NIMS vs Agency Command


Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-5 requiring the development and implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was issued. This framework mandated that public safety response agencies improve coordination and cooperation and prepare the groundwork for efficient and effective responses. Moreover, this framework was to enable all levels of government-local, state, federal, and tribal agencies and responders-to speak the same language in a unified approach to preparing for, preventing, responding to, and mitigating incidents. Consequently, the agencies and responders that would mitigate the complex, multiagency, or multijurisdictional natural disaster or act of terrorism would be more effective and efficient through the auspices of NIMS. These expectations were not just for major incidents but also for any responses necessitating multiple agencies to work together to mitigate the problem.

In addition to having NIMS enable public safety agencies to speak a common language, become interoperable, and manage incidents through unification, NIMS was also to standardize damage assessments and facilitate a seamless transition into recovery and restoration. In the years following 9/11, millions of dollars in federal grants and training budgets were earmarked and injected to train, equip, and educate public safety responders on the value of communicating with each other, developing and implementing one incident action plan, and providing for a coordinated response based on the incident objectives and strategies developed by a unified command.


One area that continues to be problematic with the NIMS model, however, is that it limits responders when it comes to being truly interoperable and completely effective. Efficiency during an emergency incident is difficult to gauge, yet after-action reports continually identify a common theme that would allow responders to be more efficient and effective. It may not be obvious to all responders, as the individuals operating at the task level-i.e., the police officer making entry to engage an active shooter, the firefighter cutting metal from the lap of a pinned patient on the interstate, or the medic providing life-saving medication to a person in cardiac arrest-may not identify any inefficiencies that hinder their operations. The inefficiencies are apparent to the individual agencies’ supervisors who witness the lack of coordination that occurs when multiple agencies respond to the same incident and the supervisor of each agency assumes that he is in charge of that scene.

(1) Unified Command at Urban Shield 2012. [Photo by Daniel Roa, multimedia specialist, Alameda County (CA) Sheriff's Office.]
(1) Unified Command at Urban Shield 2012. [Photo by Daniel Roa, multimedia specialist, Alameda County (CA) Sheriff’s Office.]

Is the incident command system (ICS) designed to work every day, on all types of incidents, and to be effective and efficient? NIMS and ICS are designed to integrate multiple agencies’ supervisors into one command post. Unfortunately, the individual agency supervisors fail to share, speak, or coordinate on the same incident. The inability of agencies to develop and transition to a unified command post leads to critical information not being shared and transmitted to the responders who are in need of this information; this omission causes these responders to be ineffective, unsafe, and unaccountable. Why is it called ICS and not ACS (agency command system)? Do we allow this to occur because we are too busy to train together, or are the technologies too advanced for responders to learn to switch to common incident channels once on the scene? Why do agencies still not want to share decision-making responsibilities on the same incident scene?

At Urban Shield 2012, hosted by Alameda County (CA) Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern, one theme was evident and repeated: One agency cannot do it all, and integration of command level officers is essential for an effective and efficient outcome of the incident. Ahern reviewed and described many nationally significant incidents over the past year that challenged responders, from active and mass shootings to major firestorms and natural disasters. He states, “Our history has proven these events place extraordinary demands on all of the agencies’ personnel who respond. In addition to the knowledge, skill, and resources required to manage the major hurdles that these disasters present, unique and often difficult complexities and challenges are presented to the first responders. All of these major incidents draw considerable attention and scrutiny from individuals; segments of the public; the news media; and various civilian and governmental organizations, institutions, and agencies. It is imperative that our communities have trust in our actions as first responders and that our communities are confident that we will get the job done. Our working together in a unified response will allow us to utilize proven tactics and test our best strategies.”

(2) Unified Command at US&R and hazmat scenario at Urban Shield 2012. (Photo by author.)
(2) Unified Command at US&R and hazmat scenario at Urban Shield 2012. (Photo by author.)

The theme of “agency command” continues today despite the efforts of NIMS and ICS to foster the idea that a single incident requires a single command. At Urban Shield 2012, speaker after speaker described incidents that challenged their public safety responders over the past year and how multiple command posts were established at the same incident. Captain Brian Medeiros of the Oakland (CA) Police Department provided lessons learned following the Oikos University Mass Shooting that occurred in Oakland on April 2, 2012. He placed a graphic of the police command post and described how the incident commander designated a triage and treatment area for the wounded students to be delivered by police officers who bravely entered the school to search for and remove wounded and salvageable victims and engage the shooter. Later in his presentation, he showed a picture of the Oakland (CA) Fire Department command vehicle with a fire command post established. A lesson learned from this tragedy is that the police command post and the fire command post were not integrated, not geographically together, and not even on the same radio channel to share critical information relevant to both agencies with responsibility at this incident.

