Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5), which required the development of a National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework to coordinate the responses of local, state, and federal agencies to domestic terrorist attacks, was signed in December 2003. The NIMS framework is based on the Incident Command System (ICS) developed by firefighters to coordinate multi-agency responses to large fire and/or EMS (emergency medical service) events. The fire/EMS community has a long history of successful multi-agency coordination, usually achieved through mutual-aid agreements, both written and oral, across numerous political jurisdictions and levels of government. However, despite this proven track record throughout the fire/EMS communities at and between all levels of government – local, state, and federal – the actual application of NIMS/ICS principles across professional disciplines often proves challenging. The initial multi-agency response to Hurricane Katrina, for example, demonstrated several weaknesses in applying NIMS policy guidelines to a large-scale catastrophe. Immediately after Katrina made landfall, command-and-control operations were severely impaired because of the almost complete failure of basic communications systems. In addition, as many post-Katrina assessments noted, there was not only a lack of training and awareness of basic NIMS principles themselves but also a lack of the technology designed specifically to facilitate a coordinated NIMS response. Responding to those findings, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established several initiatives to assist public-safety agencies with their It is important to remember that most federal and state grants now require that new technical solutions purchased using grant funds are already on the Approved Equipment List implementation of the NIMS guidelines in a consistent and standardized way. One of those initiatives was the recently implemented NIMS Supporting Technology Evaluation Program (STEP), which is designed to assess commercial and governmental technological systems (hardware and software) to determine their applicability to the NIMS implementation efforts. 

Approval, Assessment, and Validation 

Although not a formal endorsement or certification by FEMA – or by its parent agency, DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) – of any specific solution, a STEP assessment attempts to provide public-safety and emergency-management procurement officials with information on how each such system, or “solution,” may or may not be used to support the NIMS principles. Among the solutions evaluated under STEP are many that already are on the DHS Approved Equipment List (AEL) and/or included on the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) list and/or in the Responder Knowledge Base (RKB). In that context, it is important to remember that most federal and state grants now require that new technical solutions purchased using grant funds are listed on the AEL. Moreover, although participation in the STEP assessment process is voluntary, organizations marketing NIMS-supporting technical solutions have a strong incentive to undertake a STEP assessment in order for those solutions to be purchased by jurisdictions using grant funding – now a tacit requirement in an economic climate in which most jurisdictions at all levels of government are facing severe budget cuts. STEP builds on earlier initiatives to tie grant funding to compliance with related federal policies and procedures. For example, FEMA’s previously established Disaster Assistance Policy set the criteria for public-safety agencies to be reimbursed for mutual-aid costs through the Public and Fire Management Assistance grant programs. That and other precedents reinforce the use of NIMS principles by encouraging the development of written mutual-aid agreements. STEP also supports the adoption of NIMS principles – and takes it one step further byentifying products that comply with NIMS “out of the box,” thereby significantly facilitating the grant-acquisition process. Another key fallout benefit from determining a solution’s technological applicability and conformity with NIMS principles is the ability for computer software programs to change organizational business processes in specific ways. Enterprise software solutions have long required organizations to adapt their business operations to conform to the unique procedural requirements of a given software solution – most notably in the procurement and human-resources arenas. However, vendors have argued, in many cases successfully, that the business processes embedded in their software are “better” than the existing processes in their customers’ organizations. Therefore, instead of simply automating the unsatisfactory processes already being used, most enterprise software solutions require that organizations change their operations to conform to the new and better software offered by the vendor. In much the same way, it is hoped (and expected), STEP may be able to achieve similar results byentifying technology that not only helps in the implementation of NIMS but also standardizes certain operational procedures as well. Although not a specific objective of the current STEP effort, this fallout benefit could represent the further evolution of the STEP process in the future. In the meantime, FEMA’s efforts to clarify, assess, and tie grant funding to NIMS-supporting solutions is clearly another step in the right direction.

For additional information on: The SAVER program, click on https://saver.fema.gov

The Responder Knowledge Base, click on https://www.rkb.us/

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.

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