NIMS: The National Incident Management System It's Not Just ICS

The National Incident Management System (www.nemaweb.org), released by the Department of Homeland Security, has major implications for the fire service and inter-agency operations. Adoption of the NIMS will be a condition for accepting federal assistance funds. The main questions being asked...


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The National Incident Management System (www.nemaweb.org), released by the Department of Homeland Security, has major implications for the fire service and inter-agency operations. Adoption of the NIMS will be a condition for accepting federal assistance funds.

The main questions being asked by the fire service are:

  • What’s in the NIMS that is not covered by the incident command system (ICS)?
  • Has the ICS changed?
  • Will the NIMS dictate fire service operations and tactics?

The NIMS is defined as “a core set of doctrine, concepts, principles, terminology and organizational processes to enable effective, efficient and collaborative incident management at all levels.” The NIMS is a system for collaboration and coordination among America’s response agencies at all levels. This means that the NIMS is a system for managing emergency incidents horizontally between local agencies and vertically between local, regional, state and federal agencies.

NIMS History

The NIMS evolved from the birth of ICS. In the 1970s, devastating wildfires in California revealed several major faults in the command structure, including:

  • No common communications
  • No common terminology
  • No effective means for allocating scarce resources
  • No system for incident planning and management
  • No means of coordinating diverse agencies.

A group of contract engineers from the aviation industry developed an incident command system as part of the California FIRESCOPE program. By the 1980s, ICS became the bible for wildland fire operations. Urban fire departments and emergency managers began to “catch on” and the ICS was the buzzword in the cities. Unfortunately, the ICS was not embraced by non-fire agencies.

The NIMS genesis followed one of America’s darkest days, Sept. 11, 2001. Clearly, we faced new threats. We needed a system for effectively deploying and coordinating all available resources for local incidents. In 2003, the President signed a Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-5) (www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030228-9.html) that mandated:

  • The development of a National Incident Management System (NIMS)
  • The adoption of the NIMS by federal agencies for response and support of all domestic incidents
  • Inclusion of an incident command system within the NIMS
  • The adoption of the NIMS as a requirement for federal funding

The ICS component of NIMS was adopted essentially intact from the original ICS template and the California Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). The incident command system is a functionality-based system for managing any type of event (emergency or otherwise). The five functions of ICS are:

  • Command
  • Operations
  • Logistics
  • Planning
  • Administration/finance

The emphasis is on “functions” instead of a hierarchy. A hierarchy is a top-down management/decision-making system based on levels of authority. For example, a fire chief makes a decision and conveys the decision downward. In the ICS, information flows between functions. The key is the collaboration between functions instead of a rank-based hierarchy.

Many fire service leaders are concerned that the ICS revisions will dictate operations and tactics. The NIMS concentrates on preparedness, strategy and interagency coordination (interoperability), not operations or tactics. The NIMS does not dictate how you make a trench cut, utilize a rapid intervention team or dike a hazmat spill. EMS, police and public works departments have similar operational and tactical leeway.

The fire service ICS model has survived. This model allows “scalability” and “flexibility.” The system is scaled up or down to fit any sized incident. Its flexibility ensures that fire departments can develop sound operational and tactical policies to suit their needs.

Multi-Agency Coordination

The heart-and-soul of NIMS is multi-agency coordination. Multi-agency coordination is defined as, “a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications integrated with a common system with responsibility for coordinating and supporting domestic incident management activities.”

Interoperability and common operational picture are the desired end-states of multi-agency coordination. A community that successfully utilizes NIMS has characteristics that include:

2. Utilization on all operations – The NIMS is used on all incidents to include emergency response, terrorism, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, scheduled events and festivals, technological incidents, and mass casualty incidents. The NIMS is also a universal planning template.

3. Establishment of an integrated command post with an incident commander or a unified command team with common communications and a common operational picture for all incidents; major events are managed by a certified inter-agency management team.

