The Inability to Apply NIMS is a Human One

With a busy month of travel and project work, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve had much opportunity to write.  While there are always a great number of topics to write about, I find myself regularly drawn to certain focus areas, such as NIMS or exercises, since these topics are regularly the emphasis of my work.

As many of my readers know, Domestic Preparedness Journal is one of my regular reads.  Each issue features a slate of excellent articles from practitioners in the field.  While I don’t always agree with all the articles in DomPrep, they are at least thought provoking and occasionally provide me with some ideas for my blog.

A quick note: Many students of emergency management, homeland security, and related fields reference this blog for research – something I greatly appreciate and am humbled by!  Be sure to search back issues of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, as well.  There is a lot of good stuff there!

I believe I’ve posted my thought in the past that emergency management is largely a sociological endeavor.  This is nothing new or revolutionary… if you care to consider this further, I suggest any of Thomas Drabek’s work.  While emergency management exists to protect and serve people, the actions are implemented by people.  I’ve also written in the past about the human factor of incident management, because that’s what truly makes or breaks our efforts.  Essentially, it’s humans that fail.  Not plans, not incident management systems, or any other excuses that can be contrived.  Human failure is our greatest enemy.

In discussing failure, it doesn’t have to be a total failure.  It can be a mistake, an oversight, or a wrong decision.  It might be intentional, given the body of knowledge we have and other factors, like ego.  Or it might be due to a lack of information; sometimes we have to make a best guess.  Often times we don’t realize until afterwards, if ever, that these even occurred or that there were better choices.  Despite advanced analytics and diligent after action reports, where we are quick to criticize, we don’t often identify what choices individuals (not just the incident commander or other leadership) had available to them.

Back to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  Last month’s issue had an article penned by Chief Charles Bailey, titled Where Incident Management Unravels.  Chief Bailey offers a thought provoking argument against the effectiveness of NIMS in certain incidents, particularly those that are highly dynamic.  He argues, particularly, that once a situational assessment is completed and accepted early in the ICS planning process, that the process enters a largely static state since plans are developed to address that snapshot of the situation and are unable to account for situational changes during the rest of that planning process.

Fundamentally, Chief Bailey isn’t wrong.  What he mentions is exactly what we are taught and these are criticisms of ICS I’ve heard many times through the years.  Remember, Incident Command System Training Sucks!  (if you aren’t familiar with my thoughts on the sad state of ICS training, click that link and read the few articles I’ve written on the topic).

Let’s examine the situation that Chief Bailey describes.  Most incidents, especially early on, have dynamic elements.  Does this mean we can’t use ICS?  No.  In fact we still need to.  If we don’t make efforts to proactively address the incident, we will continue reacting instead of getting ahead of it.  Our tactics will be purely reactionary and we’ll never have the resources we need when we need them.  We can’t allow the incident to be in charge, we need to manage it.  To do so, we need to acknowledge that new and changing situations will occur, and plan for them.  Just because we are taught to plan in a static situation, does that mean that’s our only option?  Nope.  What we learn little to nothing about in ICS training are concepts like contingency planning.  Interestingly enough, we regularly see first responders account for this.  When an incident occurs with unknown factors, we often hear fire departments call for additional resources to be sent to staging.  Sometimes this is in anticipation of needing them, sometimes this is a contingency plan.  A ‘just in case’.  While no one likes to be stuck in staging and never deployed, it’s better to have the resources immediately available and not need them then to need them right away and have to wait.

Not only can these resources in staging be identified in our incident action plans, we can also develop these resources and even identify tactics (roughly) in our IAPs to account for dynamic situations.  It’s easy enough to identify an objective for contingency planning and have efforts dedicated to it.  Resources in staging can be pulled together into task forces and strike teams for anticipated application.  Our IAPs can pre-identify these potential applications and give the resources tactical parameters, allowing task force and strike team leaders some latitude in their initial tactical response.  While the rest of the incident organization is addressing known issues and proactively managing the incident, we have elements in reserve to tackle pop-up situations.  At best, these reserve forces are able to fully address these emergent needs, at the very least, they can sustain life safety matters until additional resources can be deployed.

Further, if any incident management organization isn’t able to change based on a dynamic situation, I severely question their credentials.  Incidents and disasters are by nature unpredictable.  We must acknowledge that any situational assessment is only, at best, mostly accurate.  For any significant incident, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know when we need to know it.  Having reserve forces and contingency plans, and being able to quickly identify emergent situations and redeploy resources is simply smart incident management.

So while Chief Bailey makes great points about some book answers to ICS applications, I argue that any failures that exist, at least in these regards, are human ones and have little to nothing to do with shortfalls in NIMS/ICS.  First, there are tools available to us to address these situations; although most people aren’t aware of them because of issues with ICS training.  Second, even if direct applications of the system weren’t in place to address certain situations, we can’t be slaves to the system.  We need to be able to think ‘beyond NIMS’ (words used by Chief Bailey, himself).  Finally, I’m not being critical at all of Chief Bailey’s points.  He closes his article identifying a need for creating ‘nimble response paradigms’; I’m just pointing out that we have that ability within the NIMS construct.  It’s our (human) ability to apply these where we often get stuck.

As always, I’m highly interested in the thoughts of readers on the topics I write about.

In closing, a quick but heartfelt thanks to all the responders and organizations who have been working tirelessly as of recent to save lives and help communities stabilize after the impacts of far too many hurricanes and the earthquake in Mexico.  Every small action you take makes a world of difference to those you are helping.  Be safe.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC (ß have you checked out our new website????)

2 thoughts on “The Inability to Apply NIMS is a Human One

  1. Two thoughts. First, John Boyd’s OODA loop needs to feed ICS. The Observe and Orient process should be a continuous loop throughout an incident. It’s like continuously checking vital signs. Second, we need to teach decision making like the military. ICS does a good job of carrying out BAD decisions (ICS is not a decision model). High tempo decision making (high stakes, little information, no time) must happen upstream of ICS.

    1. Hi Hank. I completely agree with both of your points. These are concepts that aren’t inherent in ICS that, if integrated, will help considerably. I think too many people want a ‘quick’ management system. There is no such thing, and how ICS is taught does a huge disservice to that. The integration of other management concepts, like those you mention, can be of real benefit.

      Thanks for the comment!

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