Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos

Article excerpt


Public safety's handling of large-scale incidents is always judged by how well they ended. How many lives were saved or lost? How much property was lost or destroyed? How quickly was the affected community returned to normal? Some response efforts are judged kindly (Oklahoma City Bombing), some mercilessly (Hurricane Katrina), and others reveal learning points and spark national growth in the discipline (9/11).

Critiques of New York City's response efforts to the cataclysmically overwhelming events on September 11, 2001 can be found in many sources.1 Through a fairly surgical dissection of 9/11 that benefits from the clarity of hindsight, two main points have emerged: (1) the lack of interoperable communication severely hindered response efforts; and (2) there was little cross-discipline coordination, and no framework in place to foster or create the ad hoc organization needed to respond to such a massive event.

Having these tangibles to tackle, the federal government has given large amounts of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds to local agencies as they further their regional interoperability goals. It has also created and mandated the use of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as the framework all agencies must use when responding to large-scale events. The first-responder community has been galvanized to address these two main points, subsequently focusing on the ancillary equipment and training necessities that go along with them. Over the past ten years, working on just these two points has become quite a cottage industry in and of itself.

But something is missing in this critique. We have looked at the parts so individually and specifically that we have divorced them from the context in which they need to be considered. The question, considered on the national stage, of "how does one attempt to tackle a spontaneous event the size of 9/11?" has resulted in an over-zealous focus on breaking down that event into manageable parts. In doing so, we have gone after the "low-hanging fruit" of improved communication, radio interoperability, uniform planning forms, and creating a common language among responders. We have created checklists and terms. But we have not yet taken a step back to consider the problem as thinking practitioners.

Impetus for the Creation of the National Incident Management System

After 9/11, Homeland Security Presidential Directives (HSPD) 5 and 8 mandated establishment and implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as the standard that all first responders must use when handling large-scale incidents. The stated purpose of HSPD 5 is "To enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system."2 Two key points in the HSPD 5 policy section stand out:

(4) The Secretary of Homeland Security is the principal Federal official for domestic incident management. Pursuant to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the Secretary is responsible for coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. The Secretary shall coordinate the Federal Government's resources utilized in response to or recovery from terrorist attacks, major disasters, or other emergencies if and when any one of the following four conditions applies: (1) a Federal department or agency acting under its own authority has requested the assistance of the Secretary; (2) the resources of State and local authorities are overwhelmed and Federal assistance has been requested by the appropriate State and local authorities; (3) more than one Federal department or agency has become substantially involved in responding to the incident; or (4) the Secretary has been directed to assume responsibility for managing the domestic incident by the President. …

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