Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. emergency-response community has been increasingly frustrated by the difficulties involved in coordinating operational security when first responders from a number of disparate agencies respond to large-scale incidents. The ability to bring multiple jurisdictions and agencies to the incident scene has been stymied primarily by the lack of a common system for the credentialing of personnel. The need for credentialing is important both to ensure operational security at the incident scene and to facilitate coordination and cooperation in response and recovery operations – which is best achieved by ensuring that all responders on the scene possess valid identification and have had the training needed to carry out their various responsibilities.
The competence and proficiency of individual responders must be certified by a common credentialing process that encompasses, among other things: (a) an objective evaluation and documentation of each individual’s current certification, license, or degree; (b) certification that that same individual possesses the training, competence, and proficiency needed to carry out his/her assigned tasks; and (c) demonstrable proof that he/she has demonstrated the ability to meet nationally accepted regulatory rules and standards.
The achievement and certification of these requirements has been simplified by the Department of Homeland Security to some extent by the development and promulgation of a list of regulations and standards that are now accepted as the “Gold Standard” for the training of responders. The individuals receiving such DHS-approved credentials should be able to provide assigned services and/or functions based on mission assignment by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) at the scene of a specific incident.
To provide the appropriate level of OPSEC (operational security) required, each person carrying the credentials should, in addition, have had a background check completed certifying his/her ability to support the level of proficiency needed to carry out the duties and functions assigned by the AHJ.
Reasonable Standards and Essential Qualifications
The Holy Grail of the nationwide credentialing system – a fundamental component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) – is a system that documents the minimal professional qualifications, certifications, training, and educational requirements that meet the baseline criteria of the skills reasonably expected of emergency responders and volunteers eligible for short or no-notice deployment to major incidents and events. The principal goal of a national credentialing system is to objectively verify the identity and qualifications of emergency responders, but the system also can and should be used to help prevent unauthorized (i.e., self-dispatched or unqualified) personnel access to an incident site.
To support the credentialing initiative, the National Integration Center (NIC) has developed several working groups that will designate not only the positions that should be credentialed but also the qualifications, certification, training, and educational requirements for each position. The working groups are focused primarily but not exclusively on the following disciplines: incident management; emergency medical services; firefighting and hazardous materials response; law enforcement; public health/medical needs; public works; and search & rescue operations.
In addition to these discipline groups, the NIC is working with other organizations to help in the development of credentialing standards for the disciplines they represent – the Telecommunication Emergency Response Taskforce (TERT), for example, and the Citizen Corps. The subject-matter experts for the working groups have already been identified by the NIC, which also is working on the development of the documents needed to meet the credentialing and identification parameters established. (The graph accompanying this article illustrates the recommended credentialing process.)
Emergency responders have provided mutual aid to neighboring communities for many years whenever a local system was overwhelmed. Today’s national landscape offers several new challenges, though – as well as the probable need for communities to seek help of various types from emergency-response organizations across the nation. The scarcity of certain specialized emergency-response assets, moreover, will undoubtedly put additional demands on the nation’s emergency-response communities. When completed and fully operational, the national credentialing system will provide timely identification of personnel from the field to the national level. Moreover, the development and full implementation of a national credentialing database will give incident commanders, emergency managers, and EOC (emergency operation center) directors a way to quickly and accurately identify qualified emergency responders throughout their localities, in neighboring states, and across the nation as a whole.
Having a national credentialing program in place also would ensure minimum standards of training and operational competencies, and serve as a common scope of practice for all response agencies. National credentialing – implemented prior to a catastrophic incident – also will enable efficient and effective emergency operations and facilitate the sharing of duties and responsibilities of emergency responders across all boundaries without concern about the level of training of the responders – both paid and volunteers. The credentialing system also could be used to provide clear legal protections for emergency responders, employers of the responders, and victims of the disaster by clearly defining the scope of actions for which the various groups of responders have been trained.
Aligning the goals of all response agencies responsible and planning for disaster mitigation will produce an effective and efficient emergency-responder program that may be utilized by other disciplines to prepare their own disaster-response plans. Requiring that a credentialing program be an essential component of disaster-preparedness planning would serve as the foundation and initial building block of a true national preparedness strategy.
Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.