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Preparing for the Big One: Qualifying Equipment & Personnel for FEMA/NIMS SAR Response

FEMA is in the process of developing criteria for a National Emergency Responder Credentialing System that will provide guidance for personnel and equipment responding to large scale incidents and/or disasters. This system will help to ensure that responders and equipment meet certain minimum criteria, and hopefully increase safety on the ground. Today I will offer an overview of the criteria as it currently stands and will provide guidance on where to find additional information regarding compliant equipment and training information.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is an outgrowth of the Department of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (a.k.a. HSPV 5), a presidential policy that was established in 2003 with the idea that we would identify steps for improved coordination in our responses. The policy requires the Department of Homeland Security to work with other federal departments and agencies to establish a national incident management system (NIMS). NIMS is designed to be a systematic, proactive approach to guiding private sector, government agencies, non-government agencies and anyone else who shows up in response to an emergency to work seamlessly together. To repair for, recover from and interact during any kind of an incident whether it’s a natural disaster, man-made disaster or another kind of an emergency. The end goal is inter-agency cooperation.

To understand why all of this is important we have to begin with the concept of mutual aid. Mutual aid is an agreement among emergency responders to lend assistance across jurisdictional boundaries at any level. This could include a local emergency requiring assistance from a neighboring department or a nearby agency like a multi-alarm fire or a local disaster, or it can be as complex as requiring resources from other states. It can be ad hoc or requested only when an emergency occurs. EMAC (the Emergency Management Assistance Compact) is a congressionally ratified organization that provides form and structure to interstate mutual aid. Through EMAC, a disaster-impacted state can request and receive assistance from other member states quickly and efficiently. This lends to the liability issues and reimbursements so there are a lot of advantages to using EMAC. State mutual aid doesn’t always have to incorporate EMAC but because there are liability and reimbursement issues, it’s usually worthwhile. There are also other types of state and federal assistance that are sometimes available which are usually financial in nature.

As resources are added to an incident, that incident becomes more complex, especially when those resources are from different jurisdictions or are not accustomed to working together. The more complex an incident gets the more problems the incident management team runs into. . The January 1987 crash of the Amtrak Colonial train near Baltimore provides textbook examples of some of the most common problems that seasoned responders can relate to. During this incident, so many fire fighters and law enforcement responded directly to the scene in their personal vehicles that the actual responders, including the apparatus and equipment, couldn’t get down the road to the scene itself. There were similar issues on September 11th in New York. Many off-duty fire fighters and private ambulances self-dispatched to the World Trade Center. Self-dispatch happened after Katrina in Louisiana as well. Most large incidents share similar stories to these. Fortunately, emergency services personnel excel in restoring order out of chaos but even when resources come through appropriate channels, any large incident poses special challenges. The incident management team has to conduct a safe and effective operation quickly, without permitting chaos of communication challenges, converging volunteers, questions about qualifications of resources, scene safety, etc. Order is the order of the day. Order is key to performing our jobs well in these kinds of situations so establishing this order is really what the FEMA NIMS project is all about.

Some of the things that the NIMS resource management is working on right now include tools to assist jurisdictions in their preparedness. We understand that emergency response is a local and state responsibility but we’re trying to create optional tools like emergency response field operations guides (FOGs), qualifications guides, ICS forms, incident complexity guides, position task books (PTBs), etc. We’re also working on establishing common terminology in references for resource typing. When requesting aid, it helps if jurisdictions are using common terminology for resources whether you’re looking for a fire tanker, an aircraft or a team. As part of the resource typing project, common job titles are being identified to ensure compatibility in performance and expectations. Some of the material being developed by the working groups is already being beta tested around the country. Texas A&M, the State of Oregon Fire Marshal and the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control are all putting early versions of this process into place right now.

Currently the NIMS SAR Working Group is focused heavily on typing and credentialing. We believe that authentication and verification of emergency responder’s identities and qualifications, as well as establishing common understandings of resource capabilities is foundational to the whole NIMS process. So in developing the definitions and criteria, the group has tried to be sensitive to making sure that the whole process can function within existing federal, state and local qualification protocols and mutual aid systems through EMAC. We are also trying to make sure that we’re working within existing ICS and other NIMS processes so that we won’t end up with contradicting processes.