4. Regional and statewide utilization of the NIMS and its ICS components.

Public Information Management

The NIMS recognizes the importance of disseminating information to the public about emergency preparedness and recovery. The NIMS joint information system (JIS) is a means for the effective delivery of timely, consistent, and accurate information to the public. The JIS is executed from a joint information center (JIC).

In the JIC, public information officers from all participating agencies and jurisdictions (including the private sector) coordinate the public message. According to the NIMS, “In complex incidents, JICs may be established at all levels of government.” The JIC organization includes a JIC manager with a staff including a press secretary and liaison unit. There is a media operations sector, research team and logistics team.

The NIMS stresses preparedness. Agencies at all levels are responsible for effective preparedness activities before an incident. Each jurisdiction has preparedness responsibilities, and must coordinate with agencies at all levels, including the private sector. Planning groups and committees are suggested as preparedness vehicles.

Preparation plans and protocols include interoperability effects (remember “interoperability” from the ICS discussion). Emergency management is a lead planning agency and fire service partner at the local and state levels that ensures collaboration and continuity of preparedness.

The NIMS specifically mentions emergency operations centers (EOCs), multi-agency coordination systems, and mutual aid agreements as effective tools for preparedness efforts. Specific preparedness programs outlined in the NIMS document are:

  • Emergency operations plans (EOPs)
  • Procedures for notification, resource management, mutual aid operations and private sector connectivity
  • Field operations guides (FOGs)
  • Recovery plans
  • Training and exercises (emphasis on realistic exercises)
  • National standards developed by the NIMS Management & Maintenance Center
  • Personnel qualifications and certification (includes medical and physical fitness)
  • Equipment certification
  • Publication management

Resource management is performed by the resource unit at the incident level and supported by the EOC and multi-agency coordination centers at major incidents. It involves the identifying, acquiring, allocating, and tracking of resources. Many of these procedures are second nature to the wildland fire community. The NIMS has adopted the wildland management concepts of ordering procedures, identifying and typing of resources, and personnel certification/credentialing.

Effective communications, data management and intelligence sharing are vital elements in the NIMS. On large incidents, there is seldom a common operational picture. Each agency has a “piece of the puzzle,” but commanders cannot get the complete picture in real time. The NIMS addresses these issues by establishing:

  • Integrated systems
  • Communications and data standards
  • Common communications plan based on ICS
  • Common terminology (no codes)
  • Use of geospatial information
  • Wireless data standards

The NIMS acknowledges that the facilitation of interoperability and common operational picture requires key technical standards. These systems must function across agency and jurisdictional lines. (Presently, agencies have legacy systems for communications and data transfer that are not compatible.)

The NIMS specifies the use of research, testing and evaluation activities to determine national needs and requirements. The DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology will integrate research and development of incident management needs into the national agenda. The NIMS plans to utilize other standards development organizations to collaborate in the effort, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The Scope of NIMS

The NIMS (detailed in a document that is over 110 pages long) paints a broad picture. This article is an overview at best. The strength of NIMS is that it mandates the ICS as the nation’s incident management template. The fire service has an advantage because we are familiar with the ICS. Our disadvantage is that we don’t use the ICS well on large inter-agency operations; we have to learn fast. Interoperability and common operational picture are new concepts that we must master.

Fortunately, the NIMS provides tools and solutions beyond the ICS. The NIMS has a Management and Maintenance Center and a Science and Technology Directorate to develop standards and protocols, conduct research, and set equipment requirements. The NIMS also requires preparedness, training, exercises, and establishes procedures for communications compatibility, ongoing maintenance of the system and resource management.

Some fire service managers think the NIMS is controversial. Not everyone is happy with national standards and protocols that supersede local preferences. Implementing these requirements will take time, work and money; it needs to be done. Candidly, not all fire officers are going to like a system where personal standards and certification have to be maintained – the days of passing an officer’s exam and not reading or studying again are almost gone.

Hank Christen will present “The NIMS – A Template for the Fire Service” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.


Hank Christen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, director of Emergency Response Operations for Unconventional Concepts Inc. He is a fire service consultant and a retired battalion chief in the Atlanta Fire Department.

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