Emergency responders rap federal incident management system

The United States is moving too fast in implementing a new system for standardizing the response to terrorist attacks and other disasters, top emergency responders told a House of Representatives subcommittee Wednesday.

State and local emergency agencies receiving federal Homeland Security Department funding could be required within two years to implement the new National Incident Management System (NIMS), which was created March 1 under a Feb. 28 directive from President Bush.

The system lacks clarity, however, and does not provide enough training or funding for personnel, according to emergency responders who testified before the Select Committee on Homeland Security's Emergency Preparedness and Response Subcommittee.

"The start of fiscal year 2006 is too soon to begin to tie the receipt of federal terrorism-response grant funding to NIMS implementation," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman told the subcommittee.

"The NIMS has 518 measurable requirements. It is unclear to us whether DHS will require implementation of all 518 or whether a percentage will be required or whether there will be a top 10," Freeman said. "Implementing all 518 requirements within the next year will be a Herculean and perhaps unreasonable task."

Freeman's reference to 518 requirements appeared to stem from the National Incident Management System Compliance Assurance Support Tool, notice of which was published in early June in the Federal Register.

A Homeland Security official said Thursday that the tool, which initially contained more than 500 questions intended to aid state and local agencies in assessing their compliance with the new system, is still under development and has already been shortened considerably. In any case, the official said, the tool should not be seen as a checklist against which Homeland Security will measure compliance.

In his February directive, Bush ordered the creation of "a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management … to ensure that all levels of government across the nation have the capability to work efficiently and effectively together." Two days later, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge issued the National Incident Management System, placing the widely used Incident Command System (ICS) at its center.

The system establishes "standardized incident management processes, protocols and procedures" for incident command organization, communications and preparedness, Homeland Security said in a March fact sheet. The effort is intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines to better coordinate responses to natural and unnatural disasters.

Both Bush and Ridge said at the time of the system's launch that adopting the new system would be a condition for all federal emergency-preparedness grants starting in fiscal 2005.

The approach appears to enjoy wide support. The federal Sept. 11 commission endorsed linking Homeland Security grants to Incident Command System compliance, and, in a "report card" on the Republican House bill to implement the commission's recommendations, Select Committee on Homeland Security Democrats yesterday praised a provision calling for such a link.

Ridge told governors in a Sept. 8 letter, however, that in fiscal 2005, federal grants need only be "leveraged" to support the new incident-management system's approach.

Deputy Associate Director David Kaufman of Homeland Security's Office for Domestic Preparedness, which administers the bulk of the department's emergency-response grants, said in an interview that the National Incident Management System Integration Center's determination of "what implementation and compliance means and all the rest" will take time. As a result, Kaufman said, "We can't exactly require that compliance this month."

Senior subcommittee Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said at yesterday's hearing that Homeland Security has left unclear both what grants will be affected and how compliance will be determined and is imposing "unfunded mandates" on states and municipalities.

"DHS expects the states to incorporate NIMS into their emergency operations plans, coordinate and provide technical assistance to local entities regarding NIMS and institutionalize the use of the Incident Command System," Thompson said, citing Ridge's Sept. 8 letter.

"I am concerned that DHS is not providing additional grant funds to achieve these goals and that they are unfunded mandates. For example, I am not aware of any additional funding for state and local governments to train personnel on the NIMS, nor am I aware of any funding to revise and publish new emergency operations plans that are consistent with NIMS," Thompson said.

A Homeland Security official confirmed that no dedicated grants are planned for National Incident Management System implementation, saying the costs will vary so widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction that such grants would be difficult to administer.

"It appears," Thompson said, "that DHS expects the states to leverage their general ODP grant funds for this purpose and choose between implementing NIMS and other equally pressing needs like specialized equipment, training, terrorism exercises and enhanced security at critical infrastructure sites."

Kaufman portrayed the incident-management system as a constant that should run through all emergency-preparedness efforts, rather than a separate program to be addressed as such.

"What we're saying is we're giving out billions of dollars," he said. "You can't be enhancing your preparedness adequately if you are not addressing NIMS implementation."

The integration center's acting chief, Gil Jamieson, stressed at yesterday's hearing that various training programs are being offered to help state and local agencies implement the new system. Jamieson also sought to clarify the timeline for implementation.

"To the maximum extent possible, states, territories, tribes and local entities are encouraged to achieve full NIMS implementation and institutionalization across the entire response system during FY 2005," Jamieson said. "Applicants will be required to certify as part of their FY 2006 grant applications that they have met the FY 2005 NIMS requirements."

"To the extent that full implementation is not possible during FY 2005, federal preparedness assistance will be leveraged to complete NIMS implementation by FY 2006. By FY 2007, receipt of federal preparedness assistance will be conditioned upon full compliance with the NIMS," Jamieson said.

Mindful of the deadlines Jamieson outlined, Freeman and other witnesses involved in emergency response stressed the obstacles their colleagues will face in implementing the new system.

The medical field's concerns were not sufficiently taken into account in development of the documents governing the incident-management system, said George Washington University professor Joseph Barbera, co-director of the university's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. Barbera said the new system is based on firefighting procedures and was altered to address police and firefighter, but not medical, concerns.

"For many medical professionals reading NIMS, the language, concepts and inherent value are not intuitively obvious or clearly presented," he said.

"The decision to establish a National Incident Management System must be applauded," Barbera said. "The development process used in creating the NIMS document, however, was not as open to professional input as many of us would have preferred. It is particularly unclear whether the NIMS development process provided a full hearing for the concerns and issues of acute-care medical and hospital professionals."

Barbera participated in the responses to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was chairman of the District of Columbia Hospital Association Emergency Preparedness Committee at the time of the 2001 anthrax mailings. He said the latter incident showed the need for the National Incident Management System.

"The anthrax incident demonstrated that the capabilities to effectively manage a large-scale, complex and rapidly moving health event were lacking, especially compared with the management success at an equally complex Pentagon response a month earlier," Barbera said.

"The central feature in the failures of the 2001 anthrax incident in the national capital area, in my professional opinion, was the absence of effective national incident-management systems at the local, state and federal levels," Barbera said. "The adoption of the National Incident Management System, NIMS, if properly managed, will address this important gap in medical and public-health preparedness."

Police would be at a disadvantage relative to fire and medical personnel, since the latter are both better equipped and more familiar with overarching incident-command systems, said National Director of Legislative Affairs Steve Lenkart of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. Lenkart called for more money for police departments to help bridge the gap.

"The federal preparedness grant system should expect to spend money on these deficiencies, perhaps disproportionately to other entities, and allow extra time to incorporate the principles of NIMS and ICS into their procedures," Lenkart said. "It serves no purpose to involve police officers in a system where they will be handicapped by a lower level of training and equipment, backed up by deficient policies and a lack of funding."

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