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Disaster response dilemmas: 11 difficult choices emergency managers face

Author Jori Kalkman's shares details from his new book exploring 11 difficult choices emergency managers face when responding to disasters.

September 18, 2023 
By Jori Kalkman



Disasters create a number of dilemmas for emergency managers. They face difficult choices on how to manage and organize disaster response activities. Should they use a top-down leadership approach or delegate decision-making responsibilities to the frontline? Is it better to start the response activities immediately or would it be wise to first collect more information on the rapidly developing situation? And what is the role of local civilians who wish to support disaster response operations: can they be an asset to the response or are they more likely to cause problems?

Emergency managers will find contradictory recommendations when they search for answers to these questions. Time and again, experts offer competing directions, which are bound to cause confusion. Yet, it also demonstrates the complexity of disaster response work, in which simple solutions to pressing problems will rarely suffice. Responding to disasters is ultimately characterized by persistent, difficult dilemmas regarding the management and organization of emergency operations. These dilemmas are difficult to navigate in the best of times, but emergency managers will have to resolve them in the face of time pressure and immense uncertainty.

My new book titled Frontline crisis response: Operational dilemmas in emergency services, armed forces, and humanitarian organizations explores these dilemmas and potential resolutions. It brings together 500 publications on emergency, disaster, military, and humanitarian operations to identify 11 recurring dilemmas that emergency managers will repeatedly face in their job. Covering topics like team dynamics and inter-organizational co-ordination, it shows the competing demands on disaster management professionals.

But it does not end there. The comprehensive analysis of hundreds of studies also demonstrates how emergency managers have effectively dealt with these dilemmas in the past. A broad review of response operations shows recurring patterns that can be used to infer lessons and best practices on how to deal with dilemmas in disaster response. To this end, the book brings together research on hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and earthquakes, but also studies on smaller emergency incidents, military missions, and humanitarian operations.

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The idea behind this broad selection of studies is that crisis professionals, across a wide range of contexts, face similar dilemmas and can learn from each other’s experiences. Moreover, this approach allows for a meticulous examination of each dilemma.

Take the example of the leadership dilemma in disasters. First, we find competing recommendations. A U.S. government investigation into the response to Hurricane Katrina blames the failures on weak command and control. Instead, based on other case studies, disaster researchers have repeatedly argued for decentralized decision-making in disasters like this one. Both sides to the debate provide good arguments. Top-down leadership allows for rapid decision-making, enables coordinated actions, and ensures that decisions are made by those who can be held accountable afterwards. Opponents, however, stress that frontline managers and responders have a better understanding of the disaster and can make more informed decisions, while a need for urgent, adaptive interventions forces them to bypass slow, hierarchical decision-making processes. Both sides make good points, so a simple solution to the leadership dilemma will inevitably fail. Comparative research shows a more nuanced picture. Simply put, senior emergency managers can intervene to prevent risky situations or increase efficiency in more familiar, predictable emergency situations. But when disasters get more complex or unpredictable, and particularly in the early phase of disasters, their leadership is limited to providing general directions, as frontline teams require the autonomy to take charge. A fixed leadership structure is still the norm in many of our emergency management organizations even though they may not allow for such flexible changes. Yet, if disasters are dynamic and evolving, our response structures need to follow suit.

The examination of the 11 dilemmas results in several principles for disaster response. First, it is useful to adopt a contingency approach, which means that the disaster scenario at hand should guide the nature of the response structure. Every emergency may be unique but there are many commonalities between situations too. Disasters can be compared in terms of their size, nature, and predictability. By searching for recurring patterns between events, disasters can be ordered into specific scenarios or ideal-types with their corresponding response structures.

Next, there is a need for viewing emergencies as processes rather than events. If a disaster enters a different phase, it is time for the response structure to be reconsidered too. A disaster requires adaptation, switching, and reorganizing of the response structure to ensure it continues to match the evolving situation, but this is not commonly trained or anticipated in emergency organizations.

Third, disaster management professionals benefit from a pragmatic mindset. A dogmatic pursuit of the perfect emergency management system is bound to fail and there are no ideal solutions to the dilemmas of disaster response. Instead, a pragmatic approach emphasizes actions that are good enough given the messiness and chaos of the circumstances. It emphasizes experimentation, experience-based interventions, openness to change, in-action reflection, and adapting after failure. The outcome is an adequate, not flawless, emergency response operation.

The final principle is rooted in existentialist thought. The aim of improving disaster response is laudable, but also tends to lead to an instrumentalist or technical focus on emergency management issues. Disaster professionals might not always receive the attention that they deserve (at least in academic research), as evidenced by depersonalized terms as ‘human resources’ or ‘units’. Questions on the identity, ethics, and emotions of professionals are relevant, not only because the answers will ultimately affect emergency responses, but also because disaster response cannot be fully understood if the professional responders themselves are ignored.

Practice shows that emergency managers and their teams are often remarkably adaptive and successful. This book, written for a practitioner audience, aims to provide a better understanding how they manage to usually do well under incredibly difficult circumstances that are full of persistent dilemmas. Elaborate, concrete examples of each dilemma are drawn from investigations of various emergency management contexts, such as a disaster relief mission on the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, the management of smaller emergency scenarios in the Netherlands, and military missions in crisis areas. The book also provides additional resources for professionals, such as questions that can be used to consider or debate how they or their organization deals with specific dilemmas.

In a world increasingly beset by disasters, emergency management professionals play an increasingly important role. This book presents a broad overview of research findings to help them reflect on their work and organizations. Ultimately, it seeks to contribute to a deeper understanding and continuous improvement of emergency response operations.

An overview of the 11 dilemmas

  1. Leadership: Command and control versus decentralization of decision-making
  2. Sensemaking: A clear informational picture versus accepting a limited situational understanding
  3. Acting: Following plans and protocols versus relying on spontaneous improvisation
  4. Ethics: Abiding by organizational norms versus relying on individual convictions
  5. Emotions: Getting emotionally involved versus keeping a rational distance
  6. Relational ties: Fostering strong cohesion versus promoting internal contestation and debate
  7. Structures: Organizing versus disorganizing emergency management systems
  8. Inter-organizational co-ordination: Integration versus fragmentation of interdependent activities
  9. Civilians: Inclusion versus exclusion of local and spontaneous volunteers
  10. Technology: Early adoption of new tools versus skepticism and reluctance
  11. Goals: Restoring order versus social transformation through disaster response

Jori Kalkman, Ph.D., is the author of Frontline crisis response: Operational dilemmas in emergency services, armed forces, and humanitarian organizations, an associate professor in the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy and was a visiting researcher at the Swedish Defense University. He studies how organizations respond to crises, emergencies, and disasters. His work has been published in various management journals as well as in specialized emergency response, military, and humanitarian outlets.


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