Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Five Ways the National Incident Management System Refresh Will Improve Domestic Preparedness Without Affecting Ongoing Operations

Prior to 2004, communities across the country each had their own approach to incident response and management. It was sort of like walking into a casino, where every game of blackjack follows separate rules. Every time a player went to a new table, they would have to learn the new rules. During a crisis, this can cause problems. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) was first released in 2004 in order to establish a common, nationwide approach to incident management and response. Its guiding principles are flexibility, standardization, and unity of effort (though this last one is new to the Third Edition).

Jake Jarosz, Managing Associate

FEMA’s last update to the National Incident Management System was in 2008. After nearly a decade, the October 2017 iteration of NIMS reflects some of the dramatic ways emergency response has improved across the country. Additionally, it makes advances in a few new areas, some of which are aspirational. And it does all this without requiring wholesale changes to current response and recovery operations. Here are our five insights on what the Refresh may mean nationally.

1.      NIMS Integrates the Information and Intelligence Management Function

The 2013 NIMS Intelligence/Investigations Function Guidance and Field Operations Guide established the Intelligence/Investigation (I/I) function as an important component in the incident management structure in order to allow streamlined information management, intelligence gathering, and specialized investigations. The I/I FOG outlines an I/I function that can be established to address epidemiological investigations, mass fatality management, intelligence gathering, etc. While ultimately left to the discretion of the Incident Commander, the I/I FOG specifies that the I/I function can be established as a potential reconfiguration to the traditional Incident Command System (ICS) model and can be located within the command staff, the general staff, or under planning or operations sections.

While the I/I FOG was published in 2013, the I/I function was absent from NIMS. The October 2017 NIMS core doctrine now accounts for this by integrating I/I management as a component of the NIMS Management Characteristics and by establishing it as a potential configuration within the ICS structure. In doing so, NIMS had to also allow greater flexibility to span of control, also discussed a bit more next.

2.      Essential Components of NIMS Remain the Same [but there are some tweaks]

NIMS core concepts remain the same. The ICS is still composed of command and general staff; ICS facilities are still called Incident Command Posts, Staging Areas, and Incident Bases and Camps; and multijurisdictional/multiagency command is still called Unified Command.

There are some minor, yet important, tweaks, however. Some notable adjustments include:

  • Eliminating the preparedness section, as it is now called out in other policy documents (e.g. National Preparedness System, National Preparedness Goal);
  • Adding a third guiding principle, Unity of Command, in addition to the long-standing principles of standardization and flexibility;
  • Clarifying/adjusting terminology by Renaming Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS) as Multi-Agency Coordination Groups (MAC Groups); defining Incident Management Teams (IMT), clarifying that Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT) are a specific kind of IMT; and making minor terminology changes in the Planning P;
  • Adding flexibility to the span of control concept, to allow for factors such as supervisory experience and nature of the work being supervised.

3.      NIMS addresses EOC Structures

FEMA last published policy guidance on Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) 1984 in Civil Preparedness Guide 120: Emergency Operating Centers Handbook. More than 30 years later, FEMA begins to broach the topic again.

The approach to EOCs outlined in NIMS takes a much more flexible approach than it does for ICS. NIMS provides three different examples of how EOCs might be staffed to accomplish EOC-based functions. These include: an ICS or ICS-Like structure, an Incident Support Model, and a departmental EOC structure. This approach essentially attempts to focus on the functions an EOC must perform, while allowing EOC managers to appoint specific positions according to their abilities and needs. While this is not a comprehensive solution to resource integration across EOCs, it does provide a step in the right direction and should help provide a common foundation for integrating EOC resources.

4.      Resource Management is Reimaged

Resource management has long been a gap for emergency managers. All major policy initiatives address it –  Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, Presidential Policy Directive 8, the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act – and FEMA has more than 300 resource types posted to the Resource Typing Library Tool, but there is little guidance on how to actually implement a comprehensive resource management process. The task of maintaining, inventorying, qualifying and credentialing every individual and every team available within a particular community presents a daunting task. NIMS begins to address this by reorganizing the content within the resource management component into into three distinct elements: resource management preparedness, activities during an incident, and mutual aid. In doing so, NIMS clarifies the relationship between resource management activities and capabilities based planning guidance outlined in Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 201 and the National Preparedness Goal.

5.      NIMS Lays the Ground Work for Enhanced Interorganizational Resource Integration

Qualifications systems are no new thing. In their simplest format, qualifications systems use specific, actionable tasks as to verify personnel capabilities in a performance-based role. To date, however, there has been no national system for ensuring minimum capabilities of personnel. Specific organizations have taken it upon themselves to vet personnel capabilities by implementing qualifications systems, but they vary drastically and have no means of ensuring consistency across organizational boundaries. NIMS aims to enhance inter-organizational integration and the sharing of resources by laying the ground work for establishing a National Qualifications System (NQS). More to come on NQS in the near future!

Jake Jarosz is a Managing Associate with Hagerty Consulting’s Federal Disaster Preparedness practice. He has nearly 10 years of experience as an emergency manager. He obtained his Masters in Public Administration in May 2017, with a focus in Emergency Management, and is a published author. For the last 24 months, Mr. Jarosz has led projects focused on NIMS and enhancing resource management practices across the country.  He also moonlights as a volunteer firefighter and engine officer with the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department, and as an Adjunct Instructor with Jacksonville State University.