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#204355 - 07/07/10 12:39 AM NIMS vs. Reality
MartinFocazio Offline


Registered: 01/21/03
Posts: 2155
Loc: Bucks County PA
One of the cornerstones of large-scale emergency management is the use of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
I have been taking NIMS courses for a long time now, and while I've gotten various certifications and the like, I've always had this nagging feeling that NIMS just isn't in synch with the reality of really large-scale incidents that don't happen to be wildfires (NIMS started from lessons learned in western wildfire management).

I came across this article today in which the author goes into some extensive detail about how NIMS and politics fare when they are in conflict (to save you the read, politics win).

I was rather startled to read in the article this item: "Katrina was a NIMS event but NIMS was new then and a big takeaway was that NIMS was effectively implemented." (oh really?)

So for someone who thought NIMS "worked" in Katrina to say, "The current lack of understanding, combined with the political messaging, in my mind threaten the future of NIMS. Resistance will grow, not only among private companies who now in most cases seem to eagerly participate, but also among other government agencies who could experience the same undermining political message" gives me some serious pause.

The author is a NIMS "enthusiast" - a position I don't share. I think NIMS is absurdly top-heavy, bureaucratic and complex - so does New York City, which uses a "modified" NIMS (and is the only city in America to have been hit by terrorists more than once, and didn't ask for FEMA help).

Having operated under NIMS for a few largish events (river floods) I found that NIMS was well-intentioned, exquisitely documented, and so hopelessly out of touch with the on-the-ground reality of both resources and administrative skills of emergency response agencies that it is a bit like having a guidelines for sex as written by someone who has all of the procedural elements well documented, but none of the practical experience that actually matters.

But I wonder what other folks with NIMS training think - does NIMS actually scale up? Or is it just a collection of forms to fill out to keep bean counters and administrators happy?

#204356 - 07/07/10 03:35 AM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: MartinFocazio]
Art_in_FL Offline

Registered: 09/01/07
Posts: 2432
"Katrina was a NIMS event but NIMS was new then and a big takeaway was that NIMS was effectively implemented."

Why does that phrase "Hell of a job Brownie" come to mind?

People forget that in term of the powers that be (PTB) the response to Katrina, particularly in NOLA, was entirely copacetic. A opposition voting block and power base was broken up, the people with overarching power remained in power, the people with money made more money and were set up to exploit the reconstruction, and, best of all, poor and dark skinned people got blamed for everything that went wrong.

For the PTB there was no down side.

#204368 - 07/07/10 01:04 PM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: Art_in_FL]
Lono Offline
Old Hand

Registered: 10/19/06
Posts: 1013
Loc: Pacific NW, USA
I'm not qualified to comment on the efficacy of NIMS in a large scale disaster, only small ones (fires, floods). NIMS does function very well in incidents I'm involved in though, in terms of creating a more structured and effective interface between responding agencies (e.g. Fire Department and Red Cross). Some random thoughts on NIMS in smaller-scale practice:

- you get what you train for; the quality of an IC can vary, how seriously they take the whole ICS process/protocol. Good ICs are focussed - sometimes overly focussed, 'no time for other issues' on 'non-NIM' aspects of the response; better ICs can churn in downstream planning (what to do with apartment occupants) into the disaster (putting out the fire); the best ICs recognize opportunities to delegate tasks to outside agencies (like sheltering victims) immediately, and have the confidence to know they'll be addressed. NIMs works pretty well when you have the resources and the confidence to organize your response well.

- training and actual experience among responding agencies is golden. I know and the IC knows that when I see "J Madson" on the back of one particular IC that I can report in and get started doing my Red Cross job; we know each other, know what to expect from me as my function, I stay in my lane and get my tasks done without alot of oversight. You can never train (enough) effectively for large scale disasters, you have to trust that your response will scale up.

