Only willing partners coming to the table, treated as equals, will prove effective in establishing a national standard for incident response.
Tens of thousands of hours have been spent nationally in a quest to implement a national standard for incident response, but the question remains: Has this endeavor to implement the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) been effective in reordering how the nation as a whole responds to emergencies and disasters?
Has the quest to have a chain of command, one that establishes clear command and control, been effective? Are we attempting to impose a system that does not function well within the day-to-day governance models that make up the American system?
The idea is that we respond together to protect people and property. Ultimately the establishment of mechanisms that allow for joint action via a coordinated response is the solution, but it's an arduous road. Federal mandates cannot overcome individual agencies' and jurisdictions' unwillingness to put aside turf issues in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a more rapid and efficient regional response.
On the Same Page
Having a federal-level system for how the nation as a whole responds to disasters - all governments responding similarly when bad things happen, either within their jurisdiction, or to another - is an admirable vision.
The ideal scenario is that everyone uses the same system and terminology when responding, which allows disparate agencies to come together quickly and avoid miscommunication when confusion ultimately rules - during disasters. This applies to localized emergencies where mutual aid resources come to the assistance of their neighbors, or in situations of a much broader scale like 9/11 and Katrina when the nation's resources are called upon to respond to a catastrophe of mega-proportions.
Conceptually this is working on paper. And it's working in practice to a degree. The U.S. Forest Service and Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE) gave birth to the ICS, and it has been well adopted by fire agencies - especially those in the Western states that must deal with wildland fires. The U.S. Forest Service's use of the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS) pioneered this effort. Cyclops NIMS - that's NIMS with only one "I" - is the fairly new national standard that expanded use of the ICS beyond the fire service to all responding agencies.
For public agencies to receive federal funds, they must have adopted NIMS, and met the requirements for training staff and implementing its use within their jurisdictions. As previously noted, the fire service in general has done a good job, and the ICS has been expanded to other disciplines that also have adopted it. It's interesting to note that the ICS has expanded far beyond the intended audience of first responders. There are now ICS solutions for schools and hospitals. Even businesses have started using the ICS to handle crisis situations that impact their business continuity.
The Ultimate Solution
The best use of the ICS occurs when single agencies respond to emergencies. Go to most scenes and ask, "Who's in charge?" and typically someone will step up and say, "I'm the incident commander."
This is perhaps the extent of their implementation of the ICS. It is good, of course, that they know to identify the incident commander. But it becomes more complicated with multiple agency or discipline responses, even those within a single jurisdiction. In many cases, you'll still see several command posts being established, one per discipline. In one postmortem of a winter storm and surface-water flooding incident, someone proudly proclaimed, "We established unified command!"
The issue, however, was that the "unified" entities were police and fire. Public works also had a command post and leadership, but wasn't incorporated into "unified command" for the incident.
The ultimate solution is to implement a "train as you will fight" mentality. We need joint training, planning and exercises with all potential partners if we're ever going to fix the issue of unified command within single jurisdictions.
And even more complicated is incorporating multiple jurisdictional authorities when responding to the same incident. At a school shooting, for instance, many agencies could potentially be involved in unified command: law enforcement, fire, the school itself, public works and elected officials, to name a few.
The textbook answer is that since this is a shooting, law enforcement should be the incident commander with other key players participating in unified command. Once law enforcement resolves the situation, there will be a transition in command to another agency, perhaps the school district itself. This is easily written, but not always easily accomplished. Jurisdictional egos can become involved, along with personal history and interagency "baggage" that can be reflected in the level of cooperation occurring at the scene.
This interjurisdictional dance is one that most first responders, emergency managers and elected officials have neither practiced for nor participated in. Therefore, it can be messy at best, especially as leaders emerge, each wanting to highlight their agency's accomplishments and not be superseded by another.
These events can even seem simplistic when compared to large-scale regional disasters involving multiple jurisdictions, regions and state-level authorities. There are issues in responding to larger-scale disasters and the complex nature of our government structure, with federal, state and local levels.
