NIMS: Not a Once and Done Proposition

The U.S. emergency-responder community recently observed the fifth anniversary of the institution of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  By all estimates, the celebration was relatively subdued.  However, during the past five years the NIMS policy guidelines have led to the development and implementation of a number of important programs and initiatives intended to improve the nation’s capability to prevent, prepare for, mitigate, respond, manage, and recover from critical emergencies.

Following the birth of NIMS, for example, a National Response Plan (NRP) was created – basically, from the core components of the previous Federal Response Plan, but with the intent that the NRP would be better integrated with NIMS. The NRP later (in 2008) evolved into the National Response Framework (NRF).  In addition, and as required by NIMS, a new Incident Command System (ICS) became the new national standard for managing emergencies.  A corollary benefit of sorts was that words such as interoperability and sustainability have become staples of the always evolving bureaucratic vocabulary.  In five short years, therefore, NIMS has had a major impact on the world of emergency and incident management.

Not coincidentally, while NIMS was gathering strength, the emergency-response community was being significantly expanded, thanks to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, beyond the traditional realm of EMS (emergency medical services), firefighting, and law-enforcement. In 2004, the then greatly enlarged emergency-responder community was immediately driven into a whirlwind of training to meet the new NIMS guidelines for a comprehensive system intended to standardize such major operational areas as: Command and Management; Preparedness; Communications; and Resource Management. Other major new policies and programs were developed incorporating NIMS policy concepts to address some of the concerns revealed by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and further enunciated by the 9/11 Commission.  Finally, federal guidelines calling for ICS-type training for all emergency responders has resulted in literally millions of people receiving training in programs such as ICS-100 (Introduction to ICS); ICS-200 (Basic ICS); and IS-700 (NIMS: An Introduction).

Plausible Questions, Negative Answers

Following that initial mandate to train, additional training – in ICS-300 (Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents) became the new focus (in 2007), but earlier this year was further expanded to include ICS-400 (Advanced ICS for Complex Incidents and MACS – Multi-Agency Coordination Systems).  Through all of these changes and improvements, however, very little attention seems to have been paid to ways by which all of the agencies and individuals receiving the training can maintain and/or upgrade the various levels of operating proficiency they have achieved.   

In far too many cases, individuals who received their initial training (perhaps ICS-100, ICS-200, and IS-700) have had no further training or review – which brings up at least two important questions: (1) “How much of their [previous] training can actually be applied effectively?” (2) “If a major incident (or event) were to occur tomorrow, will there be an adequate number of appropriately trained personnel available to implement a functional incident command system – even for a short time (i.e., until more experienced and qualified resources can be deployed to assist)?”

Unfortunately, there is a wealth of evidence to indicate that these questions (and several others that might be asked) would be answered in the negative. One reason is that, notwithstanding the completion of a broad spectrum of training in recent years by a very large number of personnel, most of today’s responders have not had the opportunity to apply any of the principles or actions for which they have been trained. And every day that passes means that their knowledge and any skills they have developed have atrophied.

Which recalls one of the NIMS “buzz words”: sustainability.  By common definition that term refers to an ability to ensure continuous performance at a pre-determined level.  The same is largely true of interoperability – a term that is most typically used in the context of communications capabilities. Significant steps have, in fact, been taken since 2004 to improve the interoperability of communications systems and equipment. However, “interoperability” also refers to the basic capability for different resources to function effectively together, and in that sense can simply indicate that two or more people (or organizations) are able to coordinate and integrate their actions to achieve a common goal or mutually agreeable result.  

But that does not necessarily require sophisticated communications equipment or other high-tech systems. It does, though, require a common understanding of organizational and individual strengths – and limitations – as well as the ability to exchange information using a common terminology. These are, of course, among the most basic tenets spelled out in the NIMS and ICS guidelines. Individuals who completed IS-700, ICS-100, and perhaps ICS-200 several years ago but have had no additional training since then are probably going to be challenged, therefore, to establish basic interoperability. In short, a much greater effort is needed to ensure sustainability of the capabilities developed as a result of the initial training.  NIMS was not and is not intended to be a “Once and Done” announcement.

The Second Half of the First Decade

As the emergency-responder community now enters the second half of what might justifiably be called the NIMS decade, two primary changes are needed. The first change should be to revise current training programs to reflect the reality that personnel turnovers have occurred and will continue to occur for the foreseeable future.  Whether through promotion, retirement, or other forms of attrition, many personnel who were trained several years ago already have moved on, and their replacements must be trained to the desired/needed level.  Annual local training plans and budgets therefore must include provisions for training new and replacement personnel to ensure that adequate numbers of personnel are available, on a continuing basis, who have the training needed – and at the proficiency levels required.  It probably will not be necessary for every agency to plan or schedule offerings of each training course annually.  In fact, many agencies and organizations would not be justified in scheduling annual offerings of all training courses. In such cases, it may be a more effective use of funds (and time) to set aside a reasonable share of the training budget for newly hired and/or replacement personnel training elsewhere and/or in a multi-disciplinary setting.

The Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP) – to cite a leading example of how one state has dealt with this situation – annually budgets a portion of its HSGP (Homeland Security Grant Programs) funds for offering several of the core classes in the NIMS training plan.  That training is centrally located, within various regions of the state, so that students’ costs for travel and subsistence are minimized.  The operational premise here is that most local areas can better plan and budget their limited funds for broader needs if the state covers the costs for at least some of the NIMS training.  

