Emergency response standardized

On Sept. 11, 2001, a nation stood stunned after two airplanes brought down the twin towers. A select few people, however, rushed to the scene, trying to save lives and help in any way they could.

Once these soon-to-be heroes arrived, they found themselves lacking the ability to efficiently communicate with each other because of regional jargon. The firemen, policemen and other responders did not speak the same language.

But a federal program is about to change that. Dubbed the National Incident Management System, this mandate from the Department of Homeland Security is sweeping the nation, and Island County is not missing out.

“NIMS is the command system for first responders,” said Dave Hollett, Island County’s Department of Emergency Services deputy director. “It is a structure for handling a situation — be it a parade or a community disaster — the same way.”

Island County’s first responders, which includes fire and police departments, sheriff’s office and paramedics, are already on the same page during large-scale responses. The new program might take that a step further, however.

The guide for handling emergency situations must be adopted by the end of 2005 or emergency services will lose their ability to receive federal funds. Hollett said that the system has evolved to aid in times of a multi-agency response to an event, such as 9-11. Members of fire departments from the West Coast ventured to New York to aid in the emergency.

“Well, that’s great, but when people from the West Coast got to the East Coast, the East Coast terms confused the West Coast responders,” Hollett said.

Island County’s dispatch services are already centralized through ICOM. As part of that, much of the language is the same for each agency, ICOM Director Tom Shaughnessy said.

“Our member agencies have already agreed to the standardization of our terminology,” he said.

The need for NIMS arises, Shaughnessy said, during a large-scale incident. There is, however, an underlying need for county agencies to adopt the standards. If they don’t, they would no longer be able to receive federal funds.

“For Island County, the biggest thing is to adopt it to make sure the funding is available,” Shughnessy said.

Island County and the Sheriff’s office have already signed on to the program. Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley agencies have yet to follow.

Under NIMS, if something happens that requires multiple agencies to respond, the first agency on scene becomes the incident command. Hollett described a possible scenario on the south end of Whidbey

“If we get this huge wild fire and they can’t control it for some reason or another, then they will need to call in outside help,” Hollett said.

If a person in the outside agency is more qualified to handle the situation, whoever is in charge for Fire District 3 would give up command.

“Because of NIMS, when this other chief gets on the radio and starts directing fire fighting, the only thing they’ll hear different is the voice,” Hollett said.

In order to prepare for NIMS, crews in local agencies must undergo some training to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of the program.

Hollett said the program formalizes practices already used in Island County.

“It’s all been done on a hand shake,” he said. “Since everyone has to formally adopt it, that hand shake’s gone.”

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