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What is the National Incident Management System (NIMS)?

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In this two-part series, Leo A. Wrobel and Sharon M. Wrobel discuss the implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is designed to help communities throughout the U.S. to handle various emergency and disaster situations.
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Throughout our extensive research in disaster recovery planning, we've found that a great number of government and non-governmental entities in the U.S. are being required to adopt national standards for handling various emergency and disaster situations. Most emergencies can be handled on a local level, but what about those that cross jurisdictions? For instance, how do the private sector, government, and non-governmental entities work in concert to handle an act of terrorism or a natural disaster? Most importantly, how do they communicate with each other?

What Is NIMS?

For any complicated profession, standards are a good thing. In fact, we've devoted many years to the subject of operating and security standards for disaster recovery. Other organizations, such as the Disaster Recovery Institute, professionally certify standards in disaster recovery. Actual standards and practices for how all the aspects of recovery planning relate to one another have been elusive over the years, due in part to the newness of disaster recovery planning as a profession. Perhaps the National Incident Management System (NIMS) will help, at least for government agencies, which now are required to adhere to a NIMS-compliant framework in their recovery plans.

NIMS came about for many reasons. The lessons learned fighting intense wildfires in California in the 1970s resulted in a fresh look at standards and procedures. Deaths, injuries, and property losses had resulted from miscommunications and management insufficiencies, rather than lack of resources or improper procedures. One problem that surfaced was that too many people were reporting to one supervisor. Other problems:

  • Different emergency-response organizational structures
  • Indistinct lines of authority
  • Inaccurate incident information
  • Vague or unspecified incident-response objectives
  • Lack of proper training
  • Inadequate or conflicting communications
  • Deficient structure for coordinated planning between agencies
  • Terminology differences between agencies

On February 28, 2003 President Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5 (HSPD-5), which directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and administer a National Incident Management System (NIMS).

HSPD-5 required federal departments and agencies to make the adoption of NIMS by state and local organizations a condition for federal preparedness assistance (grants, contracts, and other activities) by fiscal year 2005. Obviously, some time has passed since HSPD-5 was enacted, but when it first came into being the directive specified that jurisdictions could comply in the short term by adopting the Incident Command System (ICS). Other aspects of NIMS required additional development and refinement to enable compliance at a future date. At the same time, the Secretary of Homeland Security established the National Integration Center (NIC) Incident Management Systems Integration Division to oversee and provide strategic direction for NIMS.

To provide a national framework for handling all the aspects of a disaster or major incident, NIMS came up with five components that work together:

  • Command and management
  • Preparedness
  • Resource management
  • Communications and information management
  • Supporting technologies

We discuss the first three of these areas in the following sections. Part 2 of this series will discuss communications and technologies.

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