Thursday, September 4, 2008

Elections, are they over yet?

The elections this year means hours and hours of political discussions on “hot button” issues. Many bloggers are working overtime analyzing, criticizing, and restating these political discussions. As readers of my blog know, I am not a political junkie and only bring up politics because there really very little else being covered in the news.

Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have focused and organized their agencies around preventing or reacting to a terrorist attack. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) concept became the de facto standard for everyone from first responders to the National Guard. NIMS is the overarching organizational concept that uses the Incident Command System (ICS) as its basic component. ICS was created by West Coast firefighters to deal with large scale forest fires. ICS is a modular concept expanding or contracting as the size of the response changes.

DHS and FEMA, in looking for a national standard, focused on NIMS and requires any agency looking for federal dollars to be NIMS compliant. Sounds fine until you start to read some of the academic papers on how NIMS and ICS are really implemented. To DHS, whenever an incident (ranging from a fire to a hurricane) occurs all responding agencies fall in on the ICS and NIMS model. In large metropolitan areas with huge fire, EMS, and police departments having a common organizational structure to add resources from outside agencies makes sense. But as typically happens with a one-size fits all approach, when you leave the metropolitan areas another model appears.

In rural America, over 90 percent of the fire departments are volunteer departments. The sparseness of populations means funding for large, full-time departments doesn’t exist. The smaller volunteer departments may have to cover large areas. Rather than becoming a deficit, volunteer departments and their communities leverage relationships to form strong response packages. Smaller communities take great pride in being able to protect their friends and families without depending on resources arriving from outside. What this means is NIMS really isn’t a factor in the majority of the United States. Smaller communities build their response packages on years of knowing one another and who has which resources. They don’t go outside of the communities for the most part to deal with major disasters.

Even larger areas tend to follow their typical response protocols without regard to NIMS. All of this makes me ask, has DHS and FEMA created a paper lion? If NIMS became the aegis to protect the United States from another terrorist attack, what will the policies of the next administration mean? My hope is they move away from a national standard to responding to disasters and to a more local approach. Each state has an emergency management office that works for the governor. These agencies understand the threats, capabilities and funding issues better than any national agency. Let these agencies form their response protocols without some vague “compliance” requirement to compete for federal funding. A governor’s declaration of emergency is all that is needed to qualify for federal relief funding. Some may quip, what about federal dollars for training? Those dollars are associated with NIMS and DHS compliance, which may or may not have any relevance to the threats facing a local community.

What about federal grants? Grants are a dual-edged sword, while they allow communities to purchase equipment otherwise unavailable there is no ability to maintain and update equipment through grants. Grants can create an uneven distribution of resources when one community has a great grant writer and another doesn’t.

During the next months of discussing alternative energy, Iran, Russia and the economy it will be interesting to see if there will be any discussions regarding the roles of DHS and FEMA in the future.

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