Last summer’s hydrocarbon hysteria in the Gulf of Mexico kept all manners of emergency responders occupied from Louisiana to Florida. It has renewed interest in the topic of incident command. Originally, incident command developed around the concept of how best to manage and maintain control of the dozens of simultaneous operations carried out on the typical fire ground emergency, i.e., structure fires.
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, emergency responders found themselves tasked with monitoring personnel and resources numbering in the thousands. Sure, we have all been through the classes and been taught how to move the troops around on paper, but this was the real thing. We hardly ever have to do the real thing on this scale. Most operations come down to one- or two-alarm fires where we never have to fill in all the boxes on the command sheet.
What happened in the Gulf shows that all those boxes are there for a good reason. It also shows that events that big are still something for which we need to train. That is where NIMS comes into play. NIMS, or National Emergency Management System, coordinates emergency preparedness and incident management among various federal, state and local agencies. It represents a core set of doctrine, concepts, terminology and organizational processes to enable effective, efficient and collaborative incident management at all levels.
NIMS is an advanced large-scale incident management program. It covers incidents where we have thousands of personnel, hundreds of pieces of apparatus and communications taking place on dozens of radio and satellite frequencies. Learning to command such an all-encompassing system is not something you do at a Boy’s Scout camp to earn a merit badge. It is something you learn because someday your incident command may be put to the greatest test possible.
This is not just a test of your resources and responders, but of the written emergency plan by which your facility lives or dies. If you do not think that drafting such a plan is challenging go talk to the people who dealt with what followed the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire. How do you communicate with responders who, in mid-May, were scattered across a 45,728 square-mile area of the Gulf? How do you get them more boats and oil boom when needed?
Waiting until that monumental event happens is never the best way to test your plan. The best way is to perform drills so that when the fateful day comes you have already been there, know the players and are actually looking forward to testing your plan.
Recently I evaluated the emergency plan at one plant where the management even questioned the need for an emergency operations center. I patiently explained that EOC manages resources beyond the immediate needs of the emergency responders. In an industrial situation, the EOC interfaces with local authorities and state and federal agencies. When you have an event audible and possibly visible to much of the surrounding community, plant management will find themselves communicating with a lot of new people beyond the fence.
At least once a year plants need to bring in consultants to evaluate their plans during an actual emergency drill. Industrial Fire World is hosting such an event at its 26th annual training and exposition in April in Mobile, AL. (See event program on page 19.) The plan is to bring in representatives of the local fire departments, law enforcement, industrial response teams and on-scene coordinators. Hopefully, the scope of the exercise will extend to include the Regional Response Team and other federal agencies.
You may meet people in emergency response positions that you never knew existed. When you go home you can say "Hey, we learned something new." What you really learned is that your emergency plan needs a lot more work. It also says that you need to open your mind to the broadest range of catastrophe possible. The lawyers call it "willful ignorance" when someone intentionally puts themselves in a position to be unaware of facts that might make them liable in court.
Take your pick – willful ignorance or a workable incident command. Only one will help put the fire out.