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Back to Archives | Back to November 2004 Contents 

The National Incident Management System

By Shawn M. Herron, Attorney, Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, Richmond, Kentucky

Presidential Directive 5

In February 2003, President George W. Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5), an order mandating the development of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). HSPD-5 assigned the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the “principal Federal Officer for domestic incident management,” bearing the responsibility for coordinating all federal response efforts in a terrorist attack.

HSPD-5 recognizes the ongoing need for federal government responders to effectively work with state and local authorities, both for incidents of terrorism and other emergencies. The directive promises assistance to state and local governments in planning, training, equipment, and exercises, in furtherance of this aim. HSPD-5 places the responsibility for the criminal investigation of terrorist incidents to the U.S. attorney general, acting through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), supported by other federal law enforcement authorities, as appropriate to the specific incident. (Previously, under Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 39, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, this responsibility had also been assigned to the FBI.)

The creation and implementation of the National Incident Management System is mandated in section 16 of HSPD-5. The NIMS is intended to “provide a consistent nationwide approach for federal, state, and local governments to work effectively and efficiently together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size, or complexity.” After a tremendous amount of work, on March 1, 2004, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced the release of the NIMS.

Key Elements of NIMS

NIMS has four key elements that police departments need to institutionalize. Resources for implementing these elements are readily available from the federal government.

Incident Command System: The first major element of the NIMS is the incident command system (ICS). The NIMS incorporates a standard incident command system that establishes five functional areas—command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance and administration—for management of all major incidents. To ensure further coordination and during incidents involving multiple jurisdictions or agencies, the basic principle of unified command has been universally incorporated into NIMS. This unified command structure not only coordinates the efforts of many jurisdictions but also provides for and assures joint decisions on objectives, strategies, plans, priorities, and public communications. The NIMS requires that all public safety responders, including law enforcement officers, learn and regularly use the ICS and the multiagency coordination system.

Responder readiness to manage and conduct incident actions is significantly enhanced if professionals have worked together before an incident. NIMS recognizes this basic principle and encourages advance preparedness measures such as planning, training, exercises, qualification and certification, equipment acquisition and certification, and publication management. Preparedness also incorporates mitigation activities such as public education, enforcement of building standards and codes, and preventive measures to deter or lessen the loss of life or property.

Joint Information System: The second major element of the NIMS is communications and information management. Standardized communications during an incident are essential, and NIMS prescribes interoperable communications systems for both incident and information management. Responders and managers across all agencies and jurisdictions must have a common operating picture for a more efficient and effective incident response.

Joint Information System: The third major element of the NIMS is the joint information system (JIS). NIMS organizational measures further enhance the public communication effort, by creating an organized, integrated, and coordinated mechanism to ensure the deliver of understandable, timely, accurate, and consistent information to the public in a crisis. The joint information system provides the public with timely and accurate incident information and unified public messages. This system employs joint information centers and brings incident communicators together during an incident to develop, coordinate, and deliver a unified message. This will ensure that federal, state, tribal, and local levels of government are releasing the same information during an incident.

NIMS Integration Center: The fourth major element of the NIMS is the creation and implementation of the NIMS Integration Center (NIC). To ensure that NIMS remains an accurate and effective management tool, the NIMS NIC has been established by the secretary of homeland security to assess proposed changes to NIMS, capture and evaluate lessons learned, and employ best practices. The NIC will provide strategic direction and oversight of the NIMS, supporting both routine maintenance and continuous refinement of the system and its components over the long term. The NIC is tasked with developing national standards for NIMS education and training, first responder communications and equipment, typing of resources, qualification and credentialing of incident management and responder personnel, and standardization of equipment maintenance and resources. The NIC will continue to use the collaborative process of federal, state, tribal, local, multidiscipline, and private authorities to assess prospective changes and assure continuity and accuracy.

The NIMS Integration Center has several specific responsibilities under this mandate. The center will strongly emphasize preparedness, encouraging agencies to ensure that their employees have the necessary training, qualifications, and equipment to take on assigned tasks and be appropriately credentialed. The NIC will facilitate the research and creation of national standards for incident management training and exercises, will develop standards for personnel qualification, certification, and credentialing for designated tasks, and will identify and test equipment, with a goal of achieving interoperability. The NIC is also tasked with assisting with mutual-aid agreements between jurisdictions. Finally, the NIC is responsible for developing appropriate publications and materials to support the implementation of NIMS.

Certification and Credentialing

Certification and credentialing will be critically important for law enforcement agencies. Under the guidance of the NIC, the process will involve identifying appropriate standards and qualifications to ensure that responders have the minimum knowledge, skills, and experience to execute necessary tasks, and eventually will involve providing responders with the documentation necessary to prove they have met those requirements. As an example of such a process, wildland firefighters who may work outside their normal jurisdiction go through the “red card” credentialing process, developed by the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), which formally documents the ability of wildland firefighters (who often work outside their home jurisdiction) to perform certain wildland firefighting tasks. Most law enforcement agencies issue both a badge and a photo identification card to officers, but rarely does this identification verify a particular officer’s special skills or qualifications. Such information will be critical should that officer respond to an emergency in another jurisdiction.

To assist in this process, FEMA has begun to “type” specific resources. FEMA has outlined eight broad categories of resources:

  • Emergency management

  • Emergency medical systems (EMS)

  • Fire and hazmat

  • Health and medical

  • Law enforcement

  • Public works

  • Search and rescue

As an example, in the law enforcement category, FEMA has defined and described the equipment and personnel makeup for varying levels of bomb and explosives squads, observation aircraft (fixed wing and helicopter), mobile field force teams, and special weapons and tactical (SWAT) teams. These typings, as they are known, are intended to assist in mutual-aid requests between jurisdictions, ensuring that agencies actually get the specific resource they need when they request help from another agency. Agencies that currently have such specialty teams and resources may use these resource typings both as a guide to define and identify current capabilities and as a goal for the future.

US Department of Homeland Security Letter to Governors(PDF file)   

Homeland Security Announces Improved Resource Management Tools for National Incident Management System

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in coordination with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Integration Center, has updated enhanced resource management tools designed to help incident managers identify, obtain, and track needed resources during an incident or disaster.

“The skillful management of resources during an emergency is critical to an effective response operation,” said Michael D. Brown, undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response. “Managers must be able to communicate clearly with each other regarding the exact type of equipment, teams, or personnel being requested during emergency situations. These improved tools also will help federal, state, and local officials ensure that equipment and teams deployed through the system are compatible with those of neighboring jurisdictions that work together through mutual aid agreements.”

The new products include the updated National Mutual Aid Glossary of Terms and Definitions, which provides terms for equipment, teams, and personnel used in disasters. Resource Typing Definitions II categorizes equipment and teams by functional grouping and then “types” or organizes them according to capability or capacity or both.

Resource management is a key component of NIMS, the national standardized approach to incident management and response. NIMS is managed and maintained by Homeland Security’s NIMS Integration Center. Federal, state, and local officials should use the 120 typed definitions as they develop or update their inventories of response assets.

Resource typing establishes common resource definitions, developed by experts in the emergency management community, that help make ordering and dispatching resources during an incident more efficient and ensure that responders receive the resources they need during an emergency or disaster.

An initial 60 typed definitions were released in March 2004 as part of the National Mutual Aid and Resource Management Initiative. The new Resource Typing Definitions II provides definitions for and types an additional 60 resources for a total of 120; the glossary has been updated to include the additional 60 resources. The glossary and resource typing definitions may be downloaded at .

The resource definitions were developed by federal, state, and local experts from the following disciplines: animal health, emergency management, fire and hazardous materials, emergency medical services, health and medical, law enforcement, public works, and search and rescue.

On March 1, 2003, FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. FEMA’s continuing mission in the new department is to lead the effort to prepare the nation for all hazards and effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts after any national incident. FEMA also initiates proactive mitigation activities, trains first responders, and manages the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration.

For more information, call FEMA Public Affairs at 202-646-4600, write to the NIMS Integration Center at, or visit the NIMS Web page at .

Financial Assistance

HSPD-5 also requires that, beginning with the federal fiscal year 2005 (which began October 1, 2004), that “all federal departments and agencies “make adoption of the NIMS a requirement for providing Federal preparedness assistance through grants, contracts, or other activities.” In addition, the directive provides that “[T]he Secretary [of DHS] shall develop standards and guidelines for determining whether a State or local entity has adopted the NIMS.”

What does this mean for law enforcement agencies right now? On August 25, 2004, Gil Jamieson, acting director of the NIMS Integration Center, was a guest on the Emergency Information Infrastructure Partnership Virtual Forum, and he fielded questions from the computer audience.

Jamieson outlined the implementation schedule as currently anticipated. Compliance with the NIMS will be phased in over several years. Jamieson described fiscal year 2005 as the “ramp-up year,” with fiscal year 2006 being “used to address remaining compliance issues.” Full compliance with the entire NIMS is not expected until fiscal year 2007. He also described ways for state and local governments to begin the process of NIMS implementation:

  • First, jurisdictions can begin by simply including a formal recognition and adoption of NIMS concepts in emergency operation plans and procedures.

  • Second, agencies that have not yet already done so should begin training in the incident command system.

  • Finally, jurisdictions should establish a timeline to ensure full implementation by the end of fiscal year 2006.

FEMA has made several resources available to help agencies in this effort. ICS is normally taught in four levels, and all emergency responders should have at least the basic level of ICS, which is usually taught as an introduction to ICS and a basic ICS course. Such classes can be completed through FEMA interactive online classes, or through classes given by state and local emergency management agencies. Command level officers, depending upon their anticipated responsibilities in an emergency, should complete intermediate or advanced ICS courses. FEMA also offers NIMS awareness training as an interactive, Web-based course that can be completed in short segments. Individuals who complete any of these computer-based training courses will receive a certificate from FEMA. FEMA and the NIC will be working to ensure that appropriate ICS training is available and is consistent with the principles set forth in the NIMS.

On July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its final report. In its recommendations, the commission noted that the attacks of that day “overwhelmed the response capacity of most of the local jurisdictions where the hijacked airliners crashed.” The commission strongly supported the decision (in HSPD-5) to require that all emergency response agencies adopt and use the ICS system, and further recommended that additional monies be “contingent on aggressive and realistic training in accordance with ICS and unified command procedures.”

The 9/11 Commission closed the chapter of its report on the events of the day of the attacks, titled “Heroism and Horror,” with the following:

The first responders of today live in a world transformed by the attacks on 9/11. Because no one believes that every conceivable form of attack can be prevented, civilians and first responders will again find themselves on the front lines. We must plan for that eventuality. A rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day.

Online Resources

The HSPD-5 can be found at .

The National Integration Center (NIC) Web site is located at This site includes a link to the NIMS document.

The National Mutual Aid and Resource Management Initiative, which includes the resource typings that have been completed, can be found at .

The Emergency Information Infrastructure Partnership Virtual Forum, which includes a full transcript of Gil Jamieson’s online discussion of the NIMS is in the archives and can be found at .

The FEMA Basic ICS independent study class can be found at .

The FEMA NIMS independent study class can be found at .

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States by National Commission on Terrorist Attacks can be found at


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 11, November 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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