- when you improvise is an age old dilemma. Most will say improvisation and adaptation belong at the very local level, not at the top of an incident command. There is alot to back that up too. As a local responder I want the freedom to depart from NIMS and improvise and adapt my response - I don't want an IC improvising and adapting too much. There are lots of expecations, from the public, press and from responders in general. Don't do something that is obviously asshat, but don't depart from established protocols too far or too often either. That way lies chaos..

- scaling out any response is tricky; if not NIMS, then what? NYC's modified NIMS? I'm fine with that - I assume it incorporates important lessons learned, and probably some local resources dropped on responders courtesy of Homeland Security. Mind though the risk that you would develop your own NIMS that no one else can play / participate in effectively. Especially in large scale disasters you need thousands of responders to come in and work effectively, right away - they shouldn't spend time stumbling over a 'NY Way' versus a 'Boston Way' versus a 'Omaha Way'. Bad juju...

- in criticizing NIMS, why is the first impulse to talk about Katrina and FEMA (Brownie)? That's 5 years ago, donkey years in terms of refining response protocols. FEMA has changed (for the better), NIMS responses have changed as a result of lessons learned from Katrina - we make mistakes, we learn from them, and move on.

#204371 - 07/07/10 02:26 PM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: Lono]
Jeff_M Offline

Registered: 07/18/07
Posts: 665
Loc: Northwest Florida
NIMS is a tool, like any other. Used wisely and well, it is very helpful. Get too focused on the tool, and not on the task, and bad things happen. But you gotta know how to use your tools. NIMS does scale up and down pretty well, as the incident unfolds and gets resolved. Perhaps it's best uses are for the coordination and integration of multiple agencies involved in various aspects of a response, and for the assigning of scarce resources at appropriate levels to all the different aspects of the incident that require them.

Turf wars are bad. Too many chiefs are bad. Not knowing what the other guys are doing is bad. Having most of your resources clustered on the west side of the incident when most of your problems are on the east side is bad. NIMS helps with that.

Knowing that somebody has an eye on the big picture, and that there are also people keeping an eye on all the little details that matter, is very comforting when you're in the thick of it. When your tanker is down to the last hundred gallons, or you just opened your last box of IV's, or ate your last MRE, it's good to know for sure that they're already on top of it. When some unexpected problem crops up that you know you can't handle, it's nice to know exactly who you should call. NIMS helps with that.

We just participated in a FTX at Riverside AFB, involving about 10 DMATs from all over the country, simulating (barely) an earthquake response. I'm proud to say that our team commander served as overall incident commander. NIMS worked well for us, as it has on a variety of real world incidents in the past. In Haiti, it struggled a bit, but there were issues with the State Department and other aspects unique to working in a foreign country with an international response.

Overall, I'm sold on NIMS. I think every player needs to learn it, not just the chiefs, and use it routinely on the small stuff. Otherwise, they may get lost trying to use it on the "big one" with little experience. But remember, it's just a tool, and it needs to be used wisely, with common sense, in ways that help get the job done.

#204375 - 07/07/10 04:49 PM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: MartinFocazio]
philip Offline

Registered: 09/19/05
Posts: 639
Loc: San Francisco Bay Area
NIMS is well-developed and well-understood in my area (the San Francisco Bay Area). I'm in an amateur radio club that is affiliated with a local fire department in one town and a police department in another, and we use NIMS. My CERT group is affiliated with a different FD in a different town, and we have regular training where NIMS is used. I'm looking at the Incident Action Plan from a 2009 exercise, and it's all on ICS forms over the name of the fire chief for the town.

I think NIMS originated in CA because of widespread fires that covered different counties and different government agencies, and they needed away to coordinate control and costs, so that each area/agency bore its appropriate expenses. If your agencies' admin skills were stressed by your events, I'd suggest more training, not giving up on NIMS. To each his own.

