Who do you trust? 

The idea of a formal decision-action cycle as the basis for a command and control system is not new.  Perhaps the most frequently used example is John Boyd’s ‘OODA Loop’ (Boyd, The Essence of Winning and Losing, 1995), which is particularly apt when time and the dispersal of decision-makers are important factors.  In disaster management, the key point is that dispersed elements of police and emergency service organsations (ESOs) need to make consistent decisions, leading to correspondingly consistent actions, in the right timeframe, even if they are far apart.

Achieving a degree of consistency in the decisions and actions of emergency responders requires information to be available, accurate and consistent, enabling shared understanding (often called shared situational awareness) by those involved or affected.  Good information is the lifeblood of a functioning disaster management system – and shared understanding is the foundation of effective distributed decision-making.

Achieving understanding is very difficult, because of the range of factors involved: not just good information, but also a range of ‘softer’ contextual factors.  This involves disciplines and capabilities like intelligence, data fusion, common operating pictures and decision support tools.

OK, so far so good, but there’s a problem.  Our central point is that in a complex crisis situation, all those affected have to make decisions, often life-or-death ones.  Members of the community have to make the best decisions they can based on the available information.  Achieving consistency, therefore, is especially difficult.

Imagine community members staying at home because nobody told them how fast the fire was moving.  Evacuating on the wrong route and being cut off by rising flood waters because they didn’t believe what they were told.  Going to an evacuation centre only to find that the authorities had closed it and opened another.  Consider ESOs focusing support on one community member or group (perhaps based on one agency’s perspective) when another was, in fact, more vulnerable.  Or deploying scarce resources to one small township when the NGOs knew that another was in more immediate danger.  If only they’d all had the same information and shared a level of understanding.

So it is essential that disaster managers recognise, understand and start to work with the community’s decision cycle.  By understanding how the community thinks, decides and acts, agencies and ESOs can act in concert with NGOs and the community, achieving more effective disaster management processes and underwriting community resilience.

This requires us to answer questions that are still relatively unfamiliar.  How can ESOs take part in the community conversation?  How do they recognise community sentiment, atmosphere, influences and belief about the situation and the roles being played by others?  What has to be done to enable the necessary degree of common understanding?  And where is the tipping point, at which consensus is established and the community decides to do something that the ESOs have to react to?

Right through the traditional command and control disciplines and capabilities, new approaches are needed.

For example, we are used to considering information as ‘trusted’ or ‘untrusted’ depending on where it came from.  We are familiar with the fact that people don’t tend to trust faceless institutions, but often will trust the elements they can see and interact with: the local policemen, firemen, paramedics and other emergency service-men and -women.

We also trust our personal networks.  Many of us hold a near-constant conversation with our friends on Facebook, exchanging views and forming collective opinions on the things that matter to us.  But the interesting thing is the trust we place in people we have never met.  Consider ebay.  We choose to buy from a particular seller not because of what ebay says, but because of what other members say.  Or Amazon, where it is the views of other buyers – community members – that we trust to guide our shopping decisions.  Or Twitter, through which we tune in to a host of complete strangers.  Trust is something that we like to make personal decisions about.

And how do agencies and ESOs leverage the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (Surowiecki , 2004)?  With the benefit of local knowledge and what they can see with their own eyes, the wisdom of the community must be taken into account in the decisions that affect them.  They may know best.  A truly effective approach to enabling community resilience must combine the wisdom of the crowd with the local insight of NGOs and the better information channels and decision support systems of agencies and ESOs.

It can be done.  Our methodology for disaster management consists of six stages (Listen, Understand, Decide, Communicate, Act and Learn) and three critical overarching enablers (Trust, Influence and Cooperation).  Throughout this modified decision cycle, new, smarter, more imaginative methods and approaches can underwrite better community outcomes.  We balance traditional (and still indispensable) ‘command and control’ with a bottom-up ‘persuade and cooperate’ approach.


Neil Makepeace
Chief Executive Officer