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Book Review
Responding to emergencies:
Decision making and team perspectives

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2002-2

Review of:

Incident Command: Tales from the hot seat

by : Flin, R., & Arbuthnot, K. (eds) (2002)
Aldershot: Ashgate.
ISBN: 0 7546 1341 0

Reviewed by: Douglas Paton
School of Psychology,
Massey University, Palmerston North,
New Zealand

Responding to emergencies: Decision making and team perspectives

The rarity of mass emergencies and disasters significantly constrains the opportunities available for incident commanders and emergency managers to acquire practical experience in managing the range of unexpected and complex events they may be called upon to deal with. This limitation can, however, be countered to some extent by using critical and comprehensive case studies and reviews of the management of emergencies as one component of the training and development process. In this volume, Flin and Arbuthnot, drawing upon and integrating their respective academic and practitioner expertise, provide just such a resource.

The test is sub-divided into three sections. The first introduces the context of incident command from a practitioner perspective. Contributions from practitioners with extensive experience of incident command add considerably to both the substance of this introductory section and its ability to span the divide between academics and practitioners.

The opening section of the book introduces the reader to several issues that are fundamental to the development of effective emergency management capability. These include the need for planning, and the competencies required for converting plans into actions, to cover strategic, tactical and operational management. The importance of acknowledging and confronting the tendency to over-estimate response capability that accompanies over-reliance on structural mechanisms, and the value of an incident command system approach to development, training and practice is also discussed here.

In part two, Flin and Arbuthnot have compiled a collection of accounts of incident commanders’ actual incident management experiences. The contents of this section provide candid accounts of the issues and problems that incident commander must contend with, as well as providing readers with tangible illustrations of the dynamic contexts within which incident command takes place. Case material is drawn from diverse professions, including law enforcement, fire service, military, civil aviation, and the prison service. Furthermore, the breadth of events included here contributes to the potential of this volume to provide a resource capable of facilitating the development of an all-hazards capability.

The capability of this text to contribute to this goal is further enhanced by Flin and Arbuthnot’s inclusion, in the final section, of chapters from noted experts in emergency team-work and decision making. The chapters included here compliment the case study accounts of emergency response with contemporary reviews of psychological research in emergency management, particularly in regard to team-work and decision making. The inclusion of the oft-neglected legal context of emergency response adds additional value to this discussion.

From a practical perspective, the utility of the case studies is considerably enhanced by the emphasis, in part three, of integrating the general lessons derived from the cases with the academic literature and on the focus of the latter on training and development. The editors argue that this can assist researchers to develop their appreciation of the context within which emergency managers operate. Overall, this approach provides a strong basis for future collaborative research in this area and provides tangible evidence of the value of adopting a scientist-practitioner approach to the development of incident command competencies.

Consistent with the potential of this book to constitute a training resource, a particular strength of the text is that it focuses less on management systems and procedures and more on the individual and team competencies and practical mechanisms required for the effective management of complex, dynamic emergencies. As such, this book should be regarded as essential reading for both emergency managers and for policy makers in emergency response agencies and in appropriate government departments. This text affords the latter groups an opportunity to develop their appreciation of what policy, regulatory and legislative initiatives should be intended to facilitate.

In addition to it presenting a contemporary and critical overview of core issues in these areas, the book raises a number of additional issues worthy of further thought and debate. The use of the term ‘command’ in the title was surprising given the frequent criticism of ‘command and control’ models by several emergency management commentators. Arbuthnot anticipated this and, in response, discusses how the ‘control’ construct is consistent with the integrated emergency management philosophy, an important issue in a text that places considerable emphasis upon team work in emergency response.

In some respects the appropriateness of control here may be a function of the focus on intra-organisational coordination. The applicability of this approach within a comprehensive emergency management model, in which participative and consensus-based approaches are required to effectively include input from several constituencies, remains to be seen. So, while providing evidence of the danger of assumptions regarding the meaning attributed to the control construct, and its operational implications, Arbuthnot’s discussion also highlights the need for clarification of core constructs, consensus regarding the definitions used in this field, and for additional work on contingent determinants of the applicability of its use within different management models.

A notable omission from the contents was the comprehensive discussion of information management and communication. The quality of decision making is a function of the quality of available information. Crucial issues here concern not only the ability to access information or data in a timely manner, but also the need for a capability to collate and interpret data and information from diverse sources and often under considerable time and psychological pressures. While the importance of this issue is alluded to at various points throughout the text, particularly in relation to naturalistic decision making and situational awareness, more comprehensive coverage of this topic would have complimented the excellent reviews of decision making and team work.

Care should also be exercised in regard to extending the application of the ideas espoused in this text to large-scale disasters. For example, the complexities of information management, decision making and team work can differ qualitatively (e.g., the need to operate over prolonged periods of time in inter-agency teams whose membership is dictated by event contingencies) and quantitatively from those prevailing within the contexts described here. Admittedly, this was not a core objective of the editors. Consequently, the contents should be regarded as a highly pertinent starting point for further research in this regard.

Overall, this book provides an excellent introduction to the core individual and team competencies required for effective incident command and emergency management and the contexts within which such activities take place. It should be recommended reading for those likely to be called upon to manage emergency response. Flin and Arbuthnot illustrates the benefits that can accrue from closer collaboration between researchers and emergency practitioners and how this can contribute to the systematic and theoretically robust development of incident command capabilities.


Douglas Paton © 2002. The author assigns 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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Last changed November 26, 2002
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