Emergency Management and NIMS Training

(from Maine Townsman, October 2008)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

The swift and coordinated responses to the spring flooding in Aroostook County and the recent downtown fire in Milo have shown that Maine is stepping up to the post 9/11 mandate by the federal government to work more cooperatively before and after disaster strikes.

Among local officials there is still some resistance to the federal order to integrate emergency management and still some confusion about how to access federal assistance.

Thwarting terrorism may have been the purpose behind the top-down reorganization of emergency management, but it is proving its utility in dealing with extreme weather and more routine mobilizations, said Ginnie Ricker, deputy director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).

“It’s not just about terrorism. It’s more everyday things where you have to coordinate with other entities to respond,” said Ricker. “I don’t know that I see it, but I hear about it,” she said.

The growing severity of weather in Maine is evident from the number of natural disasters qualifying for federal aid. In the four decades through the 1980s, 10 disasters qualified for federal clean-up assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website. During the 1990s, sixteen disasters qualified for aid. During the first eight years of this decade, 19 disasters have already qualified for aid. “We’re just getting more storms and more damage,” said MEMA’s Ricker.
The push to respond to these emergencies in a more coordinated, cooperative fashion is coming from The Department of Homeland Security. The federal government has tied eligibility for all preparedness money to completion of new training. Departments that have not completed training won’t get help from the feds to buy radios, fire trucks, and turnout gear - which the federal government has traditionally helped pay for in the past. Significant sums of money are at stake. The Department of Homeland Security made $6 million available to Maine this year.

The federal government began rolling out the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2003. It is a set of protocols for handling emergencies that is supposed to make it easier to mesh resources and people according to the scale of disaster or terrorist attack. The directive applies to local, county, state and federal agencies. Eligibility for any federal preparedness grant is now contingent upon completion of “incident command system” (ICS) training.

ICS training is said to be relatively straightforward. It begins with basics, such as how to cut power, how to sand a road and builds to more complex tasks such as evacuation procedures. “Guys will look at it, and say, ‘that’s the way we’ve been doing it, we just didn’t call it that,’” explained Tom Robertson, director of Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency. “It’s a methodology so you don’t have people freelancing at the scene [of an emergency]. It builds up beyond mutual aid agreements.”

The minimum requirement calls for completion of 16 hours of training for every member of a department. Command staff members are required to complete additional training. It also requires adoption of an ordinance by the policy makers in town or city government.

Bruce Fitzgerald of MEMA agrees that the training is not particularly complex.

“Once you’ve been through the training, it’s almost second nature,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s almost common sense. It fits in with what most departments are already doing,” he said. The training is available at a variety of locations throughout the year and some of it can be done online. “We make every effort to get in front of people,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re really trying to make it as painless as possible.”

All state agencies and a majority of Maine cities and towns are now NIMS compliant, said Fitzgerald, “It’s definitely growing.” The speedy, coordinated response to the Artoostook County flooding in May and the downtown fire in Milo both demonstrated the value of the trainings, he said.

“We’re starting to see the benefits of NIMS. Almost all the larger scale responses are using it,” he said.

Federal preparedness grants are now all tied to NIMS compliance. That includes pandemic flu and bio-terrorism grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security grants, fire grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, interoperability grants from the Department of Commerce, even some education grants. “It’s a pretty wide umbrella, but it’s done program by program,” said Fitzgerald.

He said some towns that were otherwise qualified won’t be getting a piece of the recent award of $4.1 million in interoperability grants from the Department of Commerce because they haven’t completed their NIMS requirements. “That’s going to sting,” he said.

The NIMS mandate was initially not popular with Maine’s volunteer fire departments. They viewed it as a “big-city” solution that added to their already heavy burden of unpaid training requirements. Case in point: the West Gardiner Fire Department. When Chief Ken Stackpole started requiring “incident command system” training of all 25 members of the department a few years ago, he heard a range of complaints, such as:

• “We don’t need this.”
• “We’re volunteers, we’re not a big city.”
• “It’ll never happen here.”

But the chief persisted because the training would make the department eligible for valuable federal grants. Gradually, members completed the initial 16 hours of unpaid training. More training was completed by higher-ranking members of the department “There was some hesitation, a few battles,” Stackpole said.

