Saturday, September 20, 2008

SPECIAL - The Past as the Future of Emergency Preparedness and Management


Via Big Medicine

The Past as the Future of Emergency Preparedness and Management


Murray Turoff

Starr Roxanne Hiltz

Connie White

Linda Plotnick

Art Hendela

Xiang Yao

Information Systems Department

New Jersey Institute of Technology


It is our intent in this paper to provide an overview of Emergency Preparedness and Management that is based upon our prior work in this area. To start with, we first summarize the findings of a major U.S. government study on Disaster Preparedness because they are very relevant to the motivation of our work (Turoff et al 2004a, 2004b) and the observations and recommendations that follow. The purpose of this report was to identify the key areas needing improvement throughout the U.S. for improving Emergency Preparedness and Management. We will first itemize these concerns in terms of words taken directly form the initial summary of findings study (pages 3 to 6):

Planning is essential for any region or community likely to be affected by a disaster, in order to determine what preventive and protective measures can and should be taken before and at the time of a disaster. Planning requires cooperation from all levels of government... To be confident that disaster planning is preparing government officials, volunteers, and the public to cope better with disasters, such plans must be exercised and evaluated.

Vulnerability analysis is a prerequisite to effective disaster preparedness. The variety in types and frequency of natural disasters and the differences in effect and damage make it clear that an assessment of vulnerability must be made for each community as a first step in formulating regulations, plans, and programs to reduce hazards and prepare for disasters.

The reduction of hazards and preparedness for disasters are government responsibilities as well as the concerns of every citizen. For this purpose there must be ... appropriate disaster legislation for all levels of government.

Public awareness of the threats posed by the various natural disasters is essential to preparing for them and reducing their destructive effects.

The value of past investment in prediction and warning capabilities is clearly demonstrable. Despite the increasing property losses, there has been a notable decline in lives lost when such capabilities have been established and used.

The objective of mitigation is to find ways to reduce the vulnerability of people and property to damaging effects. ... there is a need for a national program involving Federal, State, and local jurisdictions in avoiding the mistakes of the past and in gaining fuller consideration of natural hazards in regulating land use and construction.

The main focus of emergency response to major disasters should be: (1) to expand routine emergency services, such as police, firefighting and sanitation; (2) to provide those things which the individual citizen takes care of by himself in normal times but which have been interrupted by the disaster, such as food, housing, and personal welfare; and (3) to make special provisions for medical care. ... There is a favorable benefit-cost ratio in taking early measures when a disaster is imminent.

Research on the causes and characteristics of natural disasters and for the protection of people and property holds great promise and is a national imperative. The most immediate need is to apply the scientific and technological knowledge already existing. The sheer number and variety of disaster related research activities in the government and private sectors now make it difficult to coordinate and integrate these activities.

This report to the US Congress, titled Disaster Preparedness, was published by the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) in the Executive Office of the President in January 1972. This extensive report was inspired by General George A. Lincoln who was director of OEP, an executive office agency which was scheduled for elimination in 1973 along with the Office of Science and Technology. The final quote included is a few words from the director's letter to the U.S. Congress.

The main thrust of this report points to the need for improvement in disaster preparedness at all levels. ... Disaster preparedness is a task never completed. It represents an unbroken chain stretching from the prevention though ultimate recovery and requires continuous effort at all levels of government.

The words of this report, with the inclusion of man-made disasters as well as natural ones, appear to be just as true today as they were in 1972. Within the context of the above requirements the authors are going to review some of the recent work that addresses these concerns, roughly following the topics in the report as summarized above. We will review the continuous planning cycle for emergency response, including the applicability of “muddling through” as a management philosophy for this field. Then we will discuss a scaling method that we have devised that can be helpful for assessing vulnerability. After briefly reviewing disaster legislation in the U.S., which provides the context for the current disjointed situation, we discuss the need for public awareness and community involvement in mitigation and other phases of the planning process. Our emphasis in moving to information systems for emergency response is on providing collaboration tools for communities of practice.


This is the foundation on which everything rests and it involves integration of the plans across all the ongoing objectives of planning or what is loosely termed the phases of emergency management. What is not clear to all is that these objectives of planning are part of a continuous process:

Planning (for all the objectives below)

Mitigation (long term reduction of risk or vulnerabilities)

Training (for all actions)

Detection and Warning (for all disaster types)

Preparedness (pre disaster event readiness)

Responders, volunteers, community, organizations, press, etc.

