Helping everybody get along

New homeland security system will create the framework for emergency response

NIMS Integration Center

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Cooperation during emergencies is as fundamental as the need for quick action. Increasingly, first responders are prepared to work together in the event of an emergency, and now Homeland Security Department officials are working to develop an infrastructure that will ensure that such cooperation is a cornerstone of emergency response.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) being developed by DHS' Federal Emergency Management Agency will integrate response practices into a comprehensive framework for managing emergencies nationwide.

NIMS could — and some officials believe it should — enable first responders at the federal, state and local levels to work together more effectively to manage domestic incidents regardless of their cause, size or complexity.

Under a federal directive, NIMS will be in place nationwide by the end of fiscal 2007. But actually getting NIMS operational is going to be far from simple, experts say.

"It's one thing to take the awareness course and it's quite another to go out as a firefighter or an EMT and put it into play, and you need to do that," said Gil Jamieson, acting director of the NIMS Integration Center at DHS.

The idea that multiple jurisdictions and disciplines must come together during an incident is moving out of isolated successes into practice in every state and at all levels of government as officials are "embracing the idea of unified command," Jamieson said. "[But] now that we've got them there, we need to get them to really work together."

DHS officials will incorporate NIMS into all of the exercises they sponsor, he said, noting that the system was part of the TopOff 2 exercises in the Seattle and Chicago areas in 2003. Many government officials involved in those exercises have said NIMS provided an important first step toward coordination in such situations.

NIMS also needs to be incorporated into training, exercises, acquisition practices, management policies and every aspect of first responders' daily lives — to become as much a part of their operations as rescuing a cat stranded in a tree. But neither NIMS nor first responders are quite ready for that, officials said.

When blue is not blue

One of the fundamental challenges that officials face in implementing NIMS is that the term "first responders" refers to many groups and few of those groups speak the same language. Even within a single discipline, terms such as "law enforcement" change from city to city and state to state.

NIMS is supposed to use common terminology for first responders nationwide, but that requires changing not only emergency response language but the way entire disciplines think about emergency response, said Joseph Barbera, co-director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University

and a consultant on managing public health emergencies.

The Incident Command System that serves as the heart of NIMS is an effective tool, but it still reflects its genesis in the fire services, particularly in the communities that fight wildfires. "That's not all wrong. It's just that it makes it very, very difficult for medical professionals using NIMS to understand the concepts and the inherent value," Barbera said.

It's not that health officials would respond in bad ways. It's that they simply aren't approaching a situation in the same way a firefighter would, he said, and the basic language of how they talk about the situation is different.

Officials at the NIMS Integration Center have created an advisory committee under the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council. That committee will specifically address the terminology issue and also tackle all of the challenges that arise as multiple disciplines come together, Jamieson said.

"It's going to be a way to create a means to continually communicate with these folks, so that we have their thoughts in terms of where we should go," he said.

Medical workers are not the only ones who will need to adapt to NIMS and who will be working to adapt the system to their own language. Even within the fire community, there are areas that have not adopted the Incident Command System and

that still see it as something that applies only to wildfires, not to daily incident management, said Michael Freeman, chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee.

But the first responder role is an unusual one for law enforcement personnel to be in, as well. Local police departments have not traditionally been involved in incident command. They usually come in after the fact or as part of a separate effort, said Steve Lenkart, national director for legislative affairs for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

"We've been at the same incidents for years as the other first responders, and we work well alongside each other, but we don't typically work well with each other," Lenkart said. "In order to do that, you have to reverse years and years and years of traditional thinking. You have to teach a couple of old dogs some new tricks and build some policies that are actually going to integrate them, not just force them to be there."

A necessary deadline

Officials must solve as many of these cultural issues as they can, as quickly as they can — and the urgency is not only because of ongoing concerns about another significant terrorist attack. The system will also help public officials deal with natural disasters such as the hurricanes that ravaged the Southeast this year.

Beyond that, DHS' fiscal 2007 deadline carries serious penalties should it be missed. If state and local officials have not met minimum requirements set out in a September 2004 letter from Secretary Tom Ridge by the end of fiscal 2006, those state and local agencies will not be eligible to receive federal emergency preparedness funding.

