NIMS/ICS: The National Incident Management System/Incident Command System

A good leader knows his or her areas of expertise and takes a step back when the topic at hand is outside that scope. So why should university executives worry about the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) that first responders use daily? NIMS/ICS is changing the way the nation operates, reaching beyond first responders, emergencies, and disasters. Furthermore, post-Virginia Tech and other tragedies, there will be almost no public tolerance for neglecting NIMS/ICS. College and university executives, in addition to their first responders, should know the basics so they are not left behind. While first responders should be well versed in the principles and operational intricacies, executives need to understand the policy implications and top-level considerations. Here are four questions and answers to help guide campus executives.

What Is It?
NIMS is a national model for incident management that is divided into five components: Preparedness, communication and information management, resource management, command and management, and ongoing management and maintenance.

Of those, the Incident Command System, or ICS, is a large part of command and management. It outlines a methodology and organizational design to effectively manage an incident or event. It divides the major functions into four “sections:” operations, logistics, planning, and finance/administration.

That should all sound familiar to most administrators: ICS is derived from the principles of business management. In fact, the courses in ICS that are provided to first responders are essentially a series of “crash courses” in business management tailored to public safety with common terminology. Think about it: running an incident or an event is a lot like running a college or university. There is usually:
  • an Academic Affairs or similar unit, which would be analogous to the “Operations Section” in ICS;
  • Facilities/support services, dining halls, health clinic, etc., analogous to the “Logistics Section” in ICS;
  • a Business/Administrative unit, analogous to the “Finance/Administration Section” in ICS; and
  • Institutional Advancement or some other executive-level strategic planning function, analogous to the “Planning Section” in ICS.

Other parts of NIMS and ICS address “Public Information” (Public Relations), “Safety” (Risk Management), etc.

Why Use It?
Standardization. NIMS/ICS is an all-hazards and standards-based tool. This means that no matter the size, complexity, or nature of the incident, NIMS/ICS always applies.

Interoperability. By keeping it standards-based and using common terminology, ICS is the same for every department, every discipline, every agency, and every jurisdiction across the nation. This means multiple jurisdictions and different agencies that may not have worked together before can pull together and seamlessly integrate resources to support any event or incident. After 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Virginia Tech, and other disasters, interoperability became a key focus. If an incident occurs, the responding agencies and non-traditional responders (see examples under When to Use It and in Table 1) must be able to communicate with each other.

Federal preparedness funding.
It’s quite simple: in order to receive federal funding for preparedness, your organization must adopt ICS and NIMS both formally and in practice (see below under What College/University Executives Should Do).

Cost effectiveness. NIMS/ICS avoids and even prohibits duplication of efforts and consolidates operational and administrative functions. It also provides an administration/finance section to track resource usage, costs, and maintain accountability.

When to Use It
Preplanned events. NIMS/ICS is more than just a formality. It is a skill that needs to be refreshed, and the best way to do that is to practice it. Remember, ICS is just a fancy term for a management system, and that includes event management. Your first responders aren’t the only ones that can use it. Anything from a student fair or a concert to a sports event or even a wedding can be planned and executed with ICS. In fact, non-traditional responders such as Facilities staff, building managers, academic faculty, and even campus executives should understand the workings of ICS and understand their individual or unit’s role before, during, and after an emergency. Better yet, find an event that brings together almost every unit of your institution and use ICS to plan and run it. An ideal example for higher education is commencement/graduation. It is usually one of the primary purposes for your organization’s existence and it brings together almost every aspect of it.

Emergency response incidents. This is pretty straightforward in theory but not often put into practice. ICS is flexible enough to be used, down to the smallest incident. That means routine emergencies should be run using ICS so that first responders are familiar with it on larger incidents and also in case a small incident expands.

What College/University Executives Should Do
Training. Higher-education executives should be knowledgeable on the basic concepts of ICS that pertain to them. A training presentation is available as a part of the NIMS/ICS curriculum titled “ICS for Executives” (ICS402). This course was designed for executives, elected officials, and other administrators with executive-level authority within a jurisdiction or organization. It is an on-site delivery that takes approximately two hours and can be done over lunch (always a plus!). Please visit for assistance in locating a course near you or for course materials tailored to higher education. Aside from your executives, NIMS/ICS training is required at various levels for your first responders and non-traditional responders in order to be NIMS compliant. See Table 1 for recommendations based on discipline/level (based on FEMA guidelines).

Policy/Institutionalize. The chief executive officer of the institution should initiate the effort to become NIMS compliant by issuing an executive order adopting the standard and directing the initial actions for the effort. This will pave the way for the adoption in practice and avoid lower-level conflicts over individual units adopting NIMS. NIMS compliance is a total-entity effort, and therefore needs to be coordinated by the highest authority with total-entity powers, usually the chancellor or president. Visit for sample executive orders.

NIMS compliance and ICS are critical in today’s environment. College/university executives need to take the lead on the institutional “buy-in” and initial actions in becoming NIMS compliant.

Cmdr. Shad U. Ahmed is the director of the National Institute for Public Safety Research and Training and Chief of Emergency Medical Services at the University of Rhode Island. He is the principal investigator on a Homeland Security project developing a national training curriculum for colleges and universities in emergency planning and mass evacuation. Cmdr. Ahmed may be reached at

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