Management Characteristics of NIMS

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Written By Advanced Dynamics

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National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a comprehensive and systematic approach to managing incidents, both small and large, developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the United States.

It provides a standardized framework for incident response and management, which helps ensure effective and efficient coordination among all agencies and organizations involved in an incident. NIMS outlines specific management characteristics, including but not limited to incident action planning, modular organization, and comprehensive resource management.

This article will explore all the key NIMS management characteristics and how they contribute to effective incident response.

NIMS: An Overview

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a nationwide approach to emergency response and management developed by FEMA that is intended to be both flexible (to work in all accidents) and standardized (to ensure a coordinated, efficient response to each incident).

NIMS is mandatory for all federal departments and agencies and is also strongly recommended for state, tribal, and local governments, as well as private sector organizations. This means that NIMS must be used by all organizations involved in incident response, regardless of the size or scope of the incident.

NIMS can be used for a wide range of incidents, including natural disasters, technological hazards, and acts of terrorism. It employs the ICS approach to incident management, allowing for effective response and recovery efforts in any type of emergency situation.

By using NIMS, organizations can work together effectively and efficiently to protect lives, property, and the environment during an incident.

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What Is ICS?

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a crucial component of the NIMS model for incident management. NIMS outlines the principles and practices that should be followed in all incident response efforts, and ICS provides the specific organizational structure and procedures for implementing those principles in the field.

ICS is a standardized approach to incident command and control, which provides a clear chain of command and defined roles and responsibilities, ensuring that all actions taken during an incident are consistent and aligned with the overall incident management strategy.

The ICS structure is designed to be flexible and scalable, allowing it to be adapted to meet the needs of any size incident. This means that ICS can be used for both small-scale incidents, such as a house fire, as well as large-scale disasters, such as a hurricane or an earthquake.

The integration of ICS into the NIMS model for incident management is essential for ensuring effective and efficient incident response efforts. By following the NIMS/ICS framework, all entities involved in an incident can work together seamlessly, using a common set of procedures and principles, to achieve the best possible outcome.

How Many NIMS Management Characteristics Are There?

NIMS outlines several key management characteristics that are critical for effective incident response and management. Here is a quick breakdown of all the 14 management characteristics of NIMS:

Common Terminology

NIMS requires all agencies and organizations involved in an incident to use the same language and a common set of terminology – the same definitions for key terms and concepts – when exchanging information and communicating.

This helps to reduce confusion and misunderstandings and ensures that all parties have a clear understanding of the situation and their roles and responsibilities. This allows all entities to work together seamlessly and coordinate their efforts effectively, which is essential for effective incident response and management.

This common terminology covers organizational functions, resource descriptions, and incident facilities.

Modular Organization

The structure of the Incident Command System (ICS) adapts and grows in a step-by-step manner to match the scope and intricacy of the incident:

  • The Incident Commander holds the authority to create and broaden the modular ICS structure.
  • As the situation grows more complicated, the ICS organization can expand by assigning functional duties to different individuals.

ICS Organizational Structure

The Operations Section grows in a modular fashion starting from the bottom. The expansion of the Operations organization is determined by the arrival of resources, as well as factors such as span of control, geography, and functional responsibilities.

The rest of the ICS structure usually expands in a modular, top-down manner depending on the size and complexity of the incident, as well as the specific hazards it creates. As the incident becomes more complex, the organization expands by assigning functional responsibilities to different individuals.

The ICS structure is designed to be flexible and can be divided into separate functional units to improve internal management and external coordination as needed. As the ICS structure grows, the number of management positions also expands to meet the demands of the incident.

organization chart, executive, staff

Management by Objectives

The Incident Commander or Unified Command sets objectives for incident response activities. The Management by Objectives approach is made up of the following elements:

  • Setting precise and measurable incident objectives.
  • Identifying the strategies, tactics, tasks, and activities required to achieve the objectives.
  • Creating and assigning plans, procedures, and protocols to carry out identified tasks.
  • Recording results for the incident objectives.

These incident objectives are important for ensuring that everyone involved in the ICS organization understands what needs to be done.

A team’s decision-making is guided by a set of priorities provided by the Command, which must be listed in order of importance. These priorities include life safety, incident stabilization, and property and/or environmental preservation.

Having a clear set of priorities helps teams make informed decisions on how to best carry out their work.

Incident Action Planning

An Incident Action Plan (IAP) is a concise and clear way of communicating incident priorities, objectives, strategies, tactics, and assignments, both in terms of operational and support activities. The IAP focuses on the needs of future time frames, also known as operational periods.

For the IAP to be effective, it should:

  • cover a defined period of time,
  • anticipate contingencies and be proactive,
  • clearly state the incident objectives,
  • list the activities that need to be completed,
  • assign responsibilities,
  • identify the resources needed,
  • outline communication protocols.

Even minor incidents are managed with objectives and plans. For less complex incidents, the IAP may be oral or written, except for incidents involving hazardous materials – these require a written IAP.