The department soon got first-hand experience in the value of the training on the snowy evening of February 1, 2008. A corporate jet with two people aboard crashed in the woods of West Gardiner, precipitating a massive rescue operation. “We had 17 different agencies involved,” said Stackpole. The agencies involved included Maine State Police, Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department, area fire departments, National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The smooth, swift response by such a large rescue and clean-up force was a direct result of the training of so many participants in common protocols, said Stackpole.

“Everything seemed to fall into place,” said Stackpole. “That really drove home the point of why we needed the training.”

Even without the occurrence of a large-scale emergency, the training is valuable for the funding eligibility that comes with it, says Stackpole. “The biggest reason we did it was because of the grant process. Once (we) started into it, I realized this is the way to go.” West Gardiner (population 3,000) already knows the value of federal assistance because, before NIMS was a requirement, the town received 90 percent of the funding for a $175,000 fire truck, Stackpole said. The first dividend since becoming NIMS compliant was the recent award of a $30,443 interoperability grant for radio upgrades. The award is being shared by the town of West Gardiner, Randolph, Farmingdale, Chelsea and Pittston.

“No way these small communities can do it without federal help,” Stackpole said. “Was it worth it? Absolutely. Our community would be foolish not to do it, just for that reason.”

The expense of modern equipment makes the federal assistance invaluable, says Fitzgerald. “I don’t know a single town that can afford to do this on their own,” he said.

Phippsburg along the midcoast has not completed NIMS training and does not plan to, says James Totman, fire chief of the volunteer department of 25 members. He said the department has been well-served by large-scale-emergency training the department received from Maine Yankee funding.

“We don’t get paid to be a volunteer and if you’re working two or three jobs, you can only do so much,” said Totman. He said the feds “went way out of line” with training requirements.

“It wasn’t going to do nothing for us,” he said. “We looked into it with selectmen. You gotta do what’s right to take care of your town, not California.”

“I’ve been here 45 years and our biggest incidents were hurricanes and ice storms. We’ve handled them beautifully.”

There are no such strings attached to the federal aid that is available to clean up after “disaster declarations.” Furthermore, the money is easier to obtain because once a declaration has been made it’s not a competitive process, notes Mike Grant, training officer for MEMA.

“I’ve never seen a town go without,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a town that filled out forms that got denied assistance.”
Disaster declarations make FEMA funds available for 75 percent of the cost to clean up damage and repair infrastructure. The state pays for 15 percent and local government is obligated to pay the remaining 10 percent. Two thresholds must be met to qualify for a disaster declaration and most of it involves legwork at the local level: (1) damage to an affected county must exceed a certain dollar amount (determined county by county); and (2) the cumulative damage from all affected counties in Maine must exceed $1.6 million. The main task is gathering damage estimates on a FEMA “Form 7.”

“As soon as the response is over and the water has receded, we start on Form 7s,” explains Ricker. A flurry of email messages quickly determines which communities are gathering damage estimates, she said. Local emergency management officials take care to ask for Form 7s only when it looks like the state would qualify, notes Ray Sisk, EMA director for Knox County and a selectman in Hope.

“We do not ask them to run out every time it rains or every time the wind blows,” he said.

Gathering cost estimates may be important even if the immediate local damage appears minor because it may help meet a threshold, notes Ricker. “That’s why we can appear to be nagging. We can see a picture of the whole state,” she said. “If one county had $1.4 damage, we still can’t get them help unless we get $200,000 from somewhere else. Without the dollar estimates, we can’t even ask for help.”

Filling out a Form 7 is not difficult. It begins with a windshield survey of the town and leads to estimating costs, usually by a road commissioner, fire chief, selectman, and/or a contractor. Putting a dollar value on damage need not be precise because if a disaster declaration is made, all estimates are subsequently tested by on-site visits by FEMA.

“It’s low overhead labor-wise, notes Fisk. “If anyone gets discouraged spending 20-30 minutes filling out the forms, it’s easy to remind them of the benefits. You may still have to pay 10 percent, but contrast that with having to pay 100 percent.”
Training in filling out Form 7s is usually available at the county level. Some towns still do not seek aid out of pride, says MEMA’s Mike Grant.

“Mainers are pretty independent. They tend to weather their own storms. They think it’s their responsibility and don’t want to lean on government ... They don’t want to be beholden to government. They’ll fix it, take care of it themselves.”

But Grant looks at applying for storm aid as a way to lower the burden on local property taxpayers.

“I know budgets are tight, especially road budgets with the cost of asphalt,” he said. “Anything they can to do help reduce that burden on individual taxpayer is time and money well spent.”