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October - December 2004
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Incident Command and GIS
By Mike Price, Entrada/San Juan, Inc.

Editor's note: This article introduces the purpose and structure of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which was adopted by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2004. Information management, analysis, transfer, and communication are vital to the deployment and operation of NIMS. Comprehensively and successfully managing and resolving all types of emergencies requires timely information. GIS is an essential tool used by Incident Commanders (ICs), command staff, and support personnel. The incident described in the article illustrates the challenges faced by first responders.

On the morning of May 12, 2004, a private plane on a northeastern departure from Colorado Springs Municipal Airport experienced a significant in-flight emergency. An explosion in the cargo area caused immediate structural damage to the aircraft. The pilot declared an in-flight emergency and stated his intention to land at Meadowlake Airport, a small public airfield 12 miles northeast of Colorado Springs Municipal.

Emergency responders gather in a safe area at Meadowlake Airport to plan the initial action.

Colorado Springs 911 dispatch received calls from the Sky Sox AAA baseball stadium. Pieces of the plane had fallen into the stadium and struck attendees causing multiple injuries. Emergency responders from the Colorado Springs Fire Department were dispatched to the stadium to assess the emergency and treat the injured. Simultaneously, emergency responders at Peterson Air Force Base, just north of the Colorado Springs airport, were notified that debris had fallen on the base from an aircraft that took off from a municipal facility.

As emergency responders arrived at the stadium, several were overcome by unknown contaminants. Responders were notified by radio that the explosion on the plane was likely due to the premature detonation of a "dirty bomb." There was a high probability that radioactive materials would be encountered at any debris site and that a crash landing was imminent. Emergency responders from the Colorado Springs Fire Department, dispatched to Meadowlake Airport to meet the crippled plane, were also advised that other hazardous substances were likely on board.

Incident command was implemented before responders had information about the aircraft, its contents, and events on the ground. Realizing the potential magnitude of the incident, emergency responders quickly expanded the formal incident command structure and requested additional support from federal, state, and local agencies skilled at mapping and managing large emergencies.

After determining that an explosive device in the cargo area detonated prematurely and likely contained cesium 137, the troublesome process of containing this highly radioactive isotope from the environment began. As the response grew, the incident, now named Global Mirror, involved more than 50 federal, state, regional, and local emergency service providers that assisted with management, suppression, and cleanup efforts. The actions of these agencies and organizations were carefully planned, managed, and reviewed through a national emergency management system known as NIMS.

Fortunately, Global Mirror was not an actual emergency but a highly realistic training exercise. If the incident had been real, NIMS would have been incorporated at the onset and would have guided response and follow-up activities.

NIMS and Homeland Security

NIMS, the nation's first standardized management plan, creates a common framework for incident management and a unified chain of command for federal, state, and local lines of government for incident response. The history of NIMS dates back approximately 30 years to the early 1970s when FIRESCOPE (FIre RESources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies) was developed for multiagency response to large wildland fires. FIRESCOPE evolved into the Incident Command System (ICS), another system for handling large, complex incidents. A parallel system called Fireground Command (FGC) was developed to handle smaller emergencies that involved fewer than 25 suppression or response units. In the 1980s, ICS was adopted by all federal and most state agencies to manage wildfires and, later, a wide array of emergencies.

click to enlarge
ArcGIS is used in an incident briefing. The initial hot zone was modeled to show the radioactivity emitted from materials dropped by the crippled aircraft.

The best practices of ICS and FGC were combined into a comprehensive system, the Incident Management System (IMS), designed for implementation during emergencies of all types and sizes as well as during everyday fire department training, station, and field activities. With the adoption of IMS by DHS in March 2004, NIMS was born.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has developed, implemented, and published the Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System in 2002, which was adopted as NFPA Standard 1651. DHS has published a very comprehensive description of the National Incident Management System.

Characteristics and Structure of IMS

IMS provides the structure for organized, safe, professional response to a wide variety of emergencies. Applicable to all risks and hazards as well as day-to-day fire service operations, IMS establishes recognized jurisdictional authority and responsibility for an incident. IMS creates and maintains unity of command and establishes and regulates the span of control for all personnel. Its modular organizational approach uses standard terminology and relies on prepared Incident Action Plans. Key facilities and resources are identified before an emergency occurs.

IMS is structured in a manner similar to many corporate systems. A chief executive assumes all responsibility for the actions of a company and relies on departments, such as finance, marketing, and production, to perform the organization's daily tasks. The chief executive periodically reports to a board of directors on the corporation's fiscal health. The board, in turn, sets corporate policy and provides overall guidance. When several companies join together to take on a large project, special committees and working groups are created that work toward common goals and products.

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