NIMS is establishing typing and credentialing criteria in multiple areas of expertise. There’s a different work group working in each of the following areas:

  • Search and rescue
  • Public works
  • Incident management
  • ICS competencies (change management)
  • Emergency medical service
  • Law enforcement
  • Fire/hazmat
  • Medical and public health
  • Mass care
  • Aviation management
  • Animal emergency response.

Each of these working groups is comprised of several subject-matter experts related to that topic. Much of the remainder of this article will focus on search and rescue because that is the work group that I am a part of.

The search and rescue working group (a.k.a. SAR working group) is specifically focused on search and rescue capabilities as they relate to responding to incidents that involve land, water, structural collapse and canine resources. People with expertise in all of these areas are representatives for the SAR working group. These people are known as subject-matter experts and they don’t represent any particular group or organization but are selected individually for their ability to offer a breadth and depth from different perspectives and different parts of the country. The group is focused on promoting coordination within the SAR community, across multiple disciplines and also hopefully enhancing the SAR capability on a national level. The group is developing a SAR emergency response field operation guide, SAR qualifications guide, SAR ICS forms, and so on. Everything that we’re doing is specific to search and rescue.

The working group is also focused on categorizing response resources commonly exchanged in disasters through mutual aid agreements; this project is called resource typing. Resource typing is used to “type” resources so incident managers can more effectively request appropriate teams and equipment for different kinds of operations. Through the resource typing project, the SAR working group is looking at resources to identify key capabilities of resource components, such as personnel, equipment and training, so that during a disaster an emergency manager knows exactly what capability a resource needs to have in order to respond efficiently. Resource typing definitions will hopefully help define resource capabilities in advance for ease of ordering and mobilization during a disaster.

Resource typing enables incident managers to identify and locate and even track the resources need for any given job. So by organizing and classifying them according to a category, a kind and a type, resources are better able to make themselves available for implementation to whatever type of incident they’re most qualified to respond to. This also helps facilitate the other side of the equation, which is resource ordering and the dispatch process within and across organizations. Not only is it more efficient, it also helps ensure that the resources ordered and received are appropriate to the need which in the long run improves safety. Today, seventeen SAR typing definitions exist:

  1. Air search team (fixed wing)
  2. Airborne reconnaissance (fixed wing)
  3. Canine search and rescue team – avalanche snow air scent
  4. Canine search and rescue team – disaster response
  5. Canine search and rescue team – land cadaver air scent
  6. Canine search and rescue team – water air scent
  7. Canine search and rescue team – wilderness air scent
  8. Canine search and rescue team – wilderness tracking/trailing
  9. Cave search and rescue team
  10. Collapse search and rescue team
  11. Mine and tunnel search and rescue team
  12. Mountain search and rescue team
  13. Radio direction finding team
  14. Swiftwater/flood search and rescue team
  15. US&R incident support team
  16. US&R task forces
  17. Wilderness search and rescue team.

These are ostensibly the resources most likely to be deployed to national incidents. These resources are those that have been identified as being needed or deployed on an incident of national significance. Keep in mind that there is no requirement that these resource names, definitions or types be used at the local level in any way; they are only intended for resources that are likely to be deployed to a big mutual aid incident across state lines.

The typed resource definition contains three areas of information: the category of the resource (search and rescue), the kind of resource (team) and the type of resource (Type I, Type II, Type III or Type IV). The entire resource is separated into components which are further defined by their metric and by their Type. For example in a Mountain Search and Rescue Team one component would be personnel. There are three personnel metrics for this resource: Alpine Training, Basic Training and Medical Specialist Training. Each of those are then broken down into types, Type I being the most advanced, Type IV being the most basic. For example, the basic training metric Type IV includes “proficiency in search techniques, awareness of mantracking and maintaining site integrity, and understanding of the ICS”. Type III would be slightly more advanced than Type IV, Type II would be slightly more advanced than Type III, and so on. Most of the things in this document will be generic. There will be another document in the future that allows for more details but the idea is that we’re not going to be as specific as to define Brand X helmets or harnesses but to ensure that the basic needs are covered leaving as much as possible to the discretion of the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

In the space shuttle disaster we needed personnel who could lead search teams in the field using a map and compass. It took incident managers a while to figure out how to ask for and find those resources. At 9/11 we needed to deploy specialty teams, like dog teams, rope rescue teams and hazmat crews but in order for those guys to be safe they needed to already posses a certain kind of training and experience. How do you ask for and measure those qualifications before you put somebody in a hazardous environment? So along with the resource typing for teams, we needed to identify what performance and skills the personnel have to have in order to be part of one of the teams. In comes the credentialing process.

