Improving the emergency response to terror attacks

Posted in: Business and society, Communication

The recent government report into the handling of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack highlighted failing in the response of the emergency services. But what went wrong? And how can teams responding to emergencies ensure that this doesn’t happen again?

Here Olivia Brown explores the communication and coordination of response teams during a major incident. Her recent research suggests that the UK government could benefit from changing emergency guidelines to include a new ‘resolve phase’, as it would encourage agencies to collaborate and communicate earlier in the response, increasing the effectiveness of their approach.

The successful response to an emergency is dependent on the cooperation between several specialised and diverse teams. Take the response to a terrorist incident as an example – the Police are tasked with mitigating any further threat, cordoning off the scene and collecting evidence, whereas the Ambulance service must quickly begin accessing and triaging casualties. An effective response to the incident cannot be achieved by one agency alone and instead rests on the ability of teams to work cohesively under immense pressure.

The challenges of collaboration

In practice, this can present several challenges. For example, which agency’s goals take precedence if there is a conflict in priorities? And how can effective communication across agencies be maintained when there are urgent tasks to achieve?

Despite the introduction of initiatives to improve multi-agency working, a recent Government report reviewing the response to the Manchester terrorist attack attributed many of the failures to poor communication and collaboration across agencies. Accordingly, more work is needed to explore team processes during emergencies and to identify ways to improve the multi-agency response.

Improving the emergency response

My colleagues and I set out to find an answer to this issue. Our recent research explored communication and coordination during the response to a simulated terrorist incident. We worked with 30 commanders representing 11 agencies (e.g., the Police, Fire and Rescue, Ambulance, Military, Local and Central Government).  We focused on the strategic level of response – the highest level of command in which team members meet at a location away from the incident site to set the overall strategy of the response.

We measured communication through ‘social network analyses’ – we used audio recordings of the simulation to generate networks of communications and identify which team members communicated with one another and how frequently. Coordination was measured by analysing the interactions of team members - we qualitatively coded verbal indicators of coordination from the transcribed audio recordings. For example, joint decision making was one of our verbal indicators of coordination, coded for when team members actively worked together to implement a decision (e.g., “can I confirm that we all in agreement of this strategy before it is actioned”).

Our work was unique in that it measured communication and coordination during three phases of the simulated terrorist incident

  • Phase 1 - when the incident was ongoing
  • Phase 2 - 48 hours after the incident
  • Phase 3 - 3 weeks after the incident

The government guidelines class phases 1 and 2  as “response phases” with a focus on neutralising the threat, saving life, and protecting the community. Phase 3 is classed as a “recovery phase” with a focus on rebuilding trust in the community, supporting victims in the longer-term and helping to ‘restore normality’. Accordingly, we expected to identify differences in how the teams communicated and coordinated in the response phases (phases 1 and 2) and the recovery phase (phase 3).

Delays and uncertainties

 We found that the communication network was highly centralised in phase 1 of response, meaning that much of the communication was dominated by a single agency – the Police. While it is typical for the Police to take lead in these scenarios, it is likely that an over-reliance on the Police to maintain the communication network in the immediate aftermath of the incident contributed to coordination difficulties in this phase. Our findings suggest that the Police were so focused on delivering the overall strategy of the response that they failed to attend to important information provided by other agencies and to manage the information flow across the network. This ultimately disrupted coordination as marked by delays and uncertainties in implementing decisions.

A similar phenomenon was noted in the report reviewing the Manchester Arena attack, in which the demands placed on the Police commander to implement decisions and deal with the immediate aftermath of the explosion contributed to their lack of communication with the Fire Service located at a different site. This poor communication led to a two-hour delay in the deployment of the Fire Service to the site of the incident, which meant that their skills and expertise could be not be utilised until later on in the response.

Why communication is key to an effective response

Analysis of the data showed that as the incident evolved, the involvement of other agencies increased, and the communication networks became less centralised. This change in communication coincided with improved coordination – as indicated by increased joint decision-making and shared awareness and reduced conflict and uncertainty.

Accordingly, our findings show that decentralised networks (i.e., communication networks that aren’t so heavily reliant on a single, central agency) might be used during emergencies to improve shared awareness and increase collaborative decision-making across inter-agency partners.  Given the high cognitive load on central agencies (e.g., the Police) to manage the flow of information and implement key decisions, it is likely that decentralised communication networks will make better use of the diversity of expertise across agencies and increase coordinated action.

Practically, one way to ease the challenges associated with centralised networks might be to implement “boundary spanners” – specific team members tasked with ensuring that information is relayed, and actions are coordinated across different component teams. By removing this responsibility from central decision-makers, a boundary spanner can increase the connectedness across agencies and ensure that effective inter-team communication is established right from the initial phase of response.

Implementing an additional phase to encourage earlier collaboration

When comparing across the three event phases, our findings indicate that a three-phase structure of “response/resolve/recovery” more accurately describes the behaviours of responders during emergencies than the existing “response/recovery” structure outlined in government guidelines.

Implementing an additional phase would account for the shift in urgency between an ongoing incident (response) and shortly afterwards when the immediate threat has subsided (resolve). Changing procedural guidelines to a three-phase structure may better prepare responders for the realities of incident response and empower other agencies to get involved in decision making before the response transitions into the recovery phase.

Taken together, our work offers important insights into how team processes are managed in different phases of incident response and identifies ways to improve future practice.

Posted in: Business and society, Communication


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