PREPARING BETTER FOR THE WORST
Last year, President Bush directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to improve the effectiveness of emergency response providers by standardizing emergency procedures employed by local, state and federal agencies into a National Incident Management System (NIMS).
In March of this year, DHS issued a 140-page NIMS plan that describes how tribal, local, state and federal agencies responding to emergencies can work more effectively for and with each other.
In the first two chapters, one on command and management and another on preparedness, NIMS updates and consolidates emergency procedures widely considered best practices. First responders at all levels of government have used many of these procedures for years. A key NIMS’ component, for example, is an Incident Command System (ICS) developed by firefighters dealing with wild-fires in Southern California more than a decade ago. Since then, a vast majority of first response agencies from local fire and police departments to state police departments and federal agencies have adopted ICS in one form or another. DHS hopes to persuade every government agency that might ever touch a disaster to adopt a single ICS framework that will roll out in the same way for every emergency. “The key to ICS and NIMS is to use these systems in the same way all the time,” says Stephen Sharro, superintendent of the Emergency Management Institute within the Department of Homeland Security. “So when we have a bad disaster and have to work together, we’re all familiar with that standard of organization.”
NIMS aims at a deeper purpose as well: to improve the emergency response performance over that of Sept. 11. To that end, four NIMS chapters introduce procedures designed to improve resource management, communications and information management, supporting technologies and ongoing management and maintenance.
By most reports, the agencies and people called upon to respond on Sept. 11 functioned together remarkably well. According to a 9/11 Commission staff report on the terrorist attacks and their aftermath:
In the 17-minute period between 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had mobilized the largest rescue operation in the City’s history. More than 1,000 first responders had been deployed, evacuations had begun, and the critical decision that the fire (in the North Tower) could not be fought had been made. The decision was made to evacuate the South Tower as well. At 9:02 a.m., a further announcement in the South Tower advised civilians to begin an orderly evacuation if conditions warranted. One minute later, a plane hit the South Tower — instantly doubling the large and complicated rescue operation.
Within hours, local, state and federal authorities had assembled 3,000 people in a command center to coordinate inter-agency responses to the disaster and to provide support for the first responders on the scene, according to Sharro. “The local response in terms of integrating with state and federal agencies was textbook,” he says.
But breakdowns occurred. According to the 9/11 Commission staff, no one told 9-1-1 operators that fire officials had decided to evacuate the North Tower of the World Trade Center. People in the tower who called 9-1-1 for help were told to stay where they were. Remaining in place is a well-established protocol for people caught in high-rise fires. In this case, it proved wrong.
In addition, the fire department did not use its hand-held radios in the North Tower because a repeater system covering the WTC complex appeared to be broken. It wasn’t. In fact, it was used by firefighters in the South Tower a few minutes later.
Another problem: because both fire and police departments used different communications systems, firefighters and police were frequently unable to communicate.
While many first response agencies assembled themselves under an effective unified command that day, critical organizational and technical problems interfered with elements of the emergency response.
NIMS clearly addresses issues that confounded first responders on Sept. 11. For example, the chapter on communications and information management calls for responders to employ common communications technology: “Common communications and data standards and related testing and compliance mechanisms are fundamental to an effective NIMS. Communications interoperability in the context of incident management is also critical. Although much progress has been made in the areas, much more work remains to be done.”
A common goal
“This is not rocket science,” says Sharro of the DHS Emergency Management Institute. “But what we’ve never had before is commonality. If an incident commander orders a Haz-mat team, he or she must know how many people will be on the team, their roles and the level of their expertise.”
NIMS’ general organizational approach does not limit itself to terrorist attacks. It is designed to deal with all kinds of emergencies, Sharro continues. For example, agencies responding to a plane crash can apply NIMS to facilitate smooth transitions among incident commanders as the emergency moves from rescue and recovery to investigation.
Local police, fire, and emergency medical service (EMS) units may all reach the scene together. But the fire chief will likely serve as the initial incident commander, with police, EMS, and other agencies supporting the efforts of firefighters.
A day later, the medical examiner would move into the incident command slot and the fire department and other agencies would slide into support roles. Specific incidents create criteria for changes in command structure, Sharro says. A shared understanding of the process going into an event allows responding organizations to adapt as needed.
“NIMS is important because we don’t respond to emergencies by ourselves; people always help us,” says Jim Raymond, who represented the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) on a NIMS advisory committee. “We won’t know who those other people will be, but with NIMS we will know that they will work the same way we do.”
But haven’t these organizational principles existed for years? “Sure, but we’ve all had different systems,” continues Raymond, who also serves as manager of emergency services for Douglas County in Colorado. “While most agencies have adopted ICS, local agencies often tweak something that they don’t like. Well, no. You can’t do it differently in the city and the suburbs because someday you’ll have to work together.”
The U.S. federal government does not allow higher levels of government to impose emergency procedures and organizational models on lower levels. The President, for example, can’t tell the Governor of New Jersey or the Mayor of Pittsburgh how to organize police, fire and EMS emergency responses.
So how can NIMS standardize emergency response organizations? “For one thing, we now have a bully pulpit in DHS,” Sharro says. “Second, we’ve tied NIMS to the pursestrings at DHS. To be eligible for DHS grants in the future, communities will have to show that they are compliant with NIMS.”
Financial pressure aside, local, state and federal agencies have all begun to look ahead to a summer of major public and political events that will take place under threats of a new round of domestic terrorist attacks. With NIMS, DHS believes everyone can prepare better for the worst.
COMING SOON: THE PLAN
This fall, DHS will issue the National Response Plan, a plan that people working under NIMS will execute in the event of a national emergency
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) outlines a system that enables people from agencies at all governmental levels to work for and with each other. This fall, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will issue the National Response Plan (NRP) that local, state and federal agency personnel will follow in the event of a national emergency.
“While NIMS is used for all incidents, the NRP will only be used for incidents of national significance,” says Stephen Sharro, superintendent of the Emergency Management Institute at DHS. “If there is a large incident that overwhelms state and local capabilities, and we want to apply the resources of the federal government, then we would invoke and use the NRP.”
In the early 1990s, the federal government developed a Federal Response Plan or FRP, continues Sharro. The FRP describes the responsibilities of federal departments and agencies in responding to floods, fires, terrorist attacks and other events when the President declares a national emergency. Considered an all-hazard plan, the FRP deals with all major incidents requiring assistance from the federal government.
As a federal plan, the FRP only concerns federal departments and agencies. NRP, however, will be a national plan for federal, state and local governments as well as private industry and the public.
In addition, the NRP will expand the range of activities discussed by the FRP. Given today’s terrorist threats, the NRP will emphasize awareness, prevention, and preparedness, as well as response and recovery. According to the Interim NRP, a first draft of the final plan, the final NRP will integrate existing awareness, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery plans into a single base plan that addresses “functional areas common to most contingencies, with annexes to describe unique procedures required under special circumstances.”
— Michael Fickes