One such issue is the lack of practice in how, in larger, cross-jurisdictional responses, the elected officials aren't used to working in tandem with other jurisdictions during emergencies. There are, we hope, mechanisms to share resources, but perhaps not strategies in responding. For instance, in a flu pandemic, it will be local public health officials who must determine protective measures in responding to the health crisis. If one county closes schools and bans large-scale assemblies like sporting events, and the neighboring county doesn't, these conflicting messages to the public won't support an overall coordinated response, and will undermine the credibility of both jurisdictions in the media and public's eyes.
I've briefed foreign delegations that have visited the United States to better understand how we as a nation respond to disasters. Many nations have only one police force and one fire service. Try explaining the paradigm that in a single, larger county in the United States, you can have more than 30 police agencies and another 30-plus fire agencies - all of which are totally independent of one another with no chain of command for day-to-day operations.
It is a complex web we weave here in America.
It becomes difficult for elected officials to subordinate their roles to other elected officials. And in actuality, by national governance models and a national system of responding, there aren't, in most states, mechanisms set forth in public law where one higher level of government can step in and direct the resources of a lower level of government.
The federal government occasionally threatens to "federalize" a disaster response, but in most cases, this is more symbolic than structural: It's basically a message to states and local jurisdictions that federal resources are prepared to start responding directly to move assistance straight to people and organizations in need.
This means bypassing the sometimes cumbersome system of waiting for local jurisdictions to request resources from the state, and then if states can't fulfill the request with state-level resources, they pass the request onto the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has overall federal resource coordination responsibilities in responding to disasters.
Work in Progress
Some progress is being made as far as different regions collaborating to plan how they will respond as a coordinated whole.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding guidance has been helpful in requiring urban areas composed of multiple jurisdictions - known as Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) regions - to jointly administer federal funds. These funds have typically been shared by police and fire to purchase equipment. Some forward-thinking regions are looking beyond just buying equipment with these funds - they're planning jointly. The Seattle UASI has used funds for evacuation planning and logistics planning, and looks to use the catastrophic funding for transportation recovery planning. Also, the St. Louis UASI has an RFP currently out for a regional "coordination" response plan.
The DHS provided some long-awaited support to this movement with the January announcement of fiscal 2008 Catastrophic Planning Grants for selected UASI districts. Proposals were due May 1, and these funds must be used only for planning, and can be based on terrorism and natural-hazard scenarios.
This is another step in our planning and funding guidance that's been a long time coming.
The concept of these regional response plans is just now starting to take shape. But as these urban areas come together in this capacity, they will find it almost impossible to establish a mechanism for the creation of a "command and control" form of incident response: It is not in our American nature and governance for one jurisdiction to subordinate itself to another, especially in a crisis.
As such, the solution will need to be the establishment of mechanisms that allow for joint action via a coordinated response.
Planning for multijurisdictional responses can't be forced. There isn't a hammer to accomplish this work; only willing partners coming to the table and being treated as equals will prove effective. This latter part can be difficult for larger jurisdictions because they are accustomed to having things their way and acting unilaterally. Only people dedicated to this interjurisdictional planning can accomplish it.
Regional planning takes a long time - to establish the relationships and eventually the trust between individuals at the planning table. There are those who might want to ram something together quickly, but if you violate a process that establishes the relationships in the first place, then you're doomed to fail. Allow plenty of time for the "storming and norming" process, and the result will be a much better product - one that has a chance of succeeding because jurisdictions are willing to follow the plan.
The plan is a set of promises made to each other that describes how each jurisdiction and agency will behave during a disaster. Promises can be broken, therefore what will eventually unite a region will be a continuing process of writing the plan, briefing it to others, conducting basic training on what this new concept will and won't do, and then exercising it to find the gaps - and starting the process all over again.
Regional planning processes are difficult, and sometimes it'll feel like your planning efforts are in slow motion. But remember: If it were easy, it would be done and implemented already.
When you get discouraged and are ready to shuck the entire effort because of issues with people and jurisdictions - hang in there. Over time, events can end up being supportive, and recalcitrant individuals may eventually leave.
The goal is one in which jurisdictions having mutual respect for one another coordinate together for a more seamless response, and in the end, a more resilient region. These things are worth the time and effort and require a lot of patience to accomplish.
In the end, the answer to "Who's in charge here?" during a regional response is a collected and coordinated, "We are."