NIMS - Not an American Exclusive

Some critics of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – and, in particular, of the U.S. government’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) – contend that the concepts embodied in the NIMS charter do not and cannot be sustained on a high level or on the broad scale envisioned when Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 5 (HSPD-5) was issued in 2003. In fact, the idea that the nation’s emergency response resources can, or even should, use one standardized system for managing major incidents or events has been challenged several times – and for a variety of reasons.

Many of those challenges have been voiced by individuals who or organizations that do not accept the concept that the management of large and complex situations and difficult problems is still simply management – and not some loftier task. These critics also contend, therefore, that effective management differs considerably when what is being managed is a major and potentially catastrophic situation rather than routine daily operations.

In fact, there is abundant evidence showing that the management of critical incidents differs primarily in scope and intensity, rather than in the basic management concepts involved, from the “routine” management of daily tasks. The management of a major emergency, particularly as it is taught in fundamental ICS (Incident Command System) training, differs only slightly from the management of most daily office or business functions. The most significant differences usually involve the quantities and types of resources (including personnel) that might be needed. In itself, those minor differences serve as further justification for the creation and operational implementation of today’s National Incident Management System.

A Closer Look & Some Obvious Conclusions

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suggest that an effort should be made to determine if the core concepts serving as the foundation of NIMS might indeed have application beyond those envisioned in HSPD-5 – and established within DHS protocols. It also might be useful to determine, among other things, if any other nations use the same or substantially similar concepts as those embodied in the U.S. NIMS and ICS policy statements.

A query was initiated among the international members of the U.S.-based All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association (principally as a matter of curiosity) to determine if there were any such similarities to NIMS outside the United States. Almost immediately, from one Australian member came a response that, indeed, the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) could be compared to the U.S. NIMS. That person, Peter J. O’Keefe, Operations Manager-Regional Commander of the Hume Region, Country Fire Authority provided anecdotal information and website links that provided marked similarities between AIIMS and NIMS. Mr. O’Keefe is one member, among many in various working groups, who are currently reviewing the AIIMS with an eye toward maintaining the system at optimal effectiveness.

This so-called “Australian Version” of NIMS was developed and promulgated by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC). The Council is composed of more than 35 Australian agencies and organizations at all levels of government, and of various private-sector and non-government organizations in that nation. Among the more important findings in the Association’s review of the AFAC’s organizational structure are that: (a) unlike the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, AFAC is not a government agency per se; and (b) its organizational composition consists largely of non-governmental entities.

Obviously, AFAC does not have “regulatory” or governmental authority itself but, rather, represents the combined wisdom of a fairly broad range of organizations. In addition, it is worth noting, the AIIMS was created as a product of collaborative efforts between and among not only Australian organizations but also with their counterpart agencies across the Tasmanian Sea in New Zealand.

More specifically, according to the AFAC website, the AIIMS is primarily “an Incident Management System that enables the seamless integration of activities and resources from multiple agencies for the resolution of any emergency situation. It operates effectively for any type of incident, imminent or actual, natural, industrial or civil, and many other situations in which emergency management organizations are involved.”

The Wildfire Beginnings of an Ingenious Initiative

Somewhat ironically, AIIMS was created in 1989, some 14 years prior to creation of the U.S. NIMS. Thus, one could speculate that the American NIMS might be a mirror image of the AIIMS, rather than the opposite. Moreover, there are certain other relationships that also should be recognized. Notably, one important linkage between NIMS and AIIMS is their common heritage as doctrinal relatives of the U.S. National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), usually considered to be a product of American “ingenuity.” The NIIMS itself, though, is an organizational offshoot of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), an organization – much in the news recently because of the wildfires in Colorado and other states – composed principally of U.S. government land-management agencies and the National Association of State Foresters (NASF). Moreover, the NWCG itself is a quasi-government entity that works closely with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), particularly since the creation of NIMS by HSPD-5.