That deadline has caused concerns in Congress. Some local officials say fiscal 2006 is too soon to link compliance to funding. Some officials argue, however, that the deadline is necessary.

What may help overcome the cultural and practical challenges is experience, Freeman said. Although the NIMS Integration Center has put together an online course and other computer-based training resources are available, it's going to come down to real-life training, he said.

"Much of the online training that's proposed and that's available is similar to trying to teach someone to ride a bicycle online. There has to be the hands-on practicum associated with that," he said.

Training will also have to move beyond tactical responses and into management, especially for the public and private medical providers who make up the country's health system, Barbera said.

"There hasn't been a lot of training at the level of management systems for mass casualties," he said. "The processes are there. They're just not very well-defined" as part of a national system.

Sharing lessons learned from training and exercises are also critical if first responders are to move quickly, because it will help them not waste time by repeating mistakes that could have been avoided, said one official from the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department who asked not to be named.

The Lessons Learned Information Sharing solution that the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City developed with funding from DHS could help in that effort, said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. There will always be a challenge in getting participants in exercises to be honest about what did and didn't work, but with this particular solution, a degree of anonymity is built in and all of the information is available online, Cilluffo said.

However, what is often lacking is the after-action information from the people on the street who were involved in the exercises, not just the managers and executives, the D.C. official said. "That's where the disconnect is," he said.

And that is where the NIMS Integration Center can help — by finding best practices, identifying areas across the country where additional guidance is needed or experiences can be shared, and serving as a group that can continually adapt and update NIMS to meet the needs of the people in the field, Jamieson said.

DHS: Help is on the way

The Homeland Security Department's National Incident Management System (NIMS) aims to help public officials prevent, prepare for and respond to natural and man-made disasters. Its primary purpose is to establish common practices, capabilities and resources — including information and communications systems — so that officials can easily coordinate efforts.

NIMS covers six areas:

1. Command and management

The Incident Command System, which firefighters use nationwide and which forms the basis for NIMS.

Multiple-agency coordinating systems, covering everything from common policies to common terminology.

Public information systems, to be used to communicate with the public during an incident.

2. Preparedness

Planning and strategies.

Training through standard courses.

Exercises that local, regional and national agency officials conduct regularly.

Personnel qualification and certification.

Equipment acquisition and certification.

Mutual aid agreements.

Publications management, including standardization of forms and policies for handling sensitive documents.

3. Resource management

The ability to describe, inventory, mobilize, dispatch, track and recover resources throughout the duration of an incident.

4. Communications and information management

Incident command communications.

Information management to ensure that information is getting to the people who need it, when they need it.

5. Supporting technologies

Voice and data communications, information and resource management systems, and other equipment.

6. Policy management

Ongoing management and maintenance of the system's policies at DHS.

Source: Homeland Security Department

New rule: Get local

For the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to be a success, the Homeland Security Department's information technology officials must know what local jurisdictions need.

Although NIMS is not an IT system, IT plays a critical part in enabling the common command and control structure and providing

thorough tracking of resources and expertise. But that's the high-level goal. To reach it, DHS officials must know specifics, particularly about what works and doesn't work in local environments, said Steve Cooper, chief information officer at DHS, addressing a group of first responders at a technology demonstration in Washington, D.C., last month.

Officials need feedback on the National Response Plan, an important part of NIMS, Cooper said. "We need folks to read that and to tell us, is it correct, does it make sense at the local level, at the county level, at the state level?" he said. "Partnership means we need to talk to each other."

State and local officials, however, are focusing on the basics right now, said John Markey, director of the Office of Emergency Management's Fire and Rescue Service Division in Frederick County, Md. They need to know what federal officials expect from them if federal funding is going to be hanging in the balance — as it will be starting in fiscal 2007 — and general guidance won't do, he said.

Whether the money comes from the federal government or from state or local budgets, public officials must decide how to use it, experts at the demonstration said. Connectivity and interoperability have gotten a lot of attention at all levels, but the infrastructure is still not getting the money it needs to support applications such as NIMS, said one local government official who asked not to be identified.

Cooper said his office is contributing money to some infrastructure initiatives in the Washington, D.C., region, including the district's wireless data network. But officials at all government levels must focus on infrastructure if NIMS or any other homeland security efforts are to succeed, he said.

— Diane Frank

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