The credentialing process is an administrative process for validating qualifications of personnel to function as a part of a given type of resource. The SAR working group determined 27 job titles to be the most commonly requested SAR personnel in an interstate or mutual aid based response (watch my webinar on this topic for more information on these job titles). The credentialing itself will have to be done on a state or local level, but NIMS is providing a framework that will help ensure consistency of credentials of resources within typed teams. For example, on a mountain rescue team you will want a search and rescue technician, land, you may want a certain number of those, you will also need a strike team task force leader, mountain technical, etc. This is a way to ensure that each typed resource is assigned a certain number of credentialed responders within that structure.

Each of the 27 job titles provides a description of each position plus baseline and recommended criteria. The baseline and recommended criteria include things like training, experience, physical and medical fitness and any certifications or licensing that are required for each job position. This way when an incident manager orders up the resources, he/she really knows what they’re getting. If you want to see the actual job titles and their descriptions you’ll have to look at a typing and credentialing document which will be release for public review in the near future (see resources listed below).
In the future, the FEMA/NIMS typing and credentialing project will continue to review typed and credentialed positions and refine the skill set that is necessary. We’re also looking for ways to assist Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) whether that’s on a local, state or national level, to institute and manage their credentialing process. As we gain experience with the system that has been developed to date we expect to continue to define teams and equipment based on need and experience. Naturally the local and state organizations and individuals have a lot of questions about this whole process so the team has worked together to develop what I’ve talked about today as well as a presentation you can watch or download. The team has also provided the presenter and the presentation is being given at conferences, trainings, symposiums, or anywhere else it might be appropriate, all you have to do is ask. In a similar fashion, we hope that you will share information with us, the working group, as you gain experience using these systems. While all the subject-matter experts that are on the SAR working group, and in all the other working groups, are actively engaged in some aspect of emergency response at some level, we are, by necessity, limited in number. You should always feel welcome to share your thoughts and experiences that you think might help the process grow in the right direction.

What this means on the home front is that you probably ought to start thinking about how the National Incident Management System might apply to you. Your training, your qualifications process and even at the incident management level. Even if you never expect your resources to be deployed on a national incident or across state lines, think about whether you might find it useful to integrate some of the processes and systems into the way you’re doing things. Think big picture, consider using the NIMS defined resources to manage day-to-day, more localized incidences. If you are part of a jurisdiction that might reasonably expect to share resources on incidents of national significance, think about how you might pull together your own typing and credentialing process in your own state in preparation for receiving requests from other states based on that system. And perhaps you might want to begin to integrate mutual aid agreements into your own jurisdiction and with neighboring jurisdictions using this kind of NIMS terminology.

Some resources where you can review documents and access information are below. At the very least, you should consider signing up for the NIMS Alerts so that you will be informed as progress in this effort is made. Also remember to comment on the documents that are released because your feedback is very, very important!

 

Don’t forget to check out the webinar that I did on this very topic. It’s much more detailed and contains more specific information about the NIMS projects.

About the author:
Loui McCurley offers over 20 years of Technical Rescue experience mountain, and industrial settings and is a member of the Mountain Rescue Association(MRA), National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) and Alpine Rescue Team. Specializing in rapid, small-team techniques adapted to specific industrial environments, Loui consults to several life-safety oriented standards-setting organizations including ANSI Z359, NFPA, ASTM, ISO, FEMA/NIMS, Cordage Institute, and others. A frequent presenter and instructor, Loui has authored numerous articles and texts on the subject of safety at height and rescue, with contributions to High Angle Rescue Techniques, Wilderness Medicine, Occupational Health and Safety, and Fire-Rescue. Loui presently serves as Vice-President of Pigeon Mountain Industries and as the Director and an instructor for Vertical Rescue Solutions.

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