and agencies. Not all of them, though, fully understand the effect on end users of the well-intentioned DHS mandates passed down to cities and states. What is happening with the unfunded NIMS mandate serves as an instructive example. Although states and cities are trying to comply with the mandate they have been given – which is tied to grant funding – not all responders are receiving the full benefit of the training they need. Because of varying work loads and the money required for overtime work – which is simply not available in all departments – many responders have had to resort to online training and testing, which is not as satisfactory or as effective as true “hands-on” training. Some departments, in fact, are still trying to determine which staff personnel really need the training required, and at what levels. No one yet seems to know the full scope of this problem, but it can be safely assumed that it is a matter of concern to jurisdictions both large and small throughout the country. 

As of late July, Montgomery County (Md.) and other jurisdictions within the National Capital Region had obtained a one-year grant to fund a NIMS coordinator position. Filling that important post would help to some extent in getting the region’s non-public safety departments on the right track to receive the NIMS training needed, it is generally conceded. There may well come a time, though, when at least some departments will no longer believe that it is worth all of the time and energy required to apply for grant funding. For some departments that unhappy conclusion may already be the case. A few officials, in fact, have said, only half-jokingly, that the term NIMS really should stand for Not In My Station.  More than a few officials have said, privately if not always publicly, that when NIMS training requirements were tied to grant funding it marked the downfall of the program. Clearly, there must be much better coordination between DHS decision makers, and end users at the state and local levels, when additional programs of similar scope and magnitude are mandated in the future.

Brian Geraci

Brian Geraci is a Battalion Chief with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Montgomery County, Maryland. He is presently assigned to Montgomery County’s Homeland Security Department. Chief Geraci has over 30 years of service in the county and was a charter member of the county’s Hazardous Incident Response Team and served as one of the team leaders.

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