The keynote speaker at Urban Shield 2012, Rear Admiral Raymond Smith, USN (ret.), described some of the “awards” he received over his distinguished 31-year career. These awards were not the typical awards you would expect a distinguished Navy SEAL to share with the eager audience. They were his “lessons of life” awards, the lessons he learned not from reading a book but from the experiences of living life and failing on occasion. He describes living and learning as “wisdom”; consequently, his awards made him a wiser leader today. The “Lessons Learned” award for public safety is autonomy, Smith said.

How can we be wiser as an organization by learning that being autonomous is not beneficial to the end? Smith described how there is no room for individualism or autonomy in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Everyone has a “swim buddy,” and a successful mission is defined by teamwork and the sum of all its members’ performances, not an individual’s performance. The analogy of autonomy as an award and the relationship to the responders at Urban Shield 2012 made perfect sense to the responders in attendance. Fire, police, and emergency services are proud organizations based on many years of tradition and responding to incidents and disasters as independent, sovereign, self-regulating warriors; they are not about to foster the notion of “unity.”


Why won’t the strong culture of autonomy for public safety organizations be relaxed so that the incident scene can be more efficient, effective, and safe? How about the answer, egotistical? Isn’t that the same as being self-centered? Not really. One who is egotistical is also proud. It is no secret that public safety agencies are “proud” agencies with the desire to be the best and provide quality service. So, how can being egotistical be an award?

The wisdom gained through years of “agency command” of not speaking; not sharing; not communicating; and not developing shared strategic and tactical decisions, expectations, or thoughts on the same incident scene may be described as stupid, not egotistical. Since stupid is indicative of being unintelligent, egotistical better describes the award. Being a proud agency that is self-centered and arrogant provides a certain style of ownership that gives agencies and high-performance organizations identity.

All the responders to the many large-scale incidents are high performers and certainly have ownership in their organization, but can the desire to be even better, more efficient and effective, safer, and smoother supersede agency identification? Can law enforcement actually get along with fire? If responding agencies understand the benefits of incident command as opposed to agency command and then refuse to embrace the idea, the award gained from wisdom will change to stupidity.

What has fostered the environment of agency-driven command posts and nonintegration? The answer is that agencies in the same jurisdiction responding to the same incident can’t unify. It is the “me” or “my” metaphor. This is my problem, with my resources, for which I have trained, and I am now responsible for the outcome of this incident. It is no secret that this ideology has been engrained in responders for years. Having ownership of the outcome of an incident is a principle taught in the basic recruit academy.

Ahern described developing the teamwork among agencies now evident in Alameda County as “taking several thousand individuals and molding them into a unified response force that has been recognized by area leaders and politicians as a model for the country.”

How was Ahern able to crack a culture of autonomy and mold responders into a unified response force? How did he integrate agencies that train separately, have different radio channels, have different quarters or precincts, wear different uniforms, have separate budget codes and different colored vehicles and lights atop the vehicles, and who don’t communicate on a regular basis to be comfortable with the abilities of the other responders operating at the same incident?

First and foremost, he has been hosting Urban Shield in the California Bay Area for six years. Second, along with South San Francisco Fire Chief Philip White, Ahern has developed challenging scenarios that integrate sheriff/police, fire, EMS, and federal agencies and foster regional collaboration. Ahern desires to change the culture and become more efficient and effective, working as a team. He takes pride in ensuring that a unified response force integrates and provides a coordinated response to incidents in the Bay Area. This is the intent of NIMS, and it works.

Many great coaches teach there is no “I” in the word team. Individuals working in a team perform better, and individual agencies working together to mitigate the same incident work better as well. How can we change the culture of individualism at a multiagency incident? How do we eliminate the “me” or “my” excuse that will continue to exist until leaders like Ahern take ownership of the public safety culture and remove the notion of “agency command” and replace it with “incident command”? It is not my incident; it is our incident. We will use our resources together in a coordinated fashion to solve the problem presented. We will share information that all responders need to safely and efficiently mitigate this incident. We will train and prepare for incidents together and ensure that we are interoperable not only by technology but also by desire to use the technology for its intended capability. If agencies prepare for incidents together, share ideas and capabilities, and use technology to the fullest, results would be noticeable immediately.

Urban Shield 2012 is an excellent example of demonstrating teamwork; it’s not just about your individual unit, company, platoon, or agency. Responders who operate in a unified command structure are better informed, receive accurate information, and are safer when engaged. Public information is more accurate and more efficiently disseminated when approved by a unified command post. Section chiefs, branch directors, and division and group supervisors are better informed, and the citizens in need of public safety responders are provided a better product. As responders, take the opportunity to unify early and share information that will not only make the operation more efficient and effective but may also save the life of a member of your agency.


1. Urban Shield 2012 Commemorative Program, pages 6-7.

MICHAEL J. BARAKEY is a district chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to Personnel and Development. Previously, he was assigned to Operations and Training. He is a hazmat specialist, an instructor III, a nationally registered paramedic, and a neonatal/pediatric critical care paramedic for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia. Barakey is a plans team manager for the VA-TF2 US&R team and has a master of public administration degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is an FDIC classroom instructor.

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