Where Incident Management Unravels

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is the mandated national framework for emergency incident management. It is a natural derivative of the Incident Command System developed in California after a particularly disastrous wildfire season in 1970. However, there are some notable reasons that it should not be considered the solution for all incidents.

NIMS is a mechanism for establishing control over events and for manipulating those events via a set of agreed upon objectives. Less obvious but equally important, NIMS represents a codified world vision – a thought process ostensibly applicable across the entire emergency response domain. Although space limitations preclude an exhaustive critique of NIMS, it may be instructive to consider where NIMS begins to unravel. This article addresses the validity of a universal application of NIMS across the full spectrum of emergency incidents.

Nonlinear Incidents

Not all emergencies are the same. They can vary in complexity and urgency by orders of magnitude. Emergency incidents can be described as the relationship between complexity, uncertainty, and resources. These three key factors are dynamic and the relationship between them varies. Time moderates each of the factors and the relationship between them. Time speaks to how long it takes for the causal relationships between the various factors to manifest. The relationships are complex but, given enough time, the relationships can be determined and moderated.

When it is possible to determine the boundaries of the event and to establish reliable causality between actions and outcomes – for example, the incident is not complex – and uncertainty is low, access to resources is the primary determinant of the ability to establish order. If complexity and uncertainty remain constant but resource availability is variable, outcomes will be negatively affected. Even perfect objectives and perfect execution are powerless in the face of inadequate resourcing. Given high complexity and low uncertainty, and an essentially unlimited supply of resources, the likelihood of success increases.

If the relationships inherent in emergency response interacted in the linear way described above – with the ability to isolate variables – then NIMS, with its emphasis on objective, forecast-based planning and hierarchical structures would be effective across the entire domain. However, the reality of emergency response is that these relationships have complex interactions and the variability of the key factors interacts in unpredictable ways. 

The variability of these relationships demands that attempts at control by incident commanders be responsive, sensitive, and adaptable. Furthermore, the response organization has to be able to engage despite uncertainty, which requires:

  • Rapid and continuous cycles of sensemaking and adjustment;

  • The assumption that the current situational assessment is flawed along with the ability to maintain plans and resources in reserve to account for unforeseen contingencies; and

  • Decentralized decision-making and the support of local initiative.

Static Assessments

The NIMS thought process rightly begins with an assessment of the situation. However, at some point and in order for the rest of the planning processes to occur, the assessment has to be accepted and acted upon. Once accepted and the team enters the “Planning P,” the assessment becomes static. It has to become static or else it would be impossible to develop objectives, strategies, tactics, and the other administrative work required. However, the moment the assessment becomes static, there is an immediate disconnect between the reality of the central decision-makers and the reality of those executing the plan.

Any disconnect between the action and the central decision-makers is exacerbated when the relationships between complexity, uncertainty, and resources interact with time to create sudden nonlinear changes. NIMS requires the establishment of operational periods, usually 12 hours long, during which the accepted static assessment is adjusted by intelligence inputs and the objectives refined until such time as the assessment is required to become static once again. In every case, the incident has a “vote” and it typically casts that vote without regard for the plan or the limits of operational periods.

This reality does not mean that NIMS is a wasted cause, even when it is an operational period behind reality. It is both a wonderful tool and a wonderful thought process when it is applied at the right time and in the right context. The right time for NIMS is when the uncertainty is low and when variations in the system are bounded. 

During the initial phases of an incident when uncertainty is high, any attempt to apply the bureaucratic structures and processes of NIMS is likely to be counterproductive. Successful outcomes in these situations require sensemaking, adjustment, and decentralization. Success requires rapid action and judgment that bureaucratic processes simply cannot provide.

Complex Interactions

In many cases, the plan – the “holy grail” of NIMS – only becomes apparent when commanders are able to derive system behavior by observing how their actions affected the system. To put thisea another way, sometimes the plan for achieving the end state is only possible once there are sufficient interactions – positive or negative – with the system to determine which end states are possible.

NIMS was not created in a vacuum. It is a natural extension of both Western management philosophy and Western scientific thought. It is a system designed to exercise control and it requires the isolation of variability. It is because of this that during times of complex interactions between the key variables outlined earlier, NIMS is necessarily ineffective. NIMS fails at the boundaries of rationality.

Obviously, the entire story of NIMS and its appropriateness for emergency response is more nuanced than presented here. NIMS has a place and, to date, no better method for the management of recovery efforts has been established. However, the appropriate application of any administrative framework or thought process requires a deep understanding of the limitations of the process. Knowing this, emergency response agencies would be remiss if they did not invest in action “beyond NIMS.” This means creating nimble response paradigms that capitalize on the ability of small teams of well-trained people grounded in organizational doctrine to quickly assess local situations, communicate their interactions and results, and capitalize on emergent opportunities, all while making rapid local adjustments, at least until the emergency is ready for NIMS.

Charles Bailey is an assistant fire chief for the Montgomery County Fire/Rescue Service in Maryland. His 25 years of service include assignments as a line fire officer, member on various specialty teams including Disaster Medical Assistance Team, the National Medical Response Team, Urban Search and Rescue Team, leader of Hazardous Incident Response Team (Hazmat), and operations manager of the Fire/Rescue Emergency Communications Center (911 Center). He is currently the Shift Operations Chief managing a shift of nearly 300 personnel spread over 500 square miles to serve a population of more than 1 million people.





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