NIMS/ICS and Drug-Enforcement Operations - Yes and No

Author’s Note: Drug-enforcement operations present a unique set of circumstances. The planning and execution of drug-interdiction operations – sometimes referred to as “busts” – frequently require not only intense intelligence generating, precision, and speed, but also stealth and secrecy. If an undercover law-enforcement agent is revealed or discovered, the result is all too often tragic. If a drug bust is suspected by a drug cartel, it will simply disappear and reestablish operations elsewhere under completely new circumstances. In both cases, the counterdrug agency’s investments of time, effort, manpower, and money to conduct investigations and prepare for enforcement operations are almost instantly wiped out. What is worse, and increasingly more dangerous, is that some extremely brazen groups have taken to outright warfare on law enforcement, in operations that more often than not adversely affect the general public, as has happened in the increasing number of horrendous incidents that have occurred both in Mexico itself and on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border – which is but one of the tragic consequences of drug operations gone awry. For that reason alone, almost all of the sources contacted for information related to such operations asked to remain anonymous. In addition, it also should be noted that, in discussing use of the federal government’s Incident Command System (ICS) in drug-enforcement operations, the law-enforcement officers interviewed for this article were particularly careful not to reveal specific details of counterdrug operations in general, and the management of tactical operations in particular. For that reason, and in respect to those requests, the names of interviewees, and/or of other persons directly involved, or previously involved, in U.S. counterdrug operations are not provided in the following article.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has identified drug trafficking as one of the most significant means by which other illegal activities – including terrorism – are being funded both internationally and from within the United States itself. Illegal drug distribution and sales have in fact become a major source of funding in recent years not only for theoretically “local” drug dealers but also for transnational drug cartels. Numerous reports, such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency’s Fiscal Year 2009–2014 Strategic Plan, cite numerous suspected and/or confirmed links between various drug cartels and many terrorist organizations throughout the world.

The increased number and growing violence of confrontations between U.S. law-enforcement agencies and the international drug cartels – and/or individual drug traffickers – demonstrate the extent to which the drug trade has in recent years overshadowed older and more traditional methods of funding illegal activities. Consequently, local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities are being challenged both to: (a) reassess and refine their own tactical and operational philosophies; and (b) maximize the techniques needed for managing the counterdrug operations required to disrupt, deter, and interdict drug trafficking.

Whether law enforcement should embrace and utilize the National Incident Management System’s Incident Command System (NIMS-ICS) in order to command and manage drug-enforcement actions has met with mixed responses from various agencies. Uniformed agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as well as the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) have begun to embrace the incident command system (ICS) for incident operations management (although the extent to which agencies have “bought into” ICS as the standard for management is unknown); it seems obvious, though, that the U.S. Coast Guard has at all levels made good use of the ICS for many of its operational missions.

Different Approaches in Name, But Often Just the Same

Although other federal agencies have also made significant strides in adopting and utilizing ICS, tradition and historically institutionalized concepts and management processes often present challenges for organizations trying to adopt or adapt the ICS for operational needs – e.g., in many law enforcement organizations. When asked if their agencies use the ICS “model” or “approach” for certain drug-enforcement actions or missions, most local and state authorities interviewed offered one of the following responses: (a) “Our agency uses ICS, but not the way the fire department does”; or (b) “Drug operations are different from fires and occur so rapidly that it is not practical to have all of the ICS positions that NIMS requires.” In both responses, law enforcement authorities seem to perceive ICS to be a “fire-centric” or similar system not applicable for certain law enforcement operations.

However, after further discussion it also became evident that, intentionally or not, many law enforcement activities closely mirror military command and management processes. In fact, the Department of Defense’s own Command Management System (CMS) consists of the same core elements as postulated for ICS: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Administration – with “Intelligence” also being a major component of the military model that would be generally applicable to most if not quite all other management situations.

Those interviewed generally stated that their organizations could not or were not using ICS as framed in NIMS policies – but in actual operations they were in fact applying almost the same core elements. The distinction seems to be that they do not use the common nomenclature associated with ICS being taught to comply with NIMS. Indeed, this may be perceived by those who call themselves “ICS purists” as a violation of a cardinal rule. However, it should also be noted that another key management concept of ICS is its “flexibility.” Therefore, a case can be made that a “violation” of the common terminology rule does not necessarily negate the fundamentals of the system itself.

For example, according to Virginia State Police sources, when a significant (or even a lesser) operation is undertaken, a “command board” is typically established. (Unlike the command boards historically used by fire-service personnel to track operational assignments and resources, “command board” is typically used in this context to identify both the operational command function and the personnel who staff it.) That board may consist of possibly one or two – but sometimes more – senior law enforcement officials representing the agencies involved in planning and executing the action, and is tantamount to the incident command function. Because many drug-enforcement operations involve multiple law enforcement agencies, it is fundamentally the same as a Unified Command.

Aligning the MOUs with Common Sense and Basic Realities

In some ways similar to the principles taught in ICS training, law-enforcement agencies at all levels of government prepare for multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional scenarios through pre-incident planning, practice, familiarization, and the development of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), all of which help provide a cohesive framework of policy, protocol, and overarching guidance. Once again, there is a close alignment with a basic tenet of ICS – namely, pre-incident planning and cooperation.

