The 'Glue' for Incident Management

“Forms, we don’t need no stinking forms to handle an all hazard emergency response in our ______ (fill in the blank: town, city, county, parish, tribal territory, region, state),” was no doubt echoed by many of the leaders of the numerous alphabet agencies attending mandatory National Incident Management System (NIMS) training some 15 years ago.

What accelerated the immediate need for NIMS was Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (2003), which directed the establishment of a single, comprehensive national incident management system shortly after the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Reflecting on that period of time, with potential manmade catastrophes specifically maritime, aviation and rail disasters, fires and explosions, and terrorism and social unrest on the rise and a significant increase in nationwide weather disasters, the limited resistance to a federally mandated program is understandable. However, as time moved on, the mandated compliance effort had the potential to eliminate federal grants eligibility if an agency was not 100-percent NIMS compliant. This action was seen as a negative deterrent for the required NIMS audience.

Wanting to take immediate positive proactive action to stop a threat, incident commanders might have found it foreign to initiate the NIMS model on every response regardless of the size and duration of the emergency. Unfortunately, some agencies directed that NIMS would be implemented for every incident. NIMS is designed to prepare for (mitigate), prevent, and manage response to emergency and disaster situations, and to coordinate all disaster responder agencies on the local, state, and federal levels – inclusive of the agency on scene first (emergency responders who deploy and function using the ICS model). This was not a consequence of the NIMS directives but instead more of a misunderstanding in the initial training efforts and in the integration of the Incident Command System that were already being used at the local level. NIMS is the overarching framework through which disaster management is coordinated, whereas ICS manages personnel as a subset within the NIMS model. As the event escalates either in seriousness or in resilience efforts after action requiring more resources, this complementary cohesiveness model defines a more successful outcome.

Compliance at All Levels

With respect to the mandated training compliance concerns, beginning in federal fiscal year 2008, the Department of Homeland Security required that all jurisdictions report NIMS compliance through the NIMS Compliance Assistance Support Tool (NIMSCAST) system. Employees designated as having a primary or supporting role during an emergency are required to complete the following online courses available on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website:

  • IS-100.b, Introduction to Incident Command System 

  • IS-700.a, National Incident Management System, An Introduction

First line supervisors – including any employee who may be required to temporarily serve in this capacity – who are or may become involved in emergency planning or response activities must also complete IS-200, Basic Incident Command System.

Positions designated as “middle management” – that is, any employee who may be required to manage first line supervisors – or any person designated to support an activation of the agency’s emergency operations center must complete: ICS-300, which is an intermediate Incident Command System course; and IS-800.b, National Response Framework. ICS-300 training is conducted in a traditional room setting, as is ICS-400, which focuses on large single-agency and complex multiagency/multijurisdictional incident responses.

Finding Synergy

FEMA now clearly describes NIMS as a set of principles that provides a systematic, proactive approach to guiding government agencies at all levels, nongovernment organizations, and the private sector to work seamlessly to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents – regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity – in order to reduce the loss of or harm to life, property, or the environment. FEMA further addresses how NIMS supports this principle-driven response through the following elements of unified command (ICS):

  • Developing a single set of objectives;

  • Using a collective, strategic approach;

  • Improving information flow and coordination;

  • Creating a common understanding of joint priorities and restrictions;

  • Ensuring that no agency’s legal authorities are compromised or neglected; and

  • Optimizing the combined efforts of all agencies under a single plan.

Peter Senge is an American systems scientist and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (published in 1999). Senge shared many ways to think of and define a system. For example, he stated that a system:

  • Is composed of parts that must be related (directly or indirectly)

  • Has a boundary that is determined by an observer or a group of observers

  • Can be nested inside or overlap another system

  • Is bounded in time, but may be intermittently operational

  • Is bounded in space, though the parts are not necessarily co-located

  • Receives input from, and sends output into, the broader environment

  • Consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs

  • Is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose – for example, a car with a driver is a system

Essentially Senge’s system concept components are similarly defined and well integrated within the NIMS principles. 

The required five tenetsentified in the 2011 FEMA Incident Management and Support Keystone doctrine for successful disaster response, recovery, mitigation, and logistics are: 

  • Engage the whole community

  • Empower managers regardless of rank, to make decisions and take coordinated action

  • Respond quickly with decisive actions

  • Use outcome-based objectives

  • Develop creative solutions and atypical resources

Building Trust & Collaboration

Most successful management systems are achieved by establishing trust and encouraging people to cooperate. Trustworthiness is the unspoken glue that promotes management system success, and NIMS operational success is no different. In fact, the definition of trust as described by the International Association of Business Communicators is based on an organization’s willingness to be open and honest and to believe that another organization is also competent, open, honest, concerned, and reliable, and has common goals, norms, and values. Good communication and common vision help achieve enduring and trust-based relationships.

In his presentation entitled, “Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (at Carnegie Mellon University on 18 September 2007), Professor Randy Pausch refered extensively to “head fakes.” For example, he described how parents may tell their children to play sports not because they really want them to become sports stars, but to help them develop collaboration and socializing skills. Similarly, as much as some people may dislike NIMS forms, such forms could serve as a catalyst to find common ground among participants – and develop collaboration and socializing skills – in the shortest timeframe.

George A. Morgan

Chief George A. Morgan’s experience in fire and rescue service spans more than 40 years. He has served as a company officer, command level officer, and deputy/assistant fire chief in several Mid-Atlantic Fire Departments including: Howard County Maryland, the City of Hampton Virginia, Navel District of Washington, and Anne Arundel County Maryland. Chief Morgan’s educational accomplishments include a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Administration from the University of Maryland, two Master of Arts degrees from the University of Phoenix, one in Organizational Management and a second one in Adult Education and Distance Learning. Chief Morgan is an active Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) presented by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Additionally he is a National Registry EMT-Paramedic and an NFPA Certified Fire Protection Specialist.



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