On 18 December 2008, long-awaited revisions to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) – officially described as an “upgrade” by the former acting director of the NIMS Integration Center, Albert Fluman – were published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and are now being implemented.
The effort to improve the original template for the NIMS actually began early in 2006. A stakeholder working group that included more than 100 of the most actively involved and experienced representatives of various federal agencies – as well as state and local governments, tribal nations, the U.S. military, and various non-government organizations (NGOs) – worked together in a series of meetings designed to carry out one basic task: dissect, evaluate, and reassemble the NIMS in such a way that it would: (a) be more understandable; (b) be more applicable across a broad spectrum of incidents and events; and (c) provide a stronger degree of cohesion among the many stakeholders.
The net outcome, participants said, is a document that more clearly captures the intent as well as the mechanisms for implementing a true National Incident Management System. What follows is a capsule summary of the more significant changes and upgrades included in the December 2008 revision of the NIMS.
A Reorientation, a Realignment, and a Restructuring
The initial NIMS document consisted of six primary components: Command & Management; Preparedness; Resource Management; Communications and Information Management; Supporting Technologies; and On-Going Management and Maintenance. Although these major components remain an integral part of the basic NIMS concept, a careful and lengthy analysis of their relationships with one another led to the determination that a reorientation was necessary to more effectively align each and all of them with the original NIMS policy guidelines.
This was done by first restructuring the organizational framework of the system – the document – to more accurately reflect the working and conceptual relationships between and among the six primary components named above. The Command and Management component was the first and predominant element of the initial NIMS, but the general feeling of the stakeholder representatives was that Command and Management – particularly as manifested in the Incident Command System (ICS) – was primarily an outcome of thorough and effective Preparedness. Preparedness itself, of course, includes training, exercises, and planning – all of which are necessary to develop and maintain proficiency in command and management skills.
The next step was formally recognizing that Command and Management cannot be effectively executed without resources – and, therefore, effective Resource Management. Resource Management, however, is not simply a matter of possessing sufficient resources and assigning them in a command context. It also encompasses, among other things: establishing performance standards and qualifications; inventorying prior to need; maintaining the resources available in an operational (ready) condition; and having a systematic means to acquire, deploy, track, and eventually demobilize those resources.
After further deliberation the stakeholder participants also determined that Command and Management are reliant on effective Communications and Information Management. In order to be successful in Command and Management, obviously, an Incident Commander (IC) must be fully aware of the situation, able to manage the information flowing to and from the command element, and to communicate both concisely and effectively.
After several months of intense analysis and discussion, the working group recommended that the NIMS concept itself be re-formatted to focus primarily on Preparedness, Communications and Information Management, and Resource Management – which would be followed on the conceptual priority list by Command and Management and, finally, On-Going Management and Maintenance. The revised NIMS document consists of those elements, in that order, and therefore more accurately reflects the “life-cycle” or systematic process underpinning the National Incident Management System.
Here it should be noted that the Supporting Technology component of the original NIMS is not included in the order of “chapters” in the revised NIMS. During the analysis it was debated how Supporting Technology could best be used in executing the NIMS principles and concepts. It was agreed that, although technology is a valuable component of all aspects of the NIMS document, the most valuable application of Supporting Technology was, is, and should be in the overall Maintenance and Management of NIMS. For that reason, Supporting Technology was incorporated as a primary mechanism for ensuring On-Going Management and Maintenance. Thus, all of the primary NIMS components were realigned to more accurately reflect the structure and concepts of the process that NIMS is intended to provide as the basis for improved interoperability and compatibility among all response organizations.
Greater Depth and Additional Clarifications
Another important revision was the development of added “depth” for each of the components listed above. In the Preparedness component, for example, greater discussion is directed to the relationship between NIMS and the National Response Framework (NRF). (Note: the efforts to revise and upgrade the NIMS document were conducted concurrently with similar efforts to revise and improve the National Response Plan (NRP). Those efforts resulted in a parallel reconfiguration of the NRP and the evolution of the National Response Framework.) The Preparedness component also includes suggested actions that can be taken by preparedness organizations to more effectively apply the NIMS concepts and principles.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the improvements in the revised NIMS is a discussion of the roles and activities of elected and appointed officials. The numerous ways in which these officials are involved in the implementation of NIMS also are included in the Preparedness component, and are a valuable addition to the original NIMS policy statement. Here it is worth pointing out that, although it may have been assumed in the original development of NIMS that elected and appointed officials would recognize and understand their important roles, the absence of any guidelines or delineation of those roles led to considerable confusion. It is expected that the additional information now provided will alleviate much of the previous uncertainty.
The revised NIMS document also includes an expanded section focused on the relationship between NIMS and other preparedness efforts – including, for example, identifying and describing how NIMS is integrated with other Homeland Security Presidential Directives such as HSPD-7, “Critical Infrastructure Identification Prioritization and Protection.” The NIMS relationship with HSPD-8, “National Preparedness,” also is clarified by identifying the direct relationship between national preparedness and the preparedness component of the revised NIMS policy statement. And, although the National Response Plan was referenced in the initial NIMS draft, the revised document more clearly establishes the closer NIMS relationship with the new National Response Framework.
An important technical clarification was made in the Command and Management component that has led to additional refinements (currently under way). Within the ICS element of Command and Management a new function was identified. That function was initially referred to as “Intelligence and Information.” As those already familiar with NIMS may recall, it was reasoned that in many potential scenarios the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence (or “information”) related to the cause and effect of a particular situation or incident might be a critical element in effectively managing that incident. However, the use of the term “information” created confusion among less-experienced ICS practitioners. The greatest confusion was about which “information” was being referenced – i.e., information such as “public information,” or information that is important to incident commanders but – for security reasons, primarily – should not be divulged to the general public.
To avoid future misunderstandings of this type, the terminology was changed. The function of “Intelligence and Information” in the ICS became “Intelligence and Investigations.” This change in nomenclature has helped to more clearly distinguish between “Public Information” and “Incident Information” or “Intelligence.” Because of the technical distinctions involved, this change also led the reviewers to recommend that a separate working group be established to develop guidance and protocols for the newly coined Intelligence and Investigations function. That working group has recently released its first public draft of the guidance for review.
Perhaps one of the most useful modifications to the revised NIMS is the greatly expanded incorporation of diagrams and graphics to support the text. The initial NIMS can accurately be characterized as “dry” reading. In addition to the use of “jump boxes” to highlight key points, numerous diagrams in the new document provide readers with a visual description of the points presented. Throughout the revised document, the user gets the feeling that NIMS is not merely a “concept paper” but is, rather, a document that the user can readily reference.
Finally, and largely as a result of the input provided by the stakeholder representatives, the revisions incorporated in the new document reflect an effort to truly simplify the core components of NIMS. Rather than detailing intricacies of the components within each “chapter,” those details were transferred to a greatly expanded set of appendices to the core document. For the user who needs only a fundamental appreciation of NIMS, the “devil in the details” is re-located to an appropriate appendix. However, references for additional details are included in the core text to enable those who need, or seek, more information to easily locate those details.
In summary, the revised NIMS reflects a wealth of important information that more clearly defines the doctrine, scope, intent, and mechanisms of a truly useful National Incident Management System. Most users will find the content, format, and design to be an appreciable improvement over the original NIMS document.
To review the entire text of the NIMS revisions, including the associated appendices, click on http://www.fema.gov/emergency/nims.
The draft I2 guidance document can be accessed at the following website: http://www.regulations.gov under Docket FEMA-2008-0016. Public comments will be accepted through 21 January 2009.
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.