There also are, of course, certain unique situations that do not strictly conform to standing MOU conditions. For example, the command board established for a particular drug-enforcement action will usually focus first on developing an MOU for the incident being planned, then flesh it out and put it in writing so that all participating agencies know the same “rules of the road” for the particular operation being planned. Once again, this approach closely aligns with the activities that typically take place in the early stages of any incident. Those activities include but are not necessarily limited to the AA (agency administrator) briefing, an initial command meeting, an information-sharing meeting, and an initial strategy meeting, all of which receive particular attention in the ICS “Planning P.”

Also, in ways similar to the core ICS principle of planning and assigning responsibilities during an initial unified command meeting, the primary responsibility for directing operational assignments is conferred on a selected representative of the agency with the greatest commitment of resources and operational involvement. (One example: In Virginia, if the operations are initiated by the State Police – but significantly assisted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and/or other federal or state agencies – the tactical operations will almost always be directed by a Virginia State Police supervisor.)

Other Similarities – But Special Considerations Also Involved

Another similarity between ICS and drug-enforcement operations is the designation of a safety officer, who is typically someone who possesses intimate knowledge of the potential dangers and difficulties that may well be confronted during the incident – chemical, biological, or other hazards, for example, as well as various tactical problems. Whoever is designated, that person is responsible not only for developing a safety plan or framework but also for briefing senior-level commanders and obtaining the tactical resources needed before operations begin.

According to one interviewee, a high-ranking officer in one of the nation’s largest police departments, “We all know we need to establish command and control for every operation, but in most cases we don’t detail the ICS positions by the same names” [that are used in ICS]. “We have been doing these things the same way for so long,” he further noted, “that it has become institutionalized in our world.” As has often been the case in many other human endeavors, it is a major challenge to abruptly change several generations of training and “conditioning” in 10 years or less – i.e., the length of time, conveniently enough, in which the NIMS framework has been in existence.

As noted earlier, a key ICS principle is its operational flexibility. For that reason, and despite the fact that position titles may not strictly conform to ICS terminology, most functions are carried out in much the same manner – and generally with the same intended outcomes. Major drug-enforcement operations involving long-term, widespread, and/or multi-faceted operations are planned, for example, under closely guarded conditions from inception through planning and execution. If the principal players are all talking in the same terms, operating in much the same manner, and operating under common protocols, a strong case can be made that they are, indeed, conforming to most if not quite all of the key ICS principles. It also should be remembered that ICS successes are predicated, at least in part, on the clarity of formal and informal communications – a common-sense practice that applies first and foremost to internal functions within the command organization. Outside sources who have no legitimate (i.e., operational) “need to know” should therefore not have access to information that could compromise either the planning or the operations that follow.

However, a challenge does sometimes arise when it is determined that a particular operation might require the involvement of other than law-enforcement resources. For example, when planning indicates the need for emergency medical services resources, either on-site or near-site, those “resources” – EMTs (emergency medical technicians) usually – must be briefed in reasonable detail and given a locational assignment that typically would not be visible from the target location, which would be a potential tip-off that something “unusual” is about to happen. The same briefing would provide the guidance needed for various communications protocols – the notification for activation, for example.

In other scenarios – e.g., carrying out a raid on a clandestine drug lab – health-department or environmental authorities may be solicited for help in the operation. In such cases, it becomes essential that an effective liaison is established, well ahead of time (if possible), between the primary command agency and the assisting agencies. Here it should be recognized that, because of the potential legal and operational complexities involved, law-enforcement agencies have historically faced some major challenges in establishing effective liaison with non-law-enforcement agencies. In today’s much more complex world, fortunately, major efforts are being made in and between the numerous agencies likely to be involved in counterdrug operations to inform and liaise with other agencies, at all levels of government, when their involvement is warranted.

Making a Federal Case Out of It: Often the Best Way to Go

One key decision point that may significantly affect the establishment of command objectives is the determination of prosecution authority and/or prerogatives. For example, discussion by the command board or “Joint Task Force” (the military designation now used, as and when appropriate, to describe a joint federal/state/local command organization) might involve decisions regarding how a particular case will or should be prosecuted in court. If made in advance, that determination will often be a key factor in deciding not only: (a) who will serve as the tactical operations leader (Operations Chief); but also (b) who will have responsibility for evidence collection and establishing and maintaining a legally defensible chain of custody; and, quite possibly (c) a number of other factors critical to the presentation, by prosecutors in court, of a sound legal case.

According to one knowledgeable official interviewed, the determination of a prosecuting authority is likely to be key to the agreement by senior officers on the probable long-term impact of the counterdrug case against the drug trafficking operation. For example, if a successful prosecution can have a significant disruptive impact on trafficking regionally – or perhaps even nationally – the operational planning and execution may be overseen by federal authorities. Criminal cases taken to federal courts, if successful, may and often do result in stronger and longer periods of incarceration – and for that reason alone, most and frequently all of the officials and authorities involved in a major counterdrug operation usually agree that federal authorities should take primary responsibility for the operation. In a number of other cases, though, certain complicating factors may, and do, make prosecution in state courts a more logical decision. Obviously, all of these and other decisions can significantly affect how a specific operation is managed.

In summary, ICS – as defined and described in NIMS – is not always formally used and/or described as such in drug-enforcement operations. For most practical purposes, though, ICS is simply another way of describing “management.” And, it is worth emphasizing, most drug-enforcement operations are or should be consistent with the basic principles and operational tenets of sound management – even when different terminology is used – so it can be safely surmised that the drug-enforcement efforts now being pursued in numerous locales throughout the United States are in fact consistent with ICS.

For additional information on:
FBI testimony on drug trafficking and terrorism, visit

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Fiscal Year 2009–2014 Strategic Plan, visit

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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