I was talking to a friend today about a security job he used to have with the General Services Administration, and how conditions went downhill after the Department of Homeland Security took over. That got me thinking about when I worked at a bookstore at the St. Louis airport, and how untrained most of the Transportation Security Administration personnel seemed on recognizing and dealing with hazardous materials, despite all Federal, state, tribal and local government agencies with responsibilities in emergency response having to be trained in the new National Incident Management System (NIMS) by October 1, 2005. It also reminded me that just last year on a firefighter’s website where I administer a “hazmat” discussion group, firefighters and EMS people were complaining about the NIMS, and how they preferred using their own command structure and terminology.
When I taught emergency response courses, my big word was always COMMUNICATIONS. If you hear a chemical name wrong over the radio from someone wearing a mask, and tell that person to do this rather than that, and that person goes “KABOOM,” there’s the need for efficient and standardized communications in a nutshell. On large incidents when there are several departments or agencies responding, they’d damn well better understand each other, or bad things happen. Another problem is that some cops and firefighters were either in the military or are wannabes, and love to use that terminology, which doesn’t apply to domestic situations (or shouldn’t, without a scary aspect). I get on their cases for calling the rest of us “civilians,” and tell them that if they aren’t IN the military, they’re civilians too. Civilians with public-safety jobs. I also prefer the private sector’s term for the person in charge at a spill, the On-Scene Coordinator, instead of the agency term “Incident Commander,” which has that macho military ring to it.
I decided to do a little reading up on NIMS, since 5 years after “implementation,” fire departments were still resisting using it. As I suspected, it includes and is based on the Incident Command System, first developed by the state of California after several devastating wildfires in the 1970s. The Wikipedia article goes on to say that ICS “went national” in 2003 with the creation of Homeland Security. I beg to differ: in fact, ICS was adopted in 1985 by the U.S. EPA and the Coast Guard, as part of the national response to the Bhopal incident in India the previous December, and incorporated in the National Contingency Plan as part of the Superfund amendments of 1986. I was trained in it, as is everyone who takes the 40-hour HAZWOPER course (Hazardous Waste Operations & Emergency Response) mandated by OSHA in 29 CFR 1910.120. I also taught it for 20 years. The Department of Transportation uses a similar protocol for hazmat spills.
One thing that NIMS has over ICS, in theory if not in practice, is addressing multi-agency responses. ICS is supposed to work this way: the “first responder” handles the situation until someone more senior arrives, etc., but I had a client that did emergency responses for barge collisions on the Mississippi, where there might be a fire, a bridge impact, and a benzene release going on, and there are environmental agency representatives, fire officials, cops, the highway department, the vessel owner, the insurer, and the Coast Guard all giving conflicting orders. At 3 a.m. I’ve seen some interagency pissing contests myself, and it can get ludicrous. NIMS has a “Unified Command” protocol where one person from each major agency having jurisdiction is part of a group, which makes the decisions as a whole. Again, nice on paper, at least. In reality, as Katrina and the BP spill taught us, it doesn’t always work that way.
With the lack of chemical safety training noted above, it was nice that when I showed up at a spill, chill, or thrill, they were relieved to see the Natural Resources guy. On an electroplating-shop fire, I had to assume the duty of transmitting info between police and fire, because they have this rivalry thing and weren’t talking to each other much. The cops also had the street blocked, but only to vehicles, so I took it upon myself to ask pedestrians to keep off that block. I didn’t want to create a panic, so I didn’t mention the potential of a cloud of cyanide gas if the wall collapsed. Just remember my big word, and how vital proper and standardized communications are for an effective response and to “minimize the body count,” as I like to say. And, reviewing this post a week later, I have to wonder why the hell they didn’t just string up some caution tape on either end of the block?