Response (to a disaster event usually short term, but not always)

Recovery (restoring what was normal)

Evaluation and Process improvement

What went wrong and how to correct it for the future?

Good planning requires good communications and good information. Both today are a problem. Disasters or emergencies cross political, geographical, or organizational boundaries. The fragmentation of participation by existing human-determined boundaries and the presumption that these divisions are appropriate for planning and dealing with an emergency have been principal reasons why we have not seen major improvements in many of these areas since 1972.

  • Lack of commonality with respect to interface design, visualization, and decision support, making it difficult for practitioners to master a range of very different systems necessary to their concerns (Carver and Turoff, 2007).
  • The separation of threats by source (terrorism, natural disasters, and man made disasters) with very different priorities for different phases and dissimilar activities.
  • Lack of major integration requirements across organizations.

The above properties result from a web of deeper problems that tend to prevent the actions and developments that are needed. For example the common perception is that the response phase of an emergency will only last a week or two. However, this was not the case with the Anthrax emergency in the US and clearly the response phase of hurricane Katrina was far in excess of what usually occurs in urban areas. If we ever encounter a true pandemic, the response phase will last years. Fundamental issues of this sort greatly impact the design of information systems to deal with all the phases that can occur in any of these events.

In this paper we raise a number of such issues that need to be more explicitly exposed, investigated, and treated to make sure information systems can deal with likely future occurrences as well as past ones. We also suggest associated future R&D objectives. The characteristics that have changed considerably since 1972 are those associated with the evolution of the Web and the opportunities, applications, and problems that it now makes possible. (See Chapter 16 in Van de Walle, Turoff and Hiltz, 2009, for more details). These issues include:

  • Lack of an integrated structure and ethical policy for dealing consistently with all types of disasters, at least in the U.S.

  • The problem of information overload for emergency management professionals

  • The critical processes of Cooperation, Coordination, and Collaboration on a wide area and national basis

  • Recognition of the planning, policy analysis, and decision process of “muddling through”

  • Social Computing, Community Involvement, and Citizen Participation as the future road to successful emergency preparedness and management.

Muddling Through

Trying to plan also presumes one is aware of how decisions are made in any of the disaster phases. Recent writings have argued that High Reliability Theory (HRT) and Sensemaking are the foundations of what should underlie good decision making practices (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001). HRT has evolved from organizations dealing with physical systems such as nuclear power plants and does make a lot of sense; however, it turns out there is an earlier theory that does not require the existence of any physical systems. This is commonly known as mudding through and also as a form of incrementalism. This was originally proposed as the way in which important government policy decisions should be made. In 1959 Lindblom wrote a classic paper about the concept of making decisions by "the science of muddling through" rather than by a "scientific" process of setting goals and deducing logical resulting actions. The following summarizes and contrasts the two views of decision making discussed:

  1. Scientific deductive decision making with complete knowledge of all relevant variables and values from which an optimization can be made by use of resulting obvious criteria for the decisions.

  2. The subjective comparison of a limited number of alternatives relying heavily on experts and their past experience and expertise, where they are focusing on a judgment based upon a few of the most important values

This might be an over-simplification of a superb paper proposing a different form of decision making for governmental decisions at all levels. However, it strikes us that in the context of the unexpected such as occurs in disasters and emergencies, "The Science of Muddling Through" should be required reading for practitioners, designers, and researchers concerned with Emergency Preparedness and Management. Furthermore it is a foundation for the approach to collaborative decision processes that we have taken in most of our writings in this area, producing a ‘collective intelligence’ where the group will produce a better outcome than any individual member of the group would have (French and Turoff, 2007).

Ill structured, wicked events call for flexibility in decision-making as well as improvisation with the available assets to best accommodate a situation to lessen the chances for the worst outcome and increase chances of the best. Traditional management styles of one or two people in charge of making all the decisions must be replaced by the expertise of the group and defer to that expertise during the response efforts. As the magnitude of an event grows, so too does the group of people to manage. It has been suggested that implementing an incident command system as a hierarchical network is the best solution for managing a large and unknown situation, allowing for flexibility for those in charge (Moynihan 2007). We differ very much with this view and offer the challenge of how to turn a large scale team of professionals into an instant HRO (High Reliability Organization, Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001), networking even when they have never worked together before.

