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The U.S. National Incident Management System

No More Katrinas

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Updated August 31, 2008
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our nation's emergency responders have learned many hard lessons on dealing with major incidents. The biggest lesson they have learned is that whenever a major emergency requires local responders to call for help from state and federal government, everybody who shows up absolutely must be working from the same game plan. To make sure that happens, the Department of Homeland Security, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, developed the National Incident Management System, or NIMS.

Whether the incident is a natural disaster or act of terrorism, if all of the response teams, from all jurisdictions, have been trained in and follow the procedures embodied in NIMS, most if not all the problems encountered during disasters like Hurricane Katrina will be avoided.

What Makes NIMS Work?
The keys to the success of the NIMS are a clearly defined command and control structure and an often overlooked, but vitally important process called "resource typing."

Command and Control
Who's in charge here? Anytime more than one jurisdiction is involved in an emergency response, a clearly defined command structure is an absolute necessity. Unless every person involved knows exactly what his or her duties are and who they report to, chaos is sure to break out. While it seems obvious, before NIMS and its structured plan for multi-agency command and control, an all too often heard statement was, "We knew we needed help, but we didn't know who to call." Responders trained in NIMS know who to call.

Resource Typing
Resource typing is the process of making sure that everybody's emergency equipment will work together and is best defined by one tragic incident. During the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, hundreds of fire engines from other jurisdictions showed up to help and were dispatched to fires. When the trucks arrived at the scenes, many crews discovered that their hoses would not attach to the fire hydrants used in Oakland Hills. In addition, incompatible radio equipment often made field communications impossible. As a result, time, homes and lives were wasted.In resource typing, all emergency response units in all jurisdictions within predefined geographic areas are required to share detailed information about their hardware, and specific skills and assignments of their personnel. As a result, when a specific piece of equipment or specialty unit, like a SWAT team is needed, the incident commander knows exactly who to call.

Who Gets NIMS Training?
Even a perfect emergency response plan will fail without adequate training. Federal law now requires formal NIMS training for all federal, state, tribal and local entities. Training is required not only for emergency response personnel, but for all employees, volunteers and elected officials who might be asked to assist in incident response. Most cities and counties now require all employees, volunteers and officials to be NIMS certified. In addition, many private corporations and school districts are requesting NIMS training for their personnel.

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