The Right Thing and the Right Way

BY BOBBY HALTON

As a young man, I was taught that a gentleman never discusses religion or politics in polite company. As firefighters, we may want to add NIMS (National Incident Management System) to that list. It’s interesting what we firefighters are allowed to question and, even more so, what we are not allowed to question. The fire service’s new 800-pound gorilla is NIMS. Right up front, I want to make it clear that I have always supported the use of a NIMS for the coordination of resources to ensure successful and safe operations. Let me also be very clear that most fire service operations are local in nature. And finally, this is not an editorial on the value, importance, or credibility of NIMS—those are not in question.

NIMS began in the 1970s when several California firefighters used their military backgrounds to create the FIRESCOPE model of incident command for wildland firefighting. FIRESCOPE worked extremely well and brought in a new era of command and control to the management of large-scale incidents. A few years later, Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department created the Fireground Command system, based on his exposure to FIRESCOPE. And for the next 30 years, American cities by and large adopted, adapted, and in some way began to use some type of hybrid combination of Fireground Command ICS and FIRESCOPE ICS, and these two excellent systems served us well.

Following 9/11, it was decided that the fire service needed to use one incident management system. The result was Presidential Directive Number Five: “To enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system …. To prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies, the United States Government shall establish a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management ….”

No one can argue with the intelligence behind this directive. We need to have discussions, however, about the local implementation of this particular directive and how the training and certification of this training are accomplished.

Chief Brunacini recently suggested to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that we take a look at the local implementation of NIMS and how the LIMS (Local Incident Management System) should look. In a letter to the NFPA, Chief Brunacini suggested that the NFPA should consider a new standard that, in his words, would “provide local incident commanders with guidance on how to effectively use ICS on smaller incidents.” This suggestion did not sit well with some of my closest and very well-respected friends. They responded with a letter saying the proposal was “what appears to be a deliberate void of factual information describing the resounding successes of ICS and NIMS” and “misleading and filled with misinformation regarding NIMS-ICS.” In essence, they said Chief Brunacini was a big fat liar.

What struck me was how emotional the response was. NIMS is a system, a tool—something that should be as devoid of emotional attachment as how your automatic ice maker works. That a recommendation impacting NIMS elicited the response it did from some very responsible and respectable people should cause us all to step back and calmly reassess what the real and perceived issues are.

The real issue is not a failure of ICS or NIMS; rather, it is an educational and training opportunity, one most educators welcome and expect. All training evolves or dies. I would like to point out that ICS had, prior to 9/11, been almost universally adopted in America—maybe not in its purest version and maybe not to the extent that was needed, but the transition had well begun. The opportunity here is to teach NIMS better.

Several issues need to be addressed in the current training of NIMS. Foremost is the widespread pencil whipping of the online NIMS educational program. Recently, one of the most respected fire chiefs in America admitted to me that he himself had pencil whipped NIMS 700. Why can’t our NIMS be recalibrated and tailored more effectively to tighten the security and compliance issues?

It only makes sense to listen to some of the concerns and perhaps tweak the educational delivery regarding the local-level management components of NIMS. We should be asking, Is NIMS currently being explained in a way that encourages the rank-and-file structural firefighters to want to use it? Most importantly, we must recognize that NIMS makes us more effective and safer on the fireground but only when it is clearly understood and accepted.

The critical question is, Is NIMS really being implemented in a consistent way at the local level? I recently heard a fire chief connected with the development of NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System, state that his interpretation of NIMS demands that first-due company officers remain outside as “Command” and direct their crews from an exterior location at every working structure fire. I could not disagree more. This takes the most experienced member, the one identified as the small unit team leader, the key to the success of the American fire service, out of the equation and places less experienced members of the team in a highly complex, dynamic environment in which they are at the highest risk.

There could be no greater misinterpretation of how tactical operations should be conducted safely and effectively in complex dynamic environments. A company officer should never leave his crew unless an officer of equal capability can be placed immediately in the direction of that command. This disagreement represents two good officers’ radically differing positions on a fundamental local NIMS component. The NFPA decided, based on feedback, that it was not interested in having this discussion. Respectfully, Chief Brunacini may be wrong or he may be right, but there is a right way and a wrong way to express our disagreements.

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