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Book Review
Sitting in the hot seat:
Leaders and teams for
critical incident management

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1998-2

Review of:

Sitting in the hot seat:
Leaders and teams for
critical incident management

by : R. Flin.
Chichester, John Wiley & Son. ISBN: 0-471-95796-8

Reviewed by: Douglas Paton
School of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand
Email: D.Paton@massey.ac.nz

Critical Incident Command: Exploring the psychological dimension

World-wide, large scale emergencies and disasters occur on a daily basis. When they do occur, the efficiency and effectiveness of the professional response to these incidents is facilitated by the implementation of plans and procedures that direct response efforts and facilitate recovery. The starting point for this book is the assertion that while issues such as crisis management, emergency planning and the organisational and public service response, have, rightly, received considerable attention within the academic and professional literature, there exists another issue that is equally deserving of similar levels of attention.

In this book Rhona Flin describes the role of the individual leading the on-scene response; the person responsible for interpreting the situation, adapting plans and managing the response process. The title, `Sitting in the Hot Seat' not only reflects this focus, it also highlights the fact that the professionalism and effectiveness of most emergency and disaster response activities belies the complexity of the command role and the substantial and complex demands that this role makes on those who fulfil it. Flin brings together information from many sources to provide a systematic and comprehensive review of the psychological aspects of critical incident command. Psychological factors have generally been less extensively covered than their sociological and managerial counterparts. This book picks up at the point where plans, processes and procedures are being implemented and asks how the demands encountered influence the effective realisation of the benefits accruing from sound planning and management procedures.

Although the term critical incident management will be familiar to many readers of this text, this is not a book about critical incident stress management per se. Although stress management is addressed, the content of this book extends beyond this issue. Flin provides a more comprehensive review of the demands encountered by those in command roles, the implications of these demands for well-being and performance effectiveness, and the strategies that can be developed and implemented to promote both well-being and performance.

Throughout the book the concepts and issues being discussed are clearly defined and illustrated. Flin's extensive use of case studies makes it a straightforward task for the reader to understand the issues being addressed and their role in the incident management process.

Flin commences with a discussion of the role of the incident commander within a context defined by incident demands and the command and control procedures designed to facilitate the response process. However, this book departs from the conventional treatment of these issues by focusing on how personal, psychological and group factors interact with incident characteristics to determine response effectiveness and well-being. Irrespective of the quality of plans and procedures, the psychological parameters introduced by the presence of the incident commander can affect the quality of their adaptation and implementation and thus the extent to which events are contained or escalate. It is thus important to consider this psychological dimension and to use this knowledge to facilitate effective incident command. The introductory chapter highlights this issue and, by making extensive use of disaster case material, provides a sound context within which the implications of subsequent issues can be understood.

When discussing the psychological dimensions of any area of human endeavour, an oft asked question concerns whether there are any psychological attributes or characteristics that affect capability. Flin describes the personal and dispositional characteristics that contribute to effective command performance and the selection procedures that can be used to increase the match between attributes and demands. The section on competence assessment provides a useful introduction to the issue of training which is discussed next. The training chapter focused on content issues and the role of simulation in developing competence, but issues concerning training needs analysis for atypical events, training transfer and the development of the psychological models (schemata) that underpin skill and knowledge utilisation, certain decision processes and team performance receive only limited coverage (Paton, 1994).

The training chapter is followed by one on stress. This chapter provides a general introduction to stress reactions, sources of stress for those fulfilling command roles, and factors which mediate the nature and intensity of reactions associated with the management of critical incidents. The notion of responding to major incidents resulting in positive outcomes is briefly alluded to and could have been covered in more depth. A focus on the relationship between event characteristics, command and positive outcomes can provide valuable information that can be incorporated into selection, development and training programmes and can be used to promote resilience when responding to highly demanding events (Dunning, in press; Moran & Colless, 1995).

The coverage of the major demands likely to be faced by those in command positions is comprehensive. The stress chapter concludes with a discussion of traumatic stress reactions and their management. An omission here, in the context of contemporary approaches to work-related traumatic stress management, is a discussion of the role of those in leadership positions as causal and recovery factors. Those in command roles can influence the development of stress reactions and the speed and extent of recovery from stress reactions in those for whom they bear responsibility (Dunning, 1994; Paton, Smith & Stephens, 1998; Smith & Paton, 1997). Consequently, the management of stress reactions, and the development of organisational environments that facilitate resilience, adaptation and recovery, must include those in leadership positions.