In 1979 Lindblom published a follow-up paper restating the concepts of muddling through in a comparative analysis of different types of "incrementalism." In that paper he listed the stratagems for muddling through that could also be termed as "disjointed incrementalism." What is startling for our purposes is how much they seem like the concepts underlying High Reliability Organizations and concepts of "sense making" which are increasingly popular in Emergency Management operations (Van de Walle and Turoff, 2008). Quoting Lindblom from his 1979 paper:

  1. A greater analytical preoccupation with ills to be remedied than positive goals to be sought;

  2. A sequence of trials, errors, and revised trials;

  3. Analysis that explores only some, not all, of the important possible consequences of a considered alternative;

  4. Fragmentation of analytical work to many (partisan) participants in policy making (e.g. stakeholder analysis and community participation).

Determining what went wrong and getting that corrected for the future by changes to the process was top priority for "muddling through" and later for HRT (High Reliability Theory). This incremental series of changes based upon understanding the past is a critical human process in making improvements to any situation. In terms of policies, plans and practices, Lindblom, (1979) also observed:

"A fast-moving sequence of small changes can more speedily accomplish a drastic alternation of the status quo than can an only infrequent major policy change." (page 520)

The above seems to be the way practitioners have to actually plan and execute responses and recovery in this field. It also seems that emergencies or disasters are the time when changes can be more easily made in local, state, or federal government agencies; the term emergency in Korean also means "opportunity." It should also be a time to uncover mistakes and take action to eliminate them from any of the phases in the future. Today we have too many fears and inhibitions about allowing these errors to be exposed and corrected. In addition, there are the following weaknesses in the current process, in the U.S.:

  • We don't create the working team until the emergency occurs.
  • We don't really integrate volunteer organizations or community groups into the command and control structure.
  • The command structure does not allow integration across levels of government, organizations, and various man made boundaries (Chen et al, 2009).
  • We isolate the public and the press and really do not always offer an accurate picture of what is taking place.
  • The people who do the planning are not the people who have to execute the plans, making them difficult to communicate and lacking detail on local conditions (Byrne, 2008).
  • Unprotected organizations are reluctant to expose errors because of liability and public reaction (Lee et al, 2006).
  • Too many sources are trying to be the official source for materials critical to locals for dealing with emergencies and the result is information overload.

The technology available today offers solutions for many of these problems and will be discussed later in this paper when we deal with collaboration and community involvement.

Vulnerability and Risk Analysis

A Risk Analysis done by the method of cost benefit studies has two prime fallacies. A risk study is an examination of relative truths in the sense that it compares various risks and tries to determine their relative importance. Therefore the process follows the Kantian philosophy of science (Mitroff and Turoff, 1975). However, cost benefit studies translate everything to dollars which linearizes the relationships between the causes of risks and the consequences of them. However many risk situations are non linear in their relationships and the comparison of risks really needs to be done based upon the physical parameters/variables in the real world (deaths, buildings destroyed, number of accidents, etc.) underlying their occurrences and consequences.

The second related fallacy is the application of discounting (applying time dependent discount factors to measures of performance or costs) in the cost benefit model. This assumes there is no memory of consequences in the model as to when (in what year in the future) a value or cost would be gained and they are independent in any year (Linstone, 1972). For example, if there is a slow leak in a nuclear reactor which would not accumulate a deadly level in the surrounding area for over 100 years, the typical cost benefit study would show that available money should be spent on other threats more likely to produce deaths next year. Even a 2% discount rate would bring the costs a hundred years from now down to almost nothing. Essentially, discounting destroys any impact of a variable change in one year propagated or compounded into other years.

A recent action by the Environmental Protection Agency (CBS News, Washington, July 10, 2008) reduced the value of a human life by one million dollars. This has the impact of making increased regulations to reduce deaths in the future far more costly to implement than the value of the lives saved. The current wisdom is the ratio must be greater than one to implement stiffer regulations. When decisions of this sort are reduced to thresholds based upon arbitrary modeling decisions, games can always be played. In emergency management the reality of this is the growing age of our infrastructure as the decrease in maintenance or replacements of bridges, sewers, water systems, etc is seen by politicians as a way to reduce budgets; but eventually, “tomorrow” comes and the bridges fail.

The older term used in 1972 of "Vulnerability Analysis" of specific situations and locations was much more clearly understood as referring to studies of the physical variables that characterize the risk rather than financial abstractions. In Emergency Preparedness it is not the financial damage that is important before the event or immediately after. It is measures like the expected causalities, injuries, and requirements for shelter, food, water, power, transportation, etc.

Students in a recent graduate course in Emergency Management Information Systems were asked to use the Delphi Method (Linstone and Turoff, 1975) to determine the relative importance of different dimensions for measuring the impact of a disaster before and during the event, to aid the Emergency Management function (Plotnick, Gomez, White, and Turoff, 2007). The lowest values for informative purposes were the two that are most often reported (financial loss and recovery costs). What citizens who might be involved in the disaster want to know are the other variables in the Thurstone's scale shown in Table 2 that was derived as a group result from the individual preference rating. Note the top rated dimensions of Causalities and Fatalities is 2000 to 1 more important, as rated by the class, than the last which is Financial Recovery Costs. Clearly the latter may become more significant after the disaster is over.

Many of these variables are better estimated by local citizens with experience in prior similar disasters or local experts familiar with things like local building codes and practices. Using national estimates does not give informative estimates when the threat is on the way nor does it aid the management processes of insuring the availability of current resources. One needs local estimates of each variable on this scale. That local estimate and measurement will change dynamically from the initial detection of the threat, through the occurrence and response, and into the recovery.

Each of the dimensions below can have a local scale of the degree of damage estimated by the local community "experts" on a continuous basis from the earliest detection of the current threat right up to its actual occurrence, and then afterwards as actual damage assessment occurs. This estimation process also points out the difference in understanding of the situation when one is looking at the status of each of these dimensions or just the total of potential financial loss as one would do in a cost-benefit study.

Table 2: A Thurstone scale for the relative importance of measures of disaster impact (Plotnick et al, 2007)

If we are going to take many types of extreme events seriously we need to do much more about meaningful citizen involvement, as they are the true first responders (Palen, Hiltz, and Liu 2007). The area that has the greatest payoff for handling extreme events is the more complete involvement of the communities and their citizenry in all phases of disaster preparedness and response. This should be our first line of defense.

Disaster Legislation at all Levels of Government

A real difficulty that planners have today is that there is no commonly understood ethic of what any level of government feels is its explicit responsibility for responding to the needs of communities and citizens. U.S. citizens cannot say what the local, state, or federal government will take responsibility for in the case of a disaster. Once upon a time (until the mid 1970s) there was a federal ethic that expressed the philosophy behind most of the disaster legislation passed by congress:

Insofar as possible citizens and business should be restored to the state they were in prior to the disaster; however, no one should profit from a disaster.

This had its problems since one could not spend federal funds to build a better bridge if the bridge went out in a flood. Rarely did local communities or states add money to build a better bridge. However, the lack of explicit knowledge on just what different government agencies will do in a given situation leaves the planner in emergency management in a rather difficult situation. How do the local planners plan either response or recovery when they don't know what the state and federal governments provide? There needs to be more transparency for the public and associated organizations.

Public Awareness and Community Involvement

Even in classical management we have seen the evolution of concepts such as Stakeholder Analysis to overcome the shortcomings of the typical monetary approach to Risk Analysis. A formal approach to Stakeholder Analysis is more useful for integrating the large spectrum of concerned planners, responders, and decision makers. This would mix the key people in different levels of government (federal, state, local) and other national or even international organizations concerned with any of the disaster phases. There are also in various communities severe problems in communications because non governmental groups are not regular members of the command and control system used during disasters. For example in many urban areas there is no active linkage between community organizations providing emergency health services and the general social support system in that community (Turoff and Hiltz, 2008). As a result, someone coming out of a hospital care situation after a disaster is not in any database that would interface to the community organizations that might help them further with such basic problems as shelter, food, and other forms of help.

In any case, what is clear is the following needs for emergency preparedness based risk analysis (Hendela et al, 2006; Turoff et al, 2002, 2004a, 2004b, 2008; White et al, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, Yao and Turoff, 2007):

1. Determining what has worked and what has not worked in past experience.
2. The participation collaboratively of a large multidisciplinary community of practice with members who are familiar with the local area and its vulnerabilities.
3. An information based knowledge structure able to accept, organize, and provide a community and organizational memory for experiences, plans, resources, and other critical items for Emergency Preparedness and Response.
4. The ability for the community citizens and professionals to continually and dynamically contribute their knowledge and wisdom and to be able to evaluate and expose problems and disagreements for discussion and resolution.

This would be in essence a community recommender system for the community decision makers in local government, private companies, non profits, and other community organizations.

Mitigation and Improved Emergency Response

The community as a whole should provide the opportunity for participation in building and maintaining a community disaster plan. Today most plans come down as templates from the federal government and are not highly tailored to the local community. The usual government members are not made up of the professionals who have the background knowledge to be able to assess details such as engineering vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. The CERTs (Civilian Emