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September 15, 2009

Over the years, Russell Dynes and his colleagues at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center have helped dispel some rather persistent myths about the ways people deal with disasters at the individual, institutional, and societal levels.  Among the more important but most overlooked of his observations is the myth of central control.

Dynes has observed that the Incident Command System (ICS) itself contributes to this myth by suggesting to many of its users that disasters actually respond to hierarchically oriented interventions.  Dynes neither dismisses nor denies the utility of ICS, but he does argue rather convincingly that many of its most ardent advocates misapprehend or misrepresent what really makes it work.

I have observed this problem first-hand both in the United States and New Zealand, where officials have struggled to apply ICS to the management of multi-agency coordination centers (MACs).  (These are variously referred to as emergency operations centers, emergency coordination centers, command centers, etc.)  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) itself acknowledges this problem in its ICS courses by noting that jurisdictions have adopted at least four different structural models for organizing and operating MACs.

It should come as no surprise that the demands of coordination differ from the imperatives of command and control.  Yet proponents of ICS often argue — against evidence it seems — that a one-to-one relationship must exist between incidents (or events) and command authority.

As appealing as the arguments in favor of the myth of centralization may seem, the arguments against it are just as compelling.  For starters, coordination acknowledges a fundamentally different relationship to events than command.  This relationship is characterized by at least four distinct elements:

  • Competition
  • Commitment
  • Clarification
  • Creativity

Big events don’t just spawn big demands, they create competition for scarce resources.  By definition, disasters overwhelm the capabilities of those responsible for the initial response.  This requires people to acknowledge the need for priorities and make allocation arrangements or adjust their outcome expectations accordingly.

Resolving competition for scarce resources requires those affected by a disaster to secure commitments of assistance from others who are either less directly affected by the disaster or better equipped to absorb or spread the impacts of these additional demands.  Although this role often falls to higher levels of government, it may also involve partnerships or collaboration with the private sector, including civic and voluntary organizations.

As the scope and scale of an event increases, the volume of information increases at an even faster rate, especially in this hyperconnected age of cellphones, PDAs, Twitter, and Facebook.  Maintaining situational awareness is difficult enough in any incident, but disasters impose demands for clarification on leaders.  It’s not enough to know what happened, leaders must convince the community that they understand why it happened and how we must all respond to improve the situation and ensure the actions that put everyone at risk will not be allowed to happen again.

Perhaps the biggest challenge created by disasters is the need to deploy creativity.  Disasters largely reflect a failure of existing patterns of thought and practice.  They require us to explore alternatives, and in doing so to engage in processes of discovery and improvisation.

Those who cling to the myth of centralization generally labor under a series of related misapprehensions: 1) that distance yields to perspective, 2) that perspective facilitates judgment and discretion, and 3) that judgment and discretion are more likely to produce optimal results than decentralized authority and distributed decision-making.  The truth of the matter is that disasters are not about optimum results.  That ship has usually sailed long before anyone can mobilize a response.

Effective emergency management is more about making sure that an emergency does not manage us than it is about actually managing the emergency itself.  This requires all parties engaged in the response to do what they do best.  Technical problems are best left to the technicians.  Political problems and the inherent value conflicts and adaptive challenges they represent, of course, should rest with the politicians.  That said, neither party can or should be expected to leave the other to its own devices.

The public expects politicians to display engagement with and sensitivity toward the situation at hand.  A politician will not retain sufficient public trust and confidence to lead effectively in the absence of convincing displays of engagement with the operational reality of a disaster.  Detached decision-making may make sense on paper, but it won’t cut the mustard with a public all too accustomed to cynical and self-serving responses to their needs.

By the same token, the public expects emergency responders to display more than the usual degree of deference to their needs during disasters.  This demands more than empathy.  Public officials will be expected to apply extraordinary judgment and discretion with respect to both processes and outcomes.  Bureaucratic buck-passing, blame-shifting, indecision, and delays simply will not do even after lives are no longer on the line.

Any effective coordination system must facilitate shared governance and accountability.  This requires a division of labor that reflects the nature of the different types of decisions that need to be made rather than hierarchical notions of agency and authority such as unity of command and span of control.  Instead, such systems must place the authority for technical decisions in the hands of those with agency, that is the tools and the skills to use them, while recognizing and reinforcing the authority and accountability of elected leaders and executives to mediate the complex process of adaptive change that accompanies disaster.

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