All together now
The last thing anyone wants in an emergency is confusion among the professionals responding to it. But, that often happens when several public safety agencies must work together during a crisis. “There were lots of stories about needing, say, 200 pounds of ice at an event and getting 600 pounds because fire ordered it, EMS ordered it, and police ordered it,” says Casey Ping, division commander at the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) in Austin, Texas. “We weren’t coordinating and communicating the way that we needed to.”
That was before they began following the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which was introduced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in March 2004 to help responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines collaborate when responding to disasters. “The intent was to create a mechanism so if I went to New Mexico as part of an incident management team, I could hit the ground running, because we’d all be using a common language and management system, and I would know exactly what my role is,” says David Weldon, emergency services director at Catawba County, N.C., Emergency Services.
Over the last two years, public safety agencies have been adopting the system and changing their procedures to fit the uniform guidelines. To encourage state and local governments to adopt the standards, DHS has stated that to qualify for federal preparedness funding each year, public safety agencies must have met the previous year’s NIMS requirements by Sept. 30. In October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 3.7 million people had completed the agency’s NIMS training.
A better method
NIMS is designed to help organizations prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic emergencies, regardless of cause, size or complexity. The program is based on the incident command system (ICS) developed by the U.S. and California Fire Services about 40 years ago and the Standard Emergency Management System used in California. It consists of six major components: command/management, preparedness, resource management, communications and information management, supporting technologies, and ongoing management and maintenance.
Many communities train staff to fill pre-assigned ICS positions, such as operations, logistics or finance section chief. But, in Austin, “we approach it more functionally,” Ping says. “In the event of a large accident on a local highway, police, fire and EMS command personnel will meet at the command post and jointly set the strategic direction for the incident. Each commander is normally managing their own agency, but they’re doing it together, so they establish only one set of objectives for the incident, not three. We felt it was important that personnel work under their day-to-day chain of command to the best of our ability.”
To ensure that everybody is using the same protocols, DHS requires that all personnel with a direct role in emergency management and response must be NIMS and ICS trained. That includes all emergency services-related disciplines, such as EMS, hospitals, public health, fire service, law enforcement, public works/utilities, skilled support personnel, and other emergency management response, support and volunteer personnel. Responders also must participate in realistic exercises — ones involving multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-sector interaction — to improve integration, interoperability and resource use.
NIMS program staff have issued guidelines to ensure that all equipment, including radios, meets certain standards and works with similar equipment that other organizations use. “We now have national standards,” Weldon says. “If I call for a Type 2 urban search and rescue team, for example, I know exactly what I’m going to get — all the specific components. That has been very helpful.”
Before the Austin and Travis County agencies began working together, their radio systems were not integrated. “Travis County was on VHF, and Austin’s police department, fire department and EMS were on UHF, but none of Austin’s agencies used the same channels, so we couldn’t talk to each other,” Ping says. “Now, many of the agencies are on our 800 [megahertz] trunked radio system. Where VHF remains, there are patches between the VHF and 800 systems. It’s not ideal, but we have much better communication.”
NIMS guidelines also set out standards for tracking equipment. “We’re able to track items through our EOC [emergency operations center] and the county’s EOC — what’s needed and where it’s needed,” says Wesley Greene, fire chief for Mooresville, N.C. “We can set up a request, have it fulfilled, and track resources better.”
Under NIMS, information should flow efficiently through a commonly accepted structure. For example, NIMS program staff recommend that police nationwide use plain speech and eliminate the 10-code system, because it can cause confusion when multiple agencies are involved in a disaster. The codes, such as 10-4, typically are used when talking to dispatchers over the radio, and were created to minimize air time and conceal information from non-law enforcement listeners. However, several agencies have assigned different meanings to the codes, based on specific needs, so one officer’s 10-36 may be another’s 10-50. To encourage the change, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made federal preparedness grant funding contingent on using plain English in incidents involving multiple agencies. Departments that did not implement the new system by Oct. 1, 2006, are not eligible for such federal funding and grants.
