Since the inception of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2003, many state and local agencies have grudgingly undertaken the NIMS training required for a “NIMS compliance” evaluation. For many agencies, those efforts were initiated primarily to ensure that their state or locality would be eligible to continue receiving federal funds under the Homeland Security Grant Program. For others, NIMS has provided an opportunity to look at new and different ways to help prepare for and/or respond to unique challenges – including several directly confronting nontraditional emergency response agencies.
In Virginia, the Department of Social Services (VDSS) found itself confronted in 2007 with a challenge that provided an opportunity both to apply the NIMS principles and to incorporate federal ICS (Incident Command System) policies into agency preparedness plans for major emergency situations. Under the leadership of then-Governor Timothy Kaine, VDSS was designated as the state agency lead for the State Managed Shelter Initiative. In that role, VDSS was tasked to coordinate the establishment and manage the operation of State Managed Shelters (SMSs) during a State of Emergency necessitating massive evacuations to protect the public.
What this means, essentially, is that, if the governor directs a “mass evacuation,” the state would then open, staff, and manage a number of large-capacity facilities throughout the Commonwealth to augment local capacity for the care and shelter of the evacuees affected by the order.
A Continuing Focus on Tidewater & the D.C. Area
The purpose for the creation of SMS is reasonably simple: (a) to ensure a safe and orderly evacuation, and provide continuing protection, for large numbers of citizens suddenly displaced by an evacuation order; and (b) to address a deficit in local shelter capacity both inside and outside the area directly affected. SMS is focused in particular on evacuation orders in two regions: the Hampton Roads (or Tidewater) region, which is vulnerable to hurricanes; and the National Capital or Northern Virginia regions, which are at risk of major terrorist threats. Combined, those two regions are home, or host, to millions of residents as well as seasonal visitors.
The net effect of these actions has been to drive the VDSS to thoroughly assess its own emergency management needs. The need to implement a system that will enable the agency to rapidly and effectively react or respond to evacuation and shelter situations became clear. After careful analysis of the command and management needs (a primary NIMS component), agency emergency managers determined that use of a NIMS strategic approach would best serve the needs of the citizens by providing the necessary framework for establishing and managing SMSs.
After completing the ICS core classes (through the Department of Fire Programs) and evaluating several options, the VDSS emergency management cadre – Emergency Manager Patricia Snead, Senior Planner Frank Williamson, State Shelter Planner Michelle Pope, Planning Specialist Barbara Rustin, and COOP Planner Renee Wentworth – set out to address the challenges of organizing to lead the SMS program for a wide array of potential emergency scenarios.
“During a declared State of Emergency,” according to VDSS Emergency Manager Patricia Snead [a co-author of this article], “the governor may order the opening of State Managed Shelters primarily to supplement local, in-region or out-of-region, sheltering capacity in support of mass evacuations. “ An SMS event may occur with or without notice and could start as a complex event or a simple event and expand. Therefore, three incident management strategies are being pursued.”
In the event a single SMS site must be opened to supplement local sheltering capacity within a specific region, a unified command structure will be used to provide on-scene incident command capability at the host institution – which might typically, but not always, be a pre-identified state-supported institution of higher education. Partner agency roles and responsibilities are spelled out in a site-specific plan. In this instance, each agency would receive resource coordination/support through their normal channels and/or respective ESF (Emergency Support Function) responsibilities at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center. In the case of VDSS, the ESF 6 Emergency Assistance Team would coordinate resource requirements for those functions identified within the plan.
Figure 1 shows the command and management framework developed for a regional or “Single SMS” operation.
According to Snead, “Should the event expand and the opening of several sites become necessary, the agency may activate its crisis management team and form an Area Command (AC) to provide overall coordination of and supervision over the multiple locations. Partner agencies may elect to operate through their respective channels/ESFs and provide an agency representative to the AC or send an agency Incident Commander to the AC, at which time it would function as a Unified Area Command (UC). If agencies participate as a member of the UC, resource coordination would be carried out in accordance with their agency’s delegation of authority to their Area Commander.”
Figure 2 indicates how a single SMS organization would be expanded to reflect a broader management framework – if needed. It should be noted that the individual shelter (or site) management would remain essentially the same. The AC structure provides the integrated and coordinated management framework needed for operation of two or more shelter sites.
Hope Helps – But Planning Is Mandatory
As in so many other aspects of life, emergency planners should always “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” Recognizing that many situations will be fluid and that difficult conditions may continue to both expand and deteriorate, VDSS and its partner agencies have continued to develop strategies for the management of “worsening situations.”
Again, according to Snead: “Should an event continue to expand and become more complex, partner agencies are developing a strategy to move the Unified Command function to pre-identified Incident Command Posts (ICPs) in the state with each SMS site becoming a branch within an Incident Complex organizational structure. In this situation, a senior representative of the host institution would be designated as the Branch Director, with each agency sending teams to carry out their responsibilities as spelled out in the site-specific plans. … [Those] plans will be modified [if needed] to reflect this expansion strategy and corresponding structure once the details have been addressed.” Training for facility staff and management personnel will be provided when those details have been formalized.
Figure 3 shows the broader framework incidents in which the shelter-management needs continue to expand.
Once again, in Snead’s words, “Presently, five Regional Unified Commands are being developed and incident management cadres assigned and trained.” The capability for future expansion is already in place. However, as is often the case, funding and time constraints will determine the pace of organizational development. Should the necessary funding and manpower authorization become available in order to mirror the Commonwealth’s seven Emergency Management Regions or seven Homeland Security Preparedness Regions, the next step for implementing a comprehensive strategy and system for mass care and sheltering operations will be underway.
Figure 4 shows the projected organization for the multi-region management of the human services – shelter, mass care, and feeding assistance – managed under the VDSS concept of operations.
The NIMS guidelines have undoubtedly presented implementation challenges for many organizations. Adapting to and adopting at least some of the NIMS principles has frustrated some organizations and government entities. However, as shown in the developmental efforts of the Virginia Department of Social Services, NIMS can provide a viable template of the support efforts needed to improve preparedness and response capabilities under all potential conditions. Recognizing that the ICS and NIMS policies and guidelines provide a standardized but flexible template for preparedness as well as response, Virginia’s development of an organizational framework for the SMS system can serve as a helpful example of how NIMS can be not only a requirement but also a valuable asset.
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.
Patricia Snead is the Emergency Manager and Emergency Coordination Officer for the Virginia Department of Social Services in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Radford College and completing additional study at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond, Patricia worked in various fields – including quality control, training, staff development, and policy and planning – in local and state government before becoming the VDSS Emergency Manager in 2003. She also has managed the Individual Assistance grant program for 14 presidentially declared Commonwealth disasters.