Going To School With NIMS

In May of 2004, at Randallstown High School in Randallstown, Md., a dispute between two students escalated from a fistfight into a brawl and finally into a shooting. The shooter, a student, who had been told to stay home for a cooling off day, wounded three students and partially paralyzed another.

Suppose this had happened at a school in your district. Would your personnel have known how to respond?

The administrators, faculty and staff at Randallstown did know how to respond. A number of key personnel had received training in NIMS — the National Incident Management System.

As the event unfolded, the principal assumed the post of incident commander, and others picked up support roles for which they had been trained.

While the shooting itself had ended, the response was just beginning. In the minutes after the shooting, school personnel called the police and ambulance, provided first aid to the wounded and performed numerous other tasks called for in the school’s emergency response plan.

In short order, Baltimore County police and fire personnel arrived, expanded the number of responders and responding organizations on the scene and altered the incident management structure to account for the new arrivals. “We moved into a unified command structure,” says Michael W. Robinson, Sr., Division Chief, Fire-Rescue Academy, with the Baltimore County Fire Department.

The principal remained incident commander for the school. Robinson assumed the post of incident commander for the fire department’s emergency medical technicians, while the ranking police officer took over as incident commander for the police. “As a unified command structure, we discussed decisions from all points of view and made decisions together,” continues Robinson.

The unified command worked methodically through the emergency response plan, employing the NIMS management structure throughout. Familiarity with NIMS enabled the principal and school personnel to work effectively with police and fire emergency responders, ensuring a swift, competent response to an emergency that could have been much worse had it been managed poorly.

Where Did NIMS Come From?
The seeds for NIMS grew out of lessons learned during a particularly devastating wildfire season in California during the early 1970s. Mounting a response adequate to the massive wildfires required a number of organizations to collaborate and coordinate their efforts.

Nothing went well. Many people died, and many others suffered injuries. Property damage ran into the millions.

A formal review of the failures of firefighters during that wildfire season grew into something called an Incident Command System (ICS).

The ICS remedied a number of weaknesses unearthed during the review. It defined clear chains of command and supervision, making leaders both responsible and accountable. ICS set clear lines of communication and demanded the use of plain English instead of jargon so that no one — among the response team or the affected general public — could misunderstand the goals being sought. The system was modular, so that the command structure could grow and shrink in proportion to response needs. Collaboration and coordination became the rules, while freelancing by individuals was discouraged.

The ICS spread to emergency response organizations across the country, including police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians in the National Capital Region around Washington, D.C. It gained national credibility when it was used to manage the National Capital Region’s response to the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon.

After 9/11, the President issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 5, which instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop an incident management system that could serve as a common organizational standard for any kind of local, state or national emergency. ICS became the model for that standard, which is NIMS.

A revised and updated NIMS came out in 2008.

Just What Is NIMS?
NIMS is a flexible, plain English organizational framework designed to provide a common standard for emergency management. It is flexible in that the components of NIMS can aid in the development of plans, processes, procedures, agreements and roles for many different kinds of incidents — large or small, simple or complex. NIMS also provides a way for disparate organizations and agencies to collaborate on, and coordinate their work to achieve, a common goal — another benefit of the system’s flexibility.

NIMS has been used to manage major sporting events, community events, responses to natural and man-made disasters and other kinds of incidents.

NIMS focuses on four management components: command, preparedness, resource management and communications and information management.

NIMS and Schools
The first NIMS standard arrived on March 1, 2004. Three days later, Maryland formally adopted NIMS as its standard. Baltimore County followed suit shortly thereafter. “We use NIMS to manage crises in Baltimore County,” Robinson says. “On any given day, if there is an emergency in a Baltimore County school, school personnel use the system. When the fire department responds to a fire or to a medical emergency at any school in the county, we will be met by that school’s incident commander.”

Other states have adopted NIMS and set requirements for schools in the process. “Illinois requires that you have an incident command team in your school,” says Randy Braverman, a senior consultant with Lemont, Ill.-based RETA Security, Inc.

To find out if your state requires some form of NIMS compliance, check with the state emergency management agency.

Given the violent incidents that have plagued schools in recent years, virtually all schools have developed emergency response plans. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has set up a grant program to help K-12 schools develop effective emergency response plans. Called Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS), the program provides resources to help pay consultants or experts for help in developing emergency management plans and to train school administrators, faculty and staff in emergency management procedures. Details about REMS are available at http://rems.ed.gov.

Districts that receive REMS grants must take certain NIMS courses from certified sources and become “NIMS compliant.”

Even if you are not applying for REMS grants or other preparedness funds that require NIMS compliance, NIMS training may be worthwhile. NIMS will not only help school personnel implement an emergency management plan, it will enable a better, more integrated response from outside emergency responders.

NIMS training is available free at www.training.fema.gov,  the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training Website. At that Website, click the “Emergency Management Institute” button. On the next page, select “National Incident Management System (NIMS) Information.”

You’ll find a list of introductory NIMS-compliant courses covering topics such as the Incident Command System, NIMS, resource management and communications. A number of the courses focus on specific disciplines; one covers K-12 schools in particular.

Randy Braverman of RETA Security, Inc. is certified by the Illinois Terrorism Task Force to teach NIMS courses to K-12 school personnel. He recommends taking three courses right away:
  • IS-100.SCa: Introduction to the Incident Command System for Schools;
  • IS-200.b (ICS 200) ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents; and
  • IS-700.a National Incident Management System (NIMS), An Introduction.
“You can take these courses free online,” he says. “But many local emergency response agencies will provide training for free as well. I recommend a trainer familiar with school emergency response needs. NIMS is much easier for school personnel to understand if they work with trainers that use examples tailored to school problems.”

Who Should Take NIMS Training In Your School?

Administrators, department chairs, teachers, counselors, virtually everyone can benefit from exposure to some form of NIMS training. “Suppose a faculty member just returned from a tour of duty in IRAQ,” says Braverman. “He or she would be a candidate for training.”

In selecting candidates for NIMS training, consider when and where problems might arise.

If you train a cross section of people, most will be available during the day. But who is in the school early, before the school day begins and late, after it ends? Faculty and staff that are in the building early and late may have to deal with problems without support from the administration. Training may do them a lot of good.

Consider training nuts and bolts people, too — the people that take care of the details. “The custodian, for instance, is the lead logistics person in a school,” says Robinson. “Custodians know the layout of the facility and the grounds. They know what supplies are available and where they are stored.”

Principals, vice principals and others that administrators, faculty and staff look to for direction should take the courses.

So should people with the temperament to deal with emergencies — people that remain calm when life goes crazy. Send them to NIMS school.