#204433 - 07/09/10 12:36 AM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: philip]
MDinana Offline

Registered: 03/08/07
Posts: 2196
Loc: Beer&Cheese country
I've never used it, but every NIMS course I've had makes my head hurt. Too much explanation of obvious concepts, too little emphasis on implementing it effectively. By effectively, I mean in an easy, intuitive manner. Instead, they're so bent on names, titles, documentation, that you need a meeting just to start the response properly.

I'm not saying I can do better, but it seems that, like most government mandated things, it's a bit cumbersome to implement. It might be OK for long events (like those wildfires), but a short term event seems a bit extreme.

#204455 - 07/09/10 04:28 PM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: MDinana]
philip Offline

Registered: 09/19/05
Posts: 639
Loc: San Francisco Bay Area
> It might be OK for long events (like those wildfires), but a short term event
> seems a bit extreme.

Well, I think that's where "counterintuitive" comes into play. Our events us the ICS forms and such, so we're more attuned to using NIMS in real life. This means when it's The Big One, we're already thinking along those lines, which makes it an easy, intuitive process. I guess the key is that your training talks about concepts without having you actually use it. Short term events use the parts that are applicable.

Too each his own, but our group works with police and fire, so we're fairly well-versed in NIMS and ICS. I think the key is using it more often, then having some training sessions to go over the stuff that doesn't seem to apply, does apply, and so on.

#204457 - 07/09/10 04:49 PM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: philip]
Lono Offline
Old Hand

Registered: 10/19/06
Posts: 1013
Loc: Pacific NW, USA
I agree with philip on this one, you need to use NIMS and wait for your head to stop hurting :-) - really, the concepts and terminology aren't too daunting after you've run a few exercises and gotten used to it. I agree with one bit of MDinana's post, there is an irritating tendency for someone somewhere to focus on issues of proper terminology and 'doing things by the book' that tends to grate on me, personally. Still, when faced with 'doing things by the book' (in Red Cross speak that usually means paperwork involved) or not doing things by the book, I will bow to the bookish approach - if my preferred way were better, they would re-write the book, and maybe someday in the future they will, meantime people who know the book should enforce it. I think consistent clear communication is critical in any response, if that isn't jeopardized by a responders choice of terminology I'm fine with it - imho some folks can become fairly anal about using only specific commands etc. I guess that's human nature, or maybe they've just been trained (or experienced) to a higher level than me.

Besides, it may seem counter-intuitive, but for nearly any response I've participated in, it is improved if the responders *do* take time to 'have a meeting' and plan the response a bit ahead of starting the actual response. That doesn't mean you don't put firefighters on an immediate and obvious fire (e.g. burning structure), but if you are fighting a wild land fire, you need to stop, take a deep breath, and assess the larger situation first.

#204738 - 07/15/10 01:29 AM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: Lono]
PhoenixRising Offline

Registered: 07/15/10
Posts: 16
Loc: NW Minnesota
As a budding emergency manager and working in EMS, we call NIMS "FEMA Speak" because there the only people who understand it! The language and symbology is close to the NATO symbology and what I learned in BNCOC

The weakness is that everyone involved including first responders and contract help is supposed to understand this...

The strength is ??? Hell I havent figured that out yet, but NIMS classes online are the definative cure for insomnia!

#204747 - 07/15/10 10:11 AM Re: NIMS vs. Reality [Re: PhoenixRising]
Nomad Offline

Registered: 05/04/02
Posts: 479
Loc: Just wandering around.
One overlooked advantage of a system like NIMS became apparent to me during my Red Cross deployment to Katrina. Our normal rotation was 21 days. So around day 21, everybody that was in the original group is replaced with "newbies".

It became obvious that if logs, journals etc. were written by someone not using standard language, they became almost useless. And without history, the "newbie" was prone to repeat old mistakes and create protocols that were already in existence.

All those quirky little things that the prior group had learned from experience had to be re-learned because they were not documented in a clear, common language.

...........From Nomad.........Been "on the road" since '97

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