NIMS and ICS: a new alphabet soup

Brian Usher
Director of Public Works & Engineering
City of Zion, Illinois
Member, APWA Emergency Management Committee

The alphabet world of acronyms. DHS, NRP, NIMS, NIC, ICS, APWA, AWWA, WEF, SWANA, DOT. Where would we be without them? Did you ever stop and count how many times a day we use an acronym or abbreviation?

Currently, there are two acronyms important to our ability in responding to and preparing for emergencies in our communities. This article will hopefully provide an update and overview of current activities related to the implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and introduction of Incident Command Systems (ICS) into the public works arena.

As of this past September, all governmental entities and organizations should be NIMS compliant. Such compliance would include:

  • Revision of Legal Authority documents to reflect NIMS components.

  • Revision of Emergency Plans, Annexes, Exercises and Operating Procedures to reflect NIMS protocols and standards to include utilization of ICS in daily operations and Multi-Agency coordination systems.

  • Ensure all relevant employees have completed the appropriate NIMS courses based upon their experience and response level, including IS-700 and IC 100, 200, 300 and/or 400.

  • Revision of training activities and protocols to provide hands-on practice and evaluation of NIMS and ICS familiarity.

The NIMS Integration Center (NIC) is currently finalizing a formal assessment tool for future reporting of NIMS compliance. This tool will be based upon specific subsets of the NIMS process and will require quantitative information to be provided. This is a departure from the current process of self-certification the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used up to this point. The criteria have been reviewed and refined based upon input received by multi-discipline work groups. Additional information regarding this reporting methodology will be issued by the NIC in the coming months.

The NIC has also been moving forward with the National Credentialing Project. This project provides the foundation to establish national guidelines for minimum levels of training and experience for personnel responding to mutual aid events outside their normal area of response. Discipline-specific work groups are finalizing the recommended training and experience levels for the first tier of responder positions. These recommendations are being reviewed by the NIMS Integration Center, and once they are edited into a standardized format, will be sent to user groups for peer review. It is anticipated that the formal implementation of this system backbone will be in place by early spring 2007.

The process of utilizing Incident Command is the key component of the NIMS document. Many people who do not work in the fire service believe that they can't utilize Incident Command because it is too cumbersome or not applicable. But in fact, we in public works have been using this in principle for quite awhile. We just have not adopted the formal titles or positions.

Any command or management system is based upon the concepts related to span of control. First identified by the military, countless studies have supported the idea that one person efficiently can directly supervise between three and nine other persons, depending on a number of influences including the complexity of the job, distance from supervision, and distance from support. In public works we generally assign our employees to subsets within our organizations, crews, units, teams or divisions.

In most cases we are already subdivided along lines providing for effective span of control. In general, each crew or work unit has a leader, two or more work units have a first-line supervisor, and above that we have the management or command personnel. Without even realizing it, we have been so close to following our uniformed brethren's program, just not with the same institutional fervor.

While working in your own community it is not necessary that you change your current reporting or operations. It will be when you respond to assist other agencies that ICS becomes important. When your personnel and equipment arrive at the intake area they will be assigned either to an ICS Branch or into a staging area. Once assigned, these personnel will report through the ICS chain of command as designated by the incident command structure.

We never know when the next emergency or disaster will strike. Will it be our community or across the country? Will you and your agency be a mutual aid resource, or be the Incident Command host? Ensure that your personnel are trained to understand what this ICS is and make it part of your regular training. Don't wait until the sirens are sounding or the water is rising to begin. We are always there to do whatever the community needs, but how much better could we do this with a fully ICS-trained staff?

Brian Usher, an APWA Top Ten in 2005, can be reached at (847) 746-4064 or