Effective emergency management and incident response activities rely on flexible communications and information systems that provide a common operating picture to emergency management/response personnel and their affiliated organizations. Establishing and maintaining a common operating picture and ensuring accessibility and interoperability are the principal goals of the Communications and Information Management component of NIMS. Properly planned, established and applied communications enable the dissemination of information among command and support elements and, as appropriate, cooperating agencies and organizations.
Incident communications are facilitated through the development and use of common communications plans and interoperable communications equipment, processes, standards and architectures. During an incident, this integrated approach links the operational and support units of the various organizations to maintain communications connectivity and situational awareness. Communications and information management planning should address the incident-related policies, equipment, systems, standards and training necessary to achieve integrated communications.
Communications interoperability allows emergency management/response personnel and their affiliated organizations to communicate within and across agencies and jurisdictions via voice, data or video in real time, when needed and when authorized. It is essential that these communications systems be capable of interoperability, as successful emergency management and incident response operations require the continuous flow of critical information among jurisdictions, disciplines, organizations and agencies.
Interoperability planning requires accounting for emergency management and incident response contingencies and challenges. Interoperability plans should include considerations of governance, standard operating procedures (SOPs), technology, training and exercises and usage within the context of the stress and chaos of a major response effort.
Coordinated decisionmaking between agencies and jurisdictions is necessary to establish proper and coherent governance and is critical to achieving interoperability. Agreements and SOPs should clearly articulate the processes, procedures and protocols necessary to achieve interoperability.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Preparedness Directorate (NPD) offers a project to assist the response community with interoperability Test and Evaluation (T&E). The Preparedness-Technology, Analysis and Coordination (P-TAC) Center manages the Supporting Technology Evaluation Project (STEP), which conducts T&E of technologies relating to incident management and response. T&E activities verify interoperability of commercial and government software and hardware products and provide the response community with reports to support purchasing decisions.
STEP uses an accredited testing laboratory located in Somerset, KY, for conducting T&E activities. The accredited testing laboratory leverages the P-TAC Center infrastructure to evaluate the following:
- Incorporation of NIMS concepts and principles
- Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) version 1.1 and 1.2 standards
- OASIS CAP version 1.2 USA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Profile version 1.0
- OASIS Emergency Data Exchange Language – Distribution Element (EDXL-DE) 1.0 standard
- OASIS EDXL – Hospital Availability Exchange (EDXL-HAVE) 1.0 standard
- OASIS EDXL – Resource Messaging (EDXL-RM) 1.0 standard
Q: What is the National Emergency Communications Plan?
A: National studies, assessments and after-action reports from September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina and other natural and manmade disasters in the last decade have underscored the critical need for improved emergency communications nationwide. These documents show that the lack of emergency communications interoperability across disciplines and jurisdictions hinders situational awareness, command and control and the overall management of response and recovery efforts.
In 2006, Congress enacted provisions under the Fiscal Year 2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) to develop a National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) to provide a roadmap to improve the nation’s emergency communications capabilities. The NECP is a strategic plan that sets goals and identifies key national priorities to enhance governance, planning, technology, training and exercises and disaster communications capabilities. The NECP provides recommendations, including milestones, to help emergency response providers and relevant government officials make measurable improvements in emergency communications over the next three years.
Q. What is a Common Operating Picture?
A: A Common Operating Picture (COP) offers a standard overview of an incident, thereby providing incident information that enables the Incident Commander/Unified Command and any supporting agencies and organizations to make effective, consistent and timely decisions. Compiling data from multiple sources and disseminating the collaborative information COP ensures that all responding entities have the same understanding and awareness of incident status and information when conducting operations.
Q. What is Interoperability?
A: Interoperability allows emergency management/response personnel and their affiliated organizations to communicate within and across agencies and jurisdictions via voice, data or video-on-demand, in real-time, when needed and when authorized - this includes equipment and the ability to communicate. If entities have physical communications systems that are able to directly communicate, those systems are considered to be interoperable. This can be a function of the actual system or the frequency on which the system operates.
Q: What does NIMS mean for Information Technology (IT) managers?
A: IT managers can play an important support role in the implementation of NIMS. NIMS is our nation's incident management system. NIMS integrates best emergency management practice, procedures and systems utilized by emergency management professionals across the nation into a national framework for incident response. Information technology can provide important supporting capabilities essential to implementing and continuously refining NIMS.
Information technology systems must be able to work together and should not interfere with one another when multiple jurisdictions, organizations and functions come together to respond to an incident. Effective emergency management and incident response activities rely on flexible communications and information systems that provide a common operating picture to emergency management/response personnel and their affiliated organizations. Systems should support the following communications and information management concepts and principles: interoperability; reliability, scalability and portability and resiliency and redundancy of any system and its components.
Q: What steps are important for IT managers to establish information systems?
A: It is important that IT managers work with department heads, local emergency management and state emergency management to determine technology support requirements prior to an event. IT managers should reach out to emergency management personnel in the community to formulate information technology requirements. Such requirements could include:
- Establishing information systems to inform, coordinate and execute operational decisions and requests during an incident.
- Establishing information systems to support the establishment of a common operating picture during an incident.
- Establishing information management policies prior to an event to integrate information needs during an event into a common operating picture.
- Establishing information systems that tie together all command, tactical and support units involved in incident management. This system must enable all entities to share critical information.
- NIMS Alert 01-08: NIMS Communications and Information Management Standards [1/08] (PDF 33KB, TXT 1KB)
- NG 0004: National Incident Management System (NIMS) Communications and Information Management Standards [1/08] (PDF 50KB, TXT 14KB)
- SAFECOM is a communications program of the Department of Homeland Security. SAFECOM provides research, development, testing and evaluation, guidance, tools and templates on interoperable communications-related issues to local, tribal, state and federal emergency response agencies.