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The National Incident Management System: Communication and Connection

Schools will soon be required to follow a chain of communication that could help keep order during emergencies

Across the country, districts are preparing for the start of a new school year. They have to be prepared for new students and employees, new bus routes and even the unexpected. As part of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD), the Department of Homeland Security created the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a system that allows responders from different agencies to work in a collaborative effort when responding to emergencies, which could include natural disasters or acts of terrorism. Schools are now becoming more informed and interwoven into their community’s emergency response teams as a result.

Taking Initiative
Some schools have decided to educate their staff on NIMS compliance before it is mandated by either a state bill or a grant requirement. For David Twiddy, transportation director for Dare County Schools in the Town of Nags Head, N.C., the training was not only educational, it was an eye opener on what his department needed to do in an emergency.

“I think a lot of counties and districts do not even know what to do or how to work with police, fire or emergency medical services. One big problem is that no one uses the same communication device. In my county, police, fire and EMS have different radio frequencies. No one can talk to each other with out calling into a central dispatcher,” said Twiddy.

NIMS training can help a school district see what needs to be improved and can aid in planning out emergency procedures.

“Our transportation department stays very current by implementing and training our entire staff for a ‘bomb on the bus’ plan for our entire fleet of 118 buses which we involved our local fire, EMS, police,” said Milt Waye, assistant director of transportation at Brockport, N.Y., Central School District. “It was guided by the sergeant of our local sheriff’s bomb squad.”

A Rewording of Past Policies
For most states, NIMS compliance is not mandated at the school district level, although it is recommended by the feds. According to Lanny Holmes, NIMS coordinator for FEMA Region VIII, the agency has always strongly encouraged NIMS compliance from the state level to the local level, including school districts. But, because education systems are not traditional response agencies, many have not been integrated into local NIMS-compliance exercises.

But NIMS is nothing new. The concept for incident command, or managing by objective of an incident, has been around since 1986 with SARA Title III, also known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA). It required all municipalities and local emergency planning committees to have a plan, to exercise that plan annually, to review their hazards of vulnerability in their community, and to work with local industry to mitigate any problems.

“If they didn’t use them, it would be chaos,” said Mike Brazel, NIMS coordinator for FEMA Region I. “It’s become more acute now and people are realizing that there’s a lot more that needs to be done to insure that people’s lives and property are protected. They are trying to put a national flavor to this so that everyone across the country is speaking the same language.”

Each state has a point of contact or state NIMS coordinator who works with other state agencies and organizations to make sure that information is being disseminated and implemented down to the local level.

Before the mandates of the 9/11 directive, some school districts were already gearing their training towards emergency preparedness. Bob Caldwell, Scarsdale, N.Y., Union Free School District’s one-time director of transportation, did not wait for an emergency to happen to get his department ready for a crisis. In the late 1990s, Caldwell and his team, along with agencies from the state, county and local level, held mass casualty exercises consisting of both workshops and hands-on demonstrations.

“These drills included burning a bus to show the evolution of a fire on a school bus, a simulated bus crash with multiple injuries and an overturned school bus rescue so that the police and fire departments could practice cutting a school bus to evacuate the kids,” said Caldwell, who also held the positions of both emergency coordinator and safety officer for the district, also chaired the safety committee. “We tried to make them as realistic as we could. Everyone felt more comfortable knowing what they needed to do is something did happen, but none of it was mandated.“

Mandated but Unfunded
According to FEMA’s Pam Bramblette, all 50 states are NIMS-compliant, but there is no real way to understand how thorough the compliance actually is.

“This is a self-assessment. We have no vehicle in place at this point to actually determine whether they are or aren’t,” added Bramblette, the program manager for FEMA’s National Integration Center (NIC) Incident Management Systems Integration Division, which provides oversight and counsel on NIMS. “We don’t go in and say ‘prove it.’ We let them go down their checklist and say, ‘yes we are compliant,’ and then the states report back to us.”

Presently, NIMS compliance is somewhat of an unfunded mandate, making it difficult for FEMA to swoop in and mandate what must be done on a state level. As such, school districts are considered a local issue by the feds, with local jurisdiction or the state having the right to mandate what districts need to do to become compliant.

Taking it to a Different Level
Some states have recently taken step towards bringing NIMS to their local schools. As part of SB08-181, which was signed by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter in mid-May, the state now requires school districts to adopt a school emergency response framework and maintain data related to school safety, emergency readiness, incident management plans, and to report specific incidents when an emergency plan was utilized.

“Folks really need to understand that we’re not in this alone,” said Cheri Clymer, an emergency management and planning specialist for Thompson School District in Loveland, Colo. “It’s not like a single school district is trying to manage it alone. We can all call each other, e-mail each other, we can practice together.”

Clymer’s district is currently working towards including policies within their emergency procedures plan that are outlined in the national incident management system, which incorporates training, setting up an actual emergency plan, and following the NIMS’ steps involving exercising and evaluation and then training all personnel in the system.

“The national response framework is like a class, NIMS is like the book for that class and the incident command system is like a chapter in the book. It goes into a management concept. And everyone needs to learn that concept,” added Clymer.

Colorado school districts will not only be required to hold exercises but also bring in evaluators to review the actual drill, which could include either a mock emergency response or a tabletop exercise where the major players — firefighters, emergency services, police, school officials — respond to pre-scripted messages for their specific agency.

“Then, if there’s an issue, you solve it right there at the table instead of waiting until something really does happen and you’re in trouble,” said Clymer.

Grant Requirements
If your school district has decided to apply to a federal grant, you may have to bring your personnel up to speed on the latest NIMS requirements — or at least begin to.

“Depending on what they are applying for, there are certain criteria concerning NIMS-compliance that the grant people have requested,” said FEMA’s Bramblette. “But being NIMS compliant does not mean they will automatically receive the grant.”

According to Brazel of FEMA Region I, any organization, whether it be a school district or local law enforcement, must show evidence that 50 percent of their training is completed.

But NIMS compliance is not only necessary for DHS emergency preparedness grants, it is a requirement for other federal agencies.

“The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has outlined its own NIMS compliance requirements for schools and higher educations to be eligible for its grants,” said Marc Tagliento, a program specialist for FEMA’s NIMS Integration Center. “[The DOE] requires compliance for both the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools and Emergency Management for Higher Education grants.”

Reprinted from the September 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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