From a historical perspective, the principal motive for the creation of both NIIMS and, later, AIIMS was to improve the management of wildfire emergency incidents. The need for NWCG and NIIMS became obvious four decades ago after the tragic series of wildfires that resulted in the calamitous losses of life, property, and natural resources in the 1970s. Many of those losses could be traced back to the inefficient management of resources – with “ineffective management” often cited as the key concern. The creation of NIIMS resulted from a collaborative effort by NWCG agencies to improve the effectiveness of its member agencies in their individual and collective efforts to fight major wildfires. Not surprisingly, the creation of AIIMS was initially intended to result in the same type of outcome.

More recently, the NIMS has been adopted to expand the principles of effective management for use in “all-hazards” incident management circumstances. Once again, the key operational goal for all three systems is to provide effective “management.” Although tactical operations often differ between types of incidents, the fundamental principles of management used in coping with such incidents do not change in any significant way.

Common Operational Principles with Relatively Minor Differences

In review of the core guidelines of all three incident management systems, three common operational principles are evident: (a) Management by Objectives; (b) Functional Management; and (c) Span of Control. Of course, there are some minimal differences in wording and nomenclature between the three systems when referring to these commonalities. However, these relatively minor differences can be readily reconciled. For example, in the AIIMS policy statement, Management by Objectives is described as being intended to ensure all incident personnel are working toward one set of objectives that “the Incident Controller [emphasis added], in consultation with the Incident Management Team, determines the desired outcomes of the incident. These outcomes, or incident objectives, are then communicated to everyone involved.… At any point in time, each incident can only have one set of objectives and one Incident Action Plan for achieving these.” Except for the nominal distinction in terminology between “Incident Controller” (as used in AIIMS) and “Incident Commander” (as used in NIIMS and NIMS), the mission statements of all three organizations are virtually identical.

In addition, Functional Management as codified in the AIIMS consists of five elements: Control, Planning, Public Information, Operations, and Logistics. Once again, a nominal distinction in terminology or nomenclature is reflected in the reference to “Control” vs. “Command” (as identified in NIIMS and NIMS). Another minor difference is that a “Finance and Administration” function – specifically identified in the NIMS-ICS doctrine – is missing from the AIIMS Functional Management framework. However, in the U.S. construct of tactical incident command, the Finance and Administration function is often deferred until later (i.e., in the initial operational phases of an incident).

Finally, similar to the American NIMS and ICS doctrinal foundation, the AIIMS doctrine addresses Span of Control as “a concept that relates to the number of groups or individuals that can be successfully supervised by one person. During emergency incidents, the environment in which supervision is required can rapidly change and become dangerous if not managed effectively.” NIMS doctrine also stresses the importance, though, of establishing and maintaining an effective span of control. Obviously, when supervisors are unable to maintain a reasonable span of control, their ability to supervise the use of resources in tactical performance – and, more important, to safely accomplish their assigned tasks – is often severely compromised. The similarities here between the American NIMS and the Australasian AIIMS cannot be easily discounted.

Fundamental Principles & the Overarching Need for Flexibility

In a final comparative, the AIIMS Doctrine defines AIIMS itself as “a building block.” As such, the Doctrine continues, “AIIMS is the building block necessary for the establishment of effective protocols for liaison and coordination across agencies having different jurisdictional roles through all stages of pre-planning, preparedness, response, and recovery.” Clearly, the core concepts and principles as spelled out in NIMS and the virtually identical AIIMS concepts and principles are closely aligned.

Although some skeptics might still point out other differences in nomenclature or terminology between AIIMS and NIMS, it should be noted that another key principle of effective incident management is the elusive leadership quality known as “flexibility.” Certainly, the reconciling of nominal differences in “common terminology” can more readily be accomplished if – and/or when – circumstances should ever necessitate the combined efforts of international resources.

In short, the management of emergency resources (and/or non-emergency resources) is still, and always will be, management in a very fundamental way. Whether in NIMS, NIIMS, AIIMS, or any other system, the fundamental principles and processes of management do not and will not significantly change. The so-called “American NIMS” is, therefore, not exclusively “an American thing.”

For additional information on:
AFAC, visit
AIIMS, visit
NIIMS, visit
NIMS, 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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