It takes training and cooperation
The effort required to make a public safety agency NIMS-compliant varies. “We had to rewrite our emergency operating plans anyway,” Greene says. “It was good timing that we needed to bring things into compliance with the NIMS regulations then. It’s taken the better part of this year — six to eight months — to update our emergency operating plan and get our folks trained.”
Mooresville has trained all city employees, including all department heads and even public works employees, on the emergency procedures. “Everybody’s learned a different role,” Greene says. “We have assigned roles here, but if a person’s out, then their second in command or the next one in line has to step into that role or possibly fulfill another role. Everybody has been exposed to the responsibilities of each job. We practice and train and create scenarios and take people out of their comfort zone — put them into another role and challenge them with that.”
Now when an incident occurs, an officer activates the EOC and calls in all appropriate city resources. “If it gets beyond our capabilities, then we start requesting resources through the county and state,” Greene says. “People will walk in and know what their roles are.”
All of Austin’s training also is interdisciplinary. “We have police, fire, EMS, public health together in the classes,” Ping says. “So, while we’re getting an education, we’re also building relationships with the people we’ll be working with during actual emergencies. We don’t want police officers, fire fighters, EMS personnel, and public health people meeting for the first time in the midst of a major incident.”
The training also exposes participants to other areas of expertise. “We generally [assign seats] to force people to build new relationships with other disciplines,” Ping says. “We also switch people around, giving a fire fighter a law enforcement role, for example, to get them thinking about the issues that the law enforcement folks will be thinking about. This broadens their perspectives.”
Catawba County, N.C., has been working on NIMS compliance for about two years. Educating everyone — volunteer, paid, and private sector individuals — on the requirements was the first big hurdle, Weldon says. “The biggest step of NIMS implementation is training the responders: getting the training in place, making sure we have trainers, and taking the training to volunteer agencies,” he says.
As a result of NIMS compliance, Catawba County’s plans are more accessible to responders, municipalities and mutual-aid agencies than they were previously, and they will be even more accessible soon when a software project by Charlotte’s Urban Area Initiative is complete in early 2007 that will connect nine counties through a common software application, allowing members to share resources and information more adequately.
As a result of adopting NIMS, local and state agencies are working together more easily during emergency response. “Agencies are working more cooperatively and have a better understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities,” Ping says. “In the past, EMS may [have considered] their portion of an event closed once all the patients [were] transported. We now consider the work still required by other public safety agencies, police and fire. For example, if the accident involved a fatality, the investigative process may be extended. Since implementing unified command, we consider this isn’t going to be a short-term event for fire or police. So, the EMS command personnel may request additional units for rehab and medical support for those personnel, rather than having to return in two hours because the others are now suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.”
NIMS guidelines require a significant change in mindset for some public safety agencies that have not practiced unified command procedures, and that has been one of the biggest challenges. “It was a significant struggle getting people to see that we were more powerful together than we would ever be apart,” Ping says. “We couldn’t even say the ‘U’ word when we started the task force; there were some that said there is no such thing as unified command. Some folks’ position was: ‘It won’t work, it can’t work. There has to be one person in charge who says how it goes, no matter what.’ We finally came to the realization that our success was based on a cooperative project, and at the end of the day, each agency must account for the things that they’re legally responsible for.”
As the guidelines continue to evolve as more agencies adopt them and suggest changes, first responders will need to continue to learn new procedures. For example, many NIMS standards and guidelines were updated to reflect lessons learned during the response to Hurricane Katrina. “The original NIMS program was largely a reaction to Sept. 11,” Weldon says. “We have made multiple changes to the NIMS requirements since then, which is a very good thing. It’s still going to take time to get to where they want to be.”
Communities that have not yet adopted NIMS should start now, Ping says. “It takes a while to complete, because you can’t stop doing your day-to-day business and say, ‘Today’s priority is NIMS compliance training, and we’re not going to continue to go see sick people, investigate crime or put out fires today.’ You have to work this into all of the other daily priorities.”
Weldon agrees. “The incident command system and NIMS are effective. They’ve been proven to work. We’ve just got to continue to get everything in place,” he says.
For more information on NIMS training and upcoming NIMS compliance deadlines, see www.nimsonline.com.
Timothy Miller is a project manager in the Lenoir, N.C., office of Tampa-based PBS&J.