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The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a federal approach to the management of disaster incidents. This system provides a template for disaster management regardless of scale, location, or complexity in the US. The main purpose of NIMS is to ensure that there is a clear approach to the management of disasters and other incidents.
The NIMS guidelines encourage multi-agency cooperation in disaster management. The goal of this paper is to explore the application of NIMS guidelines in the management of the disaster emanating from the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Overview of NIMS
It is essential to start the discussion on the application of NIMS guidelines by looking at the essential features of NIMS. The four essential elements of NIMS are as follows. First, it is a federal level approach to disaster preparedness. NIMS looks at incident management from a universal perspective.
It encourages all disaster preparedness and management stakeholders to prepare for incidents as part of a system, rather than in a localized manner. It is not a template for adoption by individual agencies. Rather, the principles enshrouded by NIMS encourage big-picture thinking in incident preparedness from a communal perspective.
Secondly, it deals with incidents at various levels. NIMS does not just concentrate on large-scale disasters such as Katrina or the 9/11 bombing. Rather NIMS seeks to create the environment for dealing with incidents that require multi-agency participation. In this sense, managing a domestic fire in a municipality is just as important for NIMS as managing the effects of a hurricane.
Thirdly, NIMS guidelines deal with management issues. Disaster management is very critical. The availability of finances, equipment, and community support is not sufficient when running rescue operations after a disaster. The emergency response teams must work in a very clearly articulated manner to leverage on their relative strengths.
After the Haitian earthquake, the overwhelming outpouring of sympathy from the international community was not a substitute for proper management of disaster relief operations. The people of Haiti did not enjoy the full benefits of the goodwill of the international community because of disaster management bottlenecks.
Finally, NIMS is a system. It defines relationships between state and private actors. It also addresses resource management issues. The disaster response initiative of any country or state depends on the ability of these parties to use their resources in the most efficient manner. In this sense, NIMS is a system composed of various actors and the resources they control.
Summary of Events
The focus of this paper is the effect of NIMS guidelines in the management of the 2007 disaster in Minneapolis. The main events that took place on that fateful day were as follows. First, the I-35W Bridge collapsed over the Mississippi river in the evening of August 1, 2007. The Bridge was forty years old, and was due for decommissioning in 2020.
The bridge collapsed during the rush hour. At the time of the collapse, there were about 120 vehicles carrying 160 people on the bridge. The immediate disaster priorities were as follows. First, there was need to rescue people who were trapped in their vehicles. As the bridge collapsed, some car doors became jammed thereby trapping the occupants.
Secondly, some people fell into the water necessitating aquatic rescue operations. The third disaster priority was fighting fire . Some cars burst into flames during the collapse. The fourth disaster priority was conducting triage on injured people to determine their medical needs.
These competing and concurrent priories demanded the attention of rescue workers. In addition, the situation was complicated by the jurisdictional complexities of the disaster site. The federal government owned the bridge while the state of Minnesota operated it. The river was under jurisdiction of the Hennepin County Sheriff Office and the river banks were under city of Minneapolis.
Application of NIMS
The first issue regarding the application of NIMS principles in the disaster management operations was the setting up of a single command center. The Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) housed at the basement of the city hall soon became the primary coordination center for disaster response. NIMS advocates for the establishment of a single command center whenever there is a large-scale disaster.
The second important aspect of the response in relation to NIMS was that each response unit opened an Emergency Operating Center (OEC) immediately after the disaster. Most of these centers started operations within twenty minutes of the incident.
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The Minneapolis OEC provided leadership for the other OECs. It managed the Multiagency Coordinating (MAC) group. The role of the lead OEC was to coordinate response activities and to ensure that all OECs had a common understanding of the evolving situation.
There was good participation of both state and non-state actors in the disaster response. This is another important aspect of NIMS guidelines. During an emergency, there is usually need to coordinate emergency response services to ensure the resources made available to the rescue and recovery operations are channeled to areas of need. These resources are best utilized when there is central coordination of disaster operations.
Most of the OEC leaders knew each other well because that had already worked resolved smaller disasters together. The importance of developing working relationships before the occurrence of a major disaster is that there is need to ensure that interpersonal issues do not hamper disaster relief operations.
Since the OEC leaders knew each other based on common training programs and working on smaller disasters together, the operations of the OEC took off very smoothly.
Deviation from NIMS
While the overall verdict given to the level of disaster preparedness in Minneapolis was very good, there were some significant shortcomings in the management of the disaster based on NIMS guidelines during this incident.
The first issue of concern is that OEC room was too small to house all the teams that had the statutory rights under NIMS to be present. This made it difficult for some of the stakeholders to participate in the critical components of the disaster operations within the operational framework of NIMS. NIMS guidelines require all the disaster response teams to be represented in the OEC.
The second major shortcoming based on NIMS guidelines is that there were no safety officers to ensure that all the activities of the response teams were safe. One area with serious safety concerns was the OEC room, because of its size. A safety officer would have raised the issue in order to find alternative ways of dealing with the situation.
The disaster site also did not have a safety officer. This exposed responders to safety risks especially when the responders failed to observe safety guidelines during the rescue operations. A safety officer on site would have enforces safety guidelines for responders.
A lapse in the management of information during the disaster arose because of the absence of the Public Information Officer (PIO). Initial delays in reaching the PIO) threatened to hamper adherence to NIMS guidelines regarding the establishment of a Joint Information Center (JIC). However, after the PIO arrived on the scene, the management of the press took place very effectively.
Press management is a critical component of disaster management. The OEC manager directed that press briefing be held at predetermined times throughout the day. This helped to manage the large volume of requests for press briefings.
One of the serious shortcomings in the communication processes was that the Minneapolis Department of Public Works (DPW) did not have the 800 HZ radios, which all the other disaster response parties used. The DPW also operated from a separate location hampering their ability to see the big picture at all times.
This situation arose because the DPW was not included in the initial distribution of the communication equipment. However, the DPW provided support to the other responders in a commendable manner. Its inclusion in the disaster preparedness systems of the city of Minneapolis will add to the capacity of the city to respond to disasters.
There were incidents of freelancing by some responders. Freelancing refers to the impulse to respond to an incident by a responder without clear orders. This is against NIMS rules. In the disaster situation under review, many of the responders waited for orders. The city should work towards achieving full compliance to this rule.
DHS. National Incident Management System. Washington DC: US Department of Homeland Security, 2008. Print.
Stambaugh, Hollis and Harold Cohen. I-35W Bridge Collapse and Response. Washington DC: FEMA, 2007. Print.