State and local governments across the country continue to wrestle with the challenges involved in complying with guidelines set forth in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) policy statement.  One question facing emergency managers, and political leaders as well, is both simple and complex:  “What is an emergency responder?”  Answering that question will help determine where the need for NIMS-compliant training starts.

The definition of an “emergency response provider” has expanded the scope of what constitutes an “emergency responder.”  Since 2002, many agencies that historically did not associate their normal roles with emergency response have taken advantage of the definition in the Homeland Security Act to apply for the grants established to improve the nation’s emergency preparedness and response capabilities. The net effect of the expanded definition has been to further complicate the question of who is an emergency responder, who should be eligible for the grants, what criteria are used to determine grant eligibility, and how the funds are distributed.  “The term ’emergency response providers’ includes federal, state, and local emergency public safety, law enforcement, emergency response, emergency medical (including hospital emergency facilities), and related personnel, agencies, and authorities.” (Homeland Security Act of 2002)

Local, tribal, and state officials still must identify who should complete NIMS-compliant training – the first critical step toward achieving NIMS compliance. In most if not all cases, the number and level of responsibilities of those within any organization who are categorized as emergency response providers will largely determine the scope and depth of the training needed to achieve NIMS compliance.  Staff with no direct involvement in emergency response activities may not be required to complete any NIMS-compliant training. Others, because of their rank or responsibilities, may need more training than they previously thought.

This raises another question:  Should there be any distinction between emergency responders and first responders? Generally speaking, first responders are considered to be operational and supervisory staff from the traditional response organizations – i.e., EMS (emergency medical services), fire, and law-enforcement personnel, all of whom clearly need NIMS training (and most will need more than they have received thus far). In the context of the NIMS definition provided earlier, emergency responders constitute a much larger constituency for the training suggested or required. 

Yet another question follows: Should priority for funding NIMS-compliant training be allocated to the training of emergency responders or first responders or both?  As the funding stream from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for all levels of training continues to diminish, the importance of identifying the target audiences for all types of training must be further assessed to ensure NIMS compliance at all levels of the organizations affected.

IS-700: The All-Hands Starting Point

The Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) is the Commonwealth’s lead agency for fire-service training. Using the guidelines received, VDFP adopted the reasonable position that its IS-700 (entry-level) training should be required for nearly all personnel in “public service” – not just those involved in public safety and/or in the traditional first-responder sector. In other words, any individual whose work involves operational responsibilities at any level in response to or support of emergency preparedness, response, or recovery operations at the local government level or higher should complete the NIMS Introductory Course.  

Also included in that category would be disaster workers from non-government organizations (NGOs) and volunteer groups (fire, EMS, various emergency-response teams, etc.).  Simply put, if an agency or organization is identified as playing a role in the local or state emergency operations plan, its employees, staff, and members should complete the IS-700 course. Here it should be noted that, although the VDFP position may not be universally accepted, it at least provides a baseline for expectations of where the NIMS-compliance training process begins.

The basic IS-700 course addresses, among other topics, the principal components and concepts spelled out in the NIMS policy guidelines: command and management, preparedness, resource management, communications and information management, supporting technology, and ongoing management and maintenance.  It is important for any organization within the response structure of the community to be capable of integrating its operations (regardless of whether the organization is in the first-response or emergency-response category) with the other organizations that operate in an emergency.  These same organizations must also, of course, be in a “forward leaning” mode should the situation require additional assistance from mutual-aid, state, or federal resources.  

NIMS and ICS: Closely Related, But Not Twins

The most recognizable component of NIMS is command and management. The national Incident Command System (ICS) provides the cornerstone for building a consistent and systematic approach for all emergency-response organizations and situations. Among other things, it provides the framework for organizing responder resources, regardless of their discipline, in an orderly way to ensure continuity, accountability, a manageable span of control, and effective resource management and utilization.

Shortly after promulgation of the National Incident Management System, VDFP started to notice, and to counter, the understandable confusion between the ICS and NIMS concepts, which for many people were difficult to distinguish.  Requests for delivery of “the NIMS we’re supposed to take” were routine. For many, it was far from clear that training in both NIMS and ICS are stipulated for NIMS compliance. In addition to completing the IS-700 course, many operating and supervisory personnel also are required to complete one or more higher levels of NIMS-compliance training. In fact, every individual involved in public safety, and most personnel in public service, should complete the NIMS entry-level . A very high percentage also should be trained in higher levels of ICS. In short, IS-700 is only the start.

To help resolve some of the confusion, VDFP has offered a carefully considered combination of NIMS-ICS training by using the classroom products available to teach IS-700 as well as the National Fire Academy’s H-806 “NIMS Basic ICS for the Fire Service” class. For practical purposes, this means that, when requests are received, a “combination ” (IS-700 and H-806) is recommended unless it has been clearly established that the students enrolled have previously completed the IS-700 training. When students complete the combination program, therefore, they will have completed both IS-700 and the DHS-approved ICS-100 and ICS-200 levels of training.  This meets or exceeds the fundamental NIMS and NIMS-required ICS training for virtually all “emergency response providers.”  Other course options are available, of course, but the combination virtually eliminates the possibility of unsuccessful efforts to comply with both NIMS and ICS guidelines in separate courses.

The Beginning of a Long, Long Journey

There is an old Chinese saying that a journey of 1,000 miles “starts with a single step.”  Any agency that plays a role in emergency response should therefore consider IS-700 to be only the first of many steps. Some of the later steps – the more specialized and/or more advanced ICS-100 and -200 courses, for example – already have been specified.  

But emergency preparedness and response training are not and should not be considered “terminal” processes.  Ensuring the necessary competencies for emergency response depends not only on initial training but also on both maintenance training – i.e., continuing education – and practice (exercises). The first-responder sector already understands the importance of ongoing training. Now, the emergency-responder community also must learn that there can be no end to the training needed not only to maintain but also, of perhaps greater importance, to improve proficiency.

The advent of NIMS provides the first-responder community an opportunity to interact with all emergency-response providers not only during emergencies but also in the training completed before events occur. The nation’s first responders should seize this opportunity to train and work with their partner resources, starting at the local level to improve emergency preparedness and response capabilities.

In that context, it should be recognized that NIMS offers an unprecedented opportunity for all emergency-response providers to become acquainted with one another and to foster stronger and more effective working relationships from the ground up as well as from the top down – again, before an event occurs. And this, of course, was and is the intent of the NIMS guidelines.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.

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