Many state training agencies have adopted this strategy. However, it must be admitted that some local jurisdictions continue to resist state and national efforts to implement regional and/or multi-agency training. Here it is important to note that a stated intent of the NIMS policy is to foster a truly national system for incident management. But such a system can be developed only through a broad-based, multi-disciplinary, multilateral effort.

The second major change mentioned above should be to develop and implement a long-term plan for maintenance of the minimum levels of proficiency achieved by personnel who have completed NIMS training.  Training for compliance – sometimes called “check the box” training – does not automatically ensure competence. More important is the self-evident truth that operational competence can seldom if ever be maintained without periodic review, practice, and/or application.  Any person who completed a (of any type) several years ago cannot reasonably be expected to retain the same level of comfort and proficiency he or she hopefully had possessed immediately after finishing the if there is no opportunity to practice and review what they have learned. But review and refresher training can help, significantly, if conducted on a regular basis.  It should not be necessary for all students to fully repeat all of the training they had previously gone through, but a concise review of critical learning points certainly could and should be provided on a recurring basis.

Review training can be provided through various in-service or continuing-education procedures.  It usually would not be necessary to create new training programs.  The simple extraction of a lesson unit from ICS-100 and/or ICS-200 could provide enough refresher information to maintain a reasonably sharp operational edge for previously trained personnel because those classes are relatively general in nature. A more difficult challenge would be maintaining personnel abilities at even an intermediate level in the more complicated aspects of ICS in situations involving expanding incidents, because the learning processes for those situations are both longer and more complex.

A Scenario, a Process, and an Opportunity

Again, though, it is not absolutely necessary to create new training programs or to require personnel to repeat previous courses. The previously mentioned VDFP has developed a training strategy/program (not yet widely deployed) to provide maintenance training in the key skills presented in the ICS-300 course.  Those skills focus primarily on such important topics as “resource management” and “the planning process.”  To re-learn and practice the core elements from Units 5 and 6 in the ICS-300 , students are formed into a mock incident management team (IMT) – but a local IMT (Type 4 or 3) or several teams can be designated and “deployed” for the program. The students are then presented with a scenario that includes a real-time simulation in which they must develop an incident action plan (IAP) while also addressing the numerous factors that might affect the activities of the IMT.  One of those factors involves making provisions for subsistence of the team. During the activities that follow, the team is provided periodic situational updates that require adjustments to the planning process.  Using methods spelled out in what is called the NIMS “Planning P,” the students are given a pre-determined period of time to produce an effective IAP – which must be presented to another team, and/or to the cadre of instructors, in a simulated “Operational Period Briefing.”

In situations similar to those used in both intrastate and interstate deployments, the student participants are provided pre-deployment information about the materials, personal supplies, toiletries, and other items that they might need and are expected to come prepared for self-subsistence for the duration of the activities assigned.  Upon arrival at the designated location, they face two primary challenges – again, much like those they would face on arrival at a real-time incident: (a) identify priorities and operational objectives appropriate for the scenario; and (b) determine how they will take care of their personal as well as operational needs for the period of time postulated in the scenario.  Both sets of tasks must be undertaken concurrently.  In addition to the initial steps set forth in the Planning P, the students also must plan for their daily meals, accommodations, and other mundane matters that would be the responsibilities of the logistics section of an IMT.

These and similar programs provide an opportunity, in what is much more than a room context, to apply the skills they would need in a real-life situation.  Here it should be noted that such programs do not use instructors per se. Instead, the program administrators consist mostly of exercise simulators and monitors – the latter group, who proctor the students to maintain the pace and direction of the activities involved, are usually peers whose principal role is more to support the players rather than to evaluate or train them.  At the conclusion of each program or operational period, the proctors provide a forum in which to discuss not only strengths and weaknesses but also opportunities for improvement. A particularly noteworthy aspect of such programs is that they can be conducted for as many days or operational periods as funds will support and for which personnel are available.  

Whenever possible, such programs are best conducted at facilities that are somewhat off the beaten path – i.e., far enough removed from daily conveniences such as stores and recreational areas that the participants are not tempted to stray from their primary mission: training.  Most states have a number of areas such as 4-H camps, forestry training centers, or other relatively spartan facilities that can be adapted for use in NIMS refresher training programs.  It is not necessary to require field-camping per se, but a facility with minimal amenities could closely approximate the type of conditions that might be expected in an actual field deployment to a major emergency or disaster area.  Creativity and ingenuity, on the part of the program managers as well as the participants, cannot be easily mandated, but usually would be the key virtues needed in programs designed to maintain the minimum training competencies set by the NIMS policy guidelines.

To briefly summarize: Now that NIMS has begun to approach what might be called a state of equilibrium and the initial rush to train as many people as possible to as high a level of proficiency as possible has leveled off, the time has come to maintain, reinforce, and upgrade the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of all personnel who were trained previously.  A failure to foster interoperability and sustainability caused by a failure to continue both training and practice would lead, inescapably, to the failure of the overall NIMS philosophy.  The consequences of such a related series of failures are unacceptable.

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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