In 2004, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced approval of the National Incident Management System, many first responders were unsure whether the new guidelines would yield real on-the-ground improvements in the way emergencies were handled or add another layer of bureaucracy to make the planning, budgeting and training aspects of their jobs more burdensome.

In the beginning, at least, these were valid questions, as state, local and federal authorities mulled how to implement the nation's first standardized management system outlining the actions all levels of government should take during a large-scale emergency response. Now the question seems to be: Why isn't NIMS being used more often?

The roots of NIMS can be traced to the 9/11 Commission, which recommended making homeland security funding contingent upon local entities' adoption of an Incident Command System (ICS) to strengthen teamwork in a crisis, including the development of regional approaches to often-faced hazards, such as wildfires in Southern California. NIMS was designed to provide a controlled, organized and unified command structure that would enable police, fire and emergency medical personnel to respond efficiently and effectively to major events.

Especially important, the 9/11 Commission said, was establishment of consistent methods and lines of communication in order to most efficiently put resources where they were needed in an emergency. A large percentage of the education and training mandated by NIMS concerns communications-related topics such as interoperability.

Three years after NIMS was approved, however, opinions differ as to whether the guidelines are having the intended effect. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is happy to point out what it considers NIMS successes in dealing with such crises as the avian influenza outbreak of 2002 and the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, critics are quick to point out the massive failure of the response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005 as indicative of the spotty adherence to NIMS requirements, even by federal government agencies.

Unfortunately, neither DHS nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) readily makes public information they may have on how often and in what circumstances NIMS is used.

However, last year's California wildfires offer a fair examination of how the system is being used, in part because together they are the most recent large-scale incident in which NIMS guidelines were followed, and partly because the ICS on which NIMS is largely based has its roots in the 1970s, when it was begun as an effort to coordinate large-scale, multiagency response to wildfires in California and other states.

There was some criticism for the way NIMS guidelines were — or, perhaps more accurately, were not — carried out once the disaster was well under way. Local news entities reported on complaints by fire personnel about resource allocation, particularly decisions about how and where air assets were deployed; there was grumbling about insufficient numbers of trucks at the ready to carry personnel to the scenes of “hot spots,” which may have caused some additional property loss in areas where the fire was thought to be extinguished; and there were logistical problems that caused shortages of food and other supplies in fire camps.

“There was a real problem with a shortage of fire spotters,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who represents parts of San Diego County. “There were dozens of aircraft that could have been used early on that were not because the state didn't have enough fire spotters, by their rules, to coordinate the drops.” California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL-FIRE) rules stipulate that each fire spotter can only coordinate drops for a single aircraft; after Bilbray's complaints, that policy was altered so that each spotter could request drops for up to three aircraft.

But other aspects largely were positive, particularly where it concerned the public-notification and preparedness training that emergency personnel received. “Our efforts to reach out to people and tell them what was coming were successful, with reverse-911 and through the media,” said San Diego County spokesman Luis Monteagudo. “It's good when you can let people know something's happening and at least reduce the loss of life, even if you don't reduce as much property loss as you'd like.”

CAL-FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant called the wildfire evacuations “the largest mass evacuations [resulting from] a natural disaster California has ever seen” and said that one reason the task of moving so many people out of harm's way went so well was the uniformity of notification efforts across county lines. (See “School of Hard Knocks,” MRT January.)

“We were doing the same thing that other counties were doing, in terms of timetables and how we got the word out in different areas, all over Southern California,” Berlant said. “There's definitely a benefit to having a uniform set of standards everyone can adhere to, especially if it's prepared and they don't have to discuss it once an emergency starts.”

Another key aspect of NIMS — the coordination of multiple responding agencies — seemed to work well, according to sources. The system established an architecture to support on-site incident commanders that covered emergency operations center (EOC) procedures, facilities and communications. For example, a joint information center (JIC) provided a structure and protocols for communicating consistent, timely and accurate information to those affected by the event. As a result, the many agencies at all levels of government that were involved in fighting the fires were able to work together fairly well and, for the most part, convey a consistent, accurate message about the extent of the fires, the measures being taken to fight them in different locations and when evacuated residents could expect to return to their homes.

“The coordination of all those resources had its rough spots, to be sure, but overall I think people were pretty pleased with the way things went,” Berlant said. “The problems that we saw definitely weren't unique to these fires, and I don't know that they could be attributed to anything other than the magnitude of what was happening.”

Emergency management personnel who look at the California fires as exactly the kind of large-scale event for which NIMS was intended and designed to address may wonder whether the system will work on a smaller scale for a more localized event, such as a chemical spill or tornado. Ken Murphy, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management and president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), says that for whatever flaws it may have, NIMS offers enough flexibility to be useful in many smaller-scale situations.

“A lot of [NIMS] can be applied to smaller emergencies that may not involve an entire region but one or two jurisdictions,” Murphy said. “Communications and public information processes are applicable in just about any scenario, and any time there is more than one agency involved there can be questions about authority and chains of command.”

The three main components of NIMS are applicable to any emergency situation that presents itself, regardless of size or complexity, according to Al DuPree, a FEMA spokesman. Specifically, the ICS defines the operating characteristics, management components and structure of incident management organizations throughout an incident; the Multiagency Coordination System defines the operating characteristics, management components and organizational structure of supporting entities; and the Public Information System defines the processes, procedures and systems for communicating with the public.

“Any of these systems can be used in just about any emergency situation,” DuPree said. “Even if we're talking about different agencies in the same jurisdiction, following these procedures can help keep everybody on the same page and eliminate redundancy and wasted efforts.”

DuPree said that FEMA doesn't issue hard-and-fast rules about when NIMS should go into effect. Personnel who are adequately trained in the system, he said, are capable of making those decisions themselves as needed.

“What we hear from people who have taken our training is that it gets them in the habit of thinking in these terms, and when it becomes necessary to put some of these principles into effect, they're ready,” DuPree said. “Everybody from the top command of an agency down will know the difference between a car accident that affects a few people and a chemical spill or something bigger that may affect hundreds or thousands. And they have an idea of what kinds of resources may be necessary to address any situation.”

Another virtue of NIMS, said Murphy, is that it can change based on the experiences of emergency management people everywhere; those who are skeptical of NIMS and its applicability to different situations can always offer their input and, perhaps, help improve the system.

“What [NIMS] really comes down to is a set of best practices,” Murphy said, “and better best practices can always come along.”