Manageable Span of Control

The concept of span of control refers to the number of people or resources that can be effectively managed by a supervisor during an incident and is crucial when forming the organizational structure of the Operations Section.

The recommended ratio is one supervisor to five subordinates (1:5), but in some cases, particularly outside of the Operations Section, a different ratio may be necessary depending on the specifics of the incident. Ensuring a manageable span of control is critical, especially when safety and accountability are key concerns, as giving too much responsibility to one person can lead to unmanageability.

Factors such as the type of incident, the task at hand, hazards, safety considerations, and distances between personnel and resources all impact what is considered a manageable span of control.

Incident Facilities and Locations

Depending on the extent of an incident and its complexity, Incident Command may establish various support facilities, which may include:

  • incident command post (ICP),
  • incident bases and camps,
  • joint information centers (JIC),
  • staging areas,
  • helicopter landing spots and bases for air and unmanned aerial vehicle operations.

Comprehensive Resource Management

During an incident or event, it’s crucial to evaluate the situation, plan the response, and coordinate resources to achieve the incident objectives. As conditions change, it’s important to adjust the use of resources effectively and safely. The ICS Resource Management process formalizes the principles of resource management to ensure they are put into practice on the incident site.

The ICS Comprehensive Resource Management involves standard procedures for identifying resource needs, acquiring and mobilizing resources, tracking their status, demobilizing them, and reimbursing and restocking them after the incident. This includes personnel, teams, and equipment.

Integrated Communications

A unified plan for communications and compatible systems, both verbal and digital, must be established and utilized to ensure smooth incident management. This includes ensuring that connectivity is maintained, all parties are aware of the situation, and information is shared effectively.

Establishment and Transfer of Command

At the beginning of an incident, it is essential that the command structure be clearly identified. The agency or organization responsible for the incident will assign an Incident Commander and also specify how the command will be transferred, if necessary.

During the incident, control may need to be switched from one person to another. This transition should include a full briefing of all relevant information to ensure that operations stay safe and effective.

Unified Command

In a Unified Command, there is not one single “Commander” – i.e., a person in charge. Rather, the incident is managed through shared objectives that have been agreed upon.

This type of command allows different entities with different legal, geographic, and functional responsibilities to cooperate without compromising any individual’s authority, responsibility, or accountability. It is often implemented when no one jurisdiction, agency, or organization has the capability or resources to manage it by itself.

Unified Command can involve multiple jurisdictions, a single jurisdiction with multiple agencies, or multiple jurisdictions and agencies.

Chain of Command and Unity of Command

The chain of command and unity of command are both important to the functioning of an organization.

The chain of command is an organizational structure that describes how power is transferred down the hierarchy of an incident management organization. It enables the Incident Commander to direct and control the activities of all personnel working on the incident, avoiding any confusion by requiring orders to come from higher authority.

However, it does not preclude personnel from communicating with each other directly for the purpose of requesting or sharing information. Formal direction and control follow the chain of command, while informal information exchange happens throughout the ICS structure.

According to the unity of command, all individuals have one designated supervisor that they report to. This means that when you are assigned to an incident, you will no longer report directly to your normal supervisor.

In addition, different positions and organizational structures are not related to the ICS in any way in order to avoid confusion over different titles and organizational structures.

The chain of command and unity of command are both used in all incidents, but the exact structure and responsibilities of those involved depend on the type of incident and their role within it.

Woman Pointing at Tablet


It is essential that everyone involved in the incident operation follows the principles of accountability.

This includes following agency policies and regulations, sign-in/sign-out documentation, adhering to the Incident Action Plan, as well as assigning each individual to one supervisor. Everyone must take personal responsibility for their actions, and supervisors should be able to adequately control and communicate with all resources under their supervision.

Furthermore, resource status changes must be properly recorded and reported. It is each individual’s responsibility to maintain situational awareness and report safety concerns.


When it comes to responding to an incident, resources should only be deployed once they have been formally requested or dispatched by an appropriate authority through established resource management systems. Unrequested resources should not self-dispatch in order to avoid overloading the incident command.

Additionally, ICS emphasizes the importance of adjusting resources according to changing conditions.

Once you have been deployed, you must check in to receive your assignment and get briefed on the current assessment of the situation, your specific job, the work area, break areas, procedural instructions for obtaining resources, and operational periods/work periods, as well as safety procedures and PPE that are required.

Information and Intelligence Management

The Incident Command System (ICS) places a great emphasis on information and intelligence. It is critical that incident management systems put in place a strategy for collecting, studying, evaluating, distributing, and managing data and intelligence relevant to the incident.

Under NIMS, “intelligence” is used exclusively to refer to threat-related information acquired by law enforcement, medical surveillance, and other inquiry groups.


NIMS incorporates the Incident Command System (ICS) approach to incident management, which provides a clear chain of command and defined roles and responsibilities. The integration of ICS into NIMS is essential for ensuring effective incident response and management because it allows all entities involved in an incident to work together using common procedures and principles.

NIMS outlines several key management characteristics that are critical for successful incident response and management. Understanding and following them will allow you to work collectively for the best possible outcome.