Friday, May 14, 2010

Deepwater and the Future of NIMS

Deepwater Horizon (aka the BP Spill) is probably the largest and most visible NIMS event since the system was established by DHS in 2004. Katrina was a NIMS event but NIMS was new then and a big takeaway was that NIMS was effectively implemented. Deepwater is different, in part because the oil companies and federal spill response agencies have been working together in a NIMS environment since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Then it was called ICS. Every year every oil company facility with risk exposure must run a significant drill with all participating response agencies, and every three years a Worst Case Scenario drill.

So this event has been the first large public and media exposure to what a NIMS event looks like. And as a result, I have some serious concerns about its future. Full disclosure: PIER, the crisis communication technology I created, is being used by the JIC and BP as the platform for managing incident communications. My company is very involved in the response, including assisting Unified Command with communications support. This is the main reason why I have been reluctant to comment on this event.

Why am I concerned about its future? Look at this comment from Secretary Napolitano from Bulldog Reporter: Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, meanwhile, has taken pains to distance the administration from BP, saying, "I wouldn't characterize them as our partner. I would characterize them as the responsible party," adding that their role provides them with a clear mandate: "They've got to kill this well, clean up the ocean and pay the claims," according to the article.

The basic principle of NIMS is Unified Response. It is why it works. All parties with legitimate roles have a stake in the game, a say in the response through an exceptionally well-structure Unified Command process. They word together, not independently, not at cross-purposes and not getting in each other's way. It works exceptionally well and it is working very well in this case.

However that partnership model is not perceived by the Secretary, and we must presume by the White House, to be in the best interests of the White House. There is clearly great concern that the public will place blame on the administration for the event and for any perceived failures in response if the Coast Guard, MMS and other agencies are too closely linked to the response. Hence, from almost the beginning, the overt effort to make this a BP event. BP for its part has never wavered from its role as the Responsible Party, clearly communicating its responsibility. And the fact the fact that under NIMS, the RP pays the bills is a vitally important message to communicate in an event like this, and one that BP has never wavered from. While it is a matter of compliance that the oil companies cooperate to the degree they do in a Unified Command environment, I am concerned about what all non-federal partners (including other government agencies involved in a cooperative response) will do in future knowing that the basic message to the public about NIMS, which is a unified and cooperative effort, may be sacrificed to political necessities.

The impact on NIMS from this message of non-partnership is one concern. The other is the obvious lack of knowledge about NIMS in the public, in the media, in the elected officials, and possibly even in the White House. There have been numerous examples of this lack of knowledge:
- many cable news shows running viewer surveys asking: Who should pay for this, or should BP be doing more to respond.
- news headlines in Louisiana newspapers saying that Parish Presidents were taking over the lead in the response
- complaints about inaccurate spill volume were blamed on BP without recognizing that it is Unified Command responsible for approving such information
- the majority of news reports focus on BP's response--no doubt in part based on the political messaging referred to above, but clearly it is a Unified Command response

Does it matter that the public, the media and elected officials understand NIMS. Absolutely. The current lack of understanding, combined with the political messaging, in my mind threaten the future of NIMS. Resistance will grow, not only among private companies who now in most cases seem to eagerly participate, but also among other government agencies who could experience the same undermining political message. I believe in NIMS, think it is a great way to manage multi-party responses, and hope the lessons learned from this will result in its strengthening rather than weakening.


  1. Hello Gerald and thanks for this interesting point.

    Unified Command as a key part of NIMS/the IMS doctrine is maybe a bit too obscure for the public.

    In most people's eyes ... the government is often a monolithic entity ... it doesn't matter what level we're speaking about (fed/state/provincial/local) ... it's one thing ... the Man ...

    if you throw in large private sector corporations to the mix ... I don't believe it changes de public perception too much either ...

    To sum up ... Unified Command is a crucial element for EM professionals ... but for the public ??? not sure they understand ...

    and in the current spill situation ... I believe there's probably a lot of public posturing by the Obama administration ... while at the same time, federal government agencies/departments are play a key role in the UC for the incident.