The time urgency characteristic of responding to major incidents, and the fact that the commander is operating in an ambiguous, unstructured and dynamic environment, highlights both the importance of decision making and the complexity inherent in the formulation and implementation of decisions and actions. This issue is tackled in the next chapter and focuses, essentially, on two contrasting approaches. Traditional, structured approaches are contrasted with naturalistic approaches to decision making. While both are seen to have a contribution to make, Flin highlights the fact that the style adopted will change with the role adopted with the response management process (c.f., operational versus strategic roles) and with the demands of the situation. Naturalistic processes, such as recognition-primed decision making, are described as being most appropriate in unstructured, urgent contexts. Overall, four approaches; classical decision making, recognition-primed decision making, the situational/resource model, and the method of tactical reasoning are described. The discussion of decision styles is framed in an applied context (e.g., fireground, medical and military) and this assists appreciation of the demand characteristics of the decision making process and the implications of stress on choice of decision method and decision quality.

The nature, number and diversity of the demands triggered by a disaster calls for the co-operative input of several individuals. Moreover, the complexity and ambiguity inherent within the response process often requires that incident commanders call upon their colleagues to obtain appropriate information, make decisions and decide on course of action to deal with the demands encountered to a far greater extent than would be required when responding to more `routine' events. The next chapter deals with team performance and discusses the issues that affect it, including attitudinal diversity amongst team members, stress and decision making and the use of simulations to facilitate effective team performance. The contrast between routine and disaster contexts, and the issues that require attention when considering the effective utilisation of team resources, is illustrated by a discussion of crew resource management. The need for a transition between the usual autocratic and directive management style prevailing in emergency services organisations and a management style better suited to team resource use makes this an important issue in planning, training and simulation for disaster work and this discussion provides some useful pointers in this respect. This discussion provides useful insights into the factors that underpin effective team performance under emergency circumstances. In addition to illuminating these special characteristics, this information can provide a framework for guiding team selection and training.

The final chapter summarises previous chapters, provides some direction for the development of emergency management psychology, presents some concluding comments, and outlines issues deserving further attention. Their atypical nature, their inherent ambiguity, and their frequently dynamic and escalating nature can make incident management a highly uncertain process. Yet, subsequent inquiries and legal proceedings frequently draw on hindsight, a resource that is never available to incident commanders during the performance of their role, to assist their analysis and to allocate responsibility and blame within a process that tends to focus on what went wrong and the human and property losses rather than on the quality of management under conditions of uncertainty. Flin highlights the issue of legal responsibility and liability as an important issue in this context. Increasing scrutiny of the command process should focus on developing this capability rather than on attributing blame.

While this book provides an excellent introduction to critical incident command a note of caution is warranted before applying its content, comprehensively, to emergency and disaster situations. The international move towards adopting integrated emergency management will increasingly result in command responsibilities being exercised in a context described by multi agency and multi-jurisdictional response. Training, information management, decision making, co-ordination, team work and incident management processes will be significantly affected by their application in a multi-disciplinary context (Paton, Johnston & Houghton, 1998). The discussion of the concepts described here, and their implications for critical incident management, cites evidence drawn from diverse professional groups. Consequently, care must be taken before applying the recommendations drawn from these sources without first considering the implications of their application within a specific profession or agency. Notwithstanding, these issues detract only slightly from what is an excellent introduction to incident command for those who will find themselves `sitting in the hot seat' when responding to a major emergency or disaster.

To conclude, Flin does an excellent job of discussing the theoretical basis of critical incident management and in demonstrating the use of psychological principles to identify problems and to develop practical solutions to manage or contain them. An accessible style, and extensive use of case study material to illustrate command problems and frame strategies for promoting their effective management and the well-being of those in command positions, combine to give this book a strong practical and applied focus. It should be read by all those concerned with emergency management.


Dunning, C. (1994) Trauma and countertransference in the workplace. In J.P Wilson and J.D. Lindy (eds) Countertransference in the treatment of PTSD. New York. Guildford Press.

Dunning, C. (in press) Strategies To Support Performance Of Police Officers
Responding To Traumatic Incidents. In J.M. Violanti and D. Paton. Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat. Charles C. Thomas. Springfield. Illinois.

Moran, C. and Colless, E. (1995) Positive reactions following emergency and disaster responses. Disaster Prevention and Management, 4, 55 - 61.

Paton, D. (1994) Disaster Relief Work: An assessment of training effectiveness. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7, 275 - 288.

Paton, D., Johnston, D. and Houghton, B. (1998) Organisational responses to a volcanic eruption. Disaster Prevention and Management, 7, 5 - 13.

Paton, D., Smith, L.M., and Stephens, C. (1998) Work-related psychological trauma: A social psychological and organisational approach to understanding response and recovery. Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 2, 1 [Online serial] Available: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/issues/1998-1/paton1.htm

Smith, L.M. and Paton, D. (1997) A structural re-assessment of the Impact of Event Scale: The influence of occupational and cultural contexts. In G. Habermann (ed) Looking Back, Moving Forward: Fifty years of New Zealand Psychology. Wellington, New Zealand Psychological Society.


Douglas Paton © 1998. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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