Enhancing Incident Management for Local Responders

by Jeffrey Driskill Sr.

Since 2003, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) has required local officials to report NIMS compliance actions to their respective emergency management agencies, which in turn reported these results to the state. The National Incident Management System is entering its 14th year with varied degrees of accomplishment.

Jeffrey Driskill headshotSeminal research has documented diverse implementation and applications by local jurisdictions, and across functional disciplines. Recent studies have revealed that, in many cases, the success of implementation of NIMS-related efforts can often be traced to the attitudes of agency leadership. The NIMS has five constituent parts: Command and Management, Preparedness, Resource Management, Communications and Information Management, and Ongoing Management and Maintenance. Local responders have achieved varied levels of compliance and competency in meeting these principles. The 2016 study titled “Evaluating the Efficacy of the NIMS Implementation for Law Enforcement Officers in Virginia” was law enforcement centric, but the results and methodology have lessons learned for emergency managers – particularly if they want to influence greater NIMS compliance among agencies with which they coordinate.

Law Enforcement Applications

This study used an anonymous 70-question online survey to query local police chiefs and sheriffs about their attitudes that supported the NIMS, and the importance of local capacity and written policy. The qualitative correlational study used linear regression to analyze data from 34 respondents, with 176 agencies invited to participate. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze data and identify strength of relationships between the independent variables of executive attitudes that supported the NIMS, written policy, and local capability to the dependent variables of intended and actual NIMS implementation.

Although there was no single agreed upon social theory that explains implementation behavior, the theories of planned behavior and expectancy theory of motivation helped make sense of the responses. In the theory of planned behavior, Professor Emeritus Icek Ajzen of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst explained actual implementation behavior would be preceded by an intent to act, and that behavioral intent was influenced by attitudes and subjective norms. This study found a significant correlation between the intent to implement the NIMS and actual implementation behaviors.

In the expectancy theory of motivation, Victor Vroom, business professor at Yale University, explained implementation behavior would be influenced by perceived rewards or risks. Normative beliefs such as the likelihood that important persons or groups approved of a behavior then become important. Examples of these would be the perceived support of fire, police, and emergency management associations, as well as state agencies in providing policy, funding, training or exercise support. In 1964, Vroom suggested an agency executive’s view of an outcome, or valence, determined the level of motivation to act (e.g., if a police executive perceived his agency would receive grants or funding, he was more likely to encourage NIMS-related activities). The following are important findings for emergency managers.

NIMS Doctrine & Local Capacity

Agencies felt that the mandated federal (NIMS) policy improved emergency local response, and that the NIMS was worth implementing. The NIMS training was felt to help implementation; while written policy strongly correlated with both NIMS implementation intent and actual implementation to a lesser extent. Having a written NIMS policy is the most important factor for influencing the intent to implement, whereas local capacity and attitudes correlated strongest with actual implementation behaviors.

Local capacity was defined in the study as being resources and characteristics unique to an organization, which enable the organization to conduct emergency response and disaster preparedness efforts consistent with the NIMS. Elements of local capacity included operational budget, completion of NIMS-related training, levels of training completed, size of the agency, support of government executives and elected officials, to name a few.

Since respondents felt that local elected officials were less supportive than state agencies (Department of Criminal Justice Services, for example), then it would benefit local emergency managers to educate these officials on the value of the NIMS, and light the fire of support for greater budgeting for NIMS staff, training, etc. Many agencies are dependent on mutual aid for leveraging finite resources. On the other hand, it would benefit emergency managers to examine the issue of over-dependency on mutual aid resources to determine if it is related to operational limitations due to fiscal constraints that prohibit increasing staffing or purchasing equipment such as patrol cars, for example. Overall, agencies felt their funding for daily operations was sufficient; however, funding for NIMS implementation was not.

Enhancing Incident Management for Local Responders
Source: FEMA/Marvin Nauman

Executive Attitudes

Findings revealed that there was: (a) a significant correlation between actual implementation, policy, and executive attitudes; (b) a high correlation between actual implementation, policy, and staffing levels; and (c) a high correlation between intent, policy, and staffing levels. Additional perspectives shared by participating law enforcement executives included:

  • Police and sheriffs saw value in the NIMS, but emphasized the need for having a model policy.
  • Law enforcement agencies felt some of the NIMS and Incident Command System (ICS) concepts were more fire centric than police relevant.
  • Discipline-specific NIMS and ICS training could enable better understanding of doctrine.

The last perspective does not reflect the professionalism or attitudes of all law enforcement executives, and the NIMS and ICS purest could argue the counterpoint – that this is portrayed as an excuse for not completing the existing FEMA training as recommended in the NIMS Training Program. The perspective of requesting law enforcement related – or any other discipline specific training – may appear to be in deference to the well constituted and standardized FEMA training courses. However, the participants were merely suggesting that some of the scenarios (such as those used in the ICS 300 course) be introduced in such a way that would make it more relevant to them. The learning point here is to not resist the curriculum, and to cooperate and graduate – knowing that the ICS concepts are scalable and flexible, and certainly relevant to all disciplines.

It is important to realize that NIMS implementation is influenced by agency culture, governance, and perception of importance – both in theory and in practice. Local Virginia law enforcement executives participating in the research study felt a model NIMS policy would promote implementation, although this finding does not reflect the attitudes of all local Virginia law enforcement officials. Participating agencies suggested that the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (VA DCJS) could support this guidance by creating a model policy, which DCJS has done for other topics. An expression of advocacy that aligns with this study’s outcomes can be viewed on the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Standards, Policy and Homeland Security webpage. The Virginia DCJS focuses on the law enforcement community needs, with a primary mission to include, “developing a conduit for law enforcement leaders to express needs and concerns as they relate to homeland security and emergency management, National Incident Management System (NIMS) implementation.”

A promising finding was that Virginia agencies intended to implement the NIMS to a degree greater than actual implementation. Agencies intended to implement NIMS between 60% and 80% of the time; however, actual implementation varied between 40% to lower 60% of the time. This suggested that local capacity and executive attitudes affected implementation rates, and that emergency managers could assist agencies by socializing these concepts.

Future Research

Researchers could benefit from using this study’s methodology, while:

  • Expanding the inventory of questions to identify which elements of the NIMS doctrine are most important to specific agencies;
  • Asking if agencies have a NIMS policy, and identify differences in content and implementation;
  • Exploring the degree to which agencies made modifications in how and when NIMS was implemented, and the outcomes of such actions;
  • Identifying the degree of reliance on mutual aid;
  • Using methodology to evaluate other emergency management or response policies; and
  • Comparing survey responses between functional disciplines (law enforcement and fire departments), or between groups (comparing police to sheriff executive responses).

The results have currency for all functional disciplines and emergency management at large. Taking the social theories of human behavior and results into consideration, the emergency manager through introspection can provide strategic guidance to their agencies to improve future NIMS implementation. Local emergency managers could use the lessons learned to educate agencies and elected officials to improve implementation efforts.

The 2016 study, “Evaluating the Efficacy of the NIMS for Law Enforcement Officers in Virginia,” can be viewed on ProQuest and questions directed to Jeffrey Driskill at

Jeffrey Driskill Sr., Ph.D., CEM®, is currently a government contractor working as an exercise planner with the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia. Before his current position, he served as Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator with the City of Alexandria, Virginia and is a retired Chief of Police, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and Master Exercise Practitioner Program (MEP) graduate. He holds a Doctor of Business Administration in Homeland Security Policy and Leadership from Northcentral University and is a subject matter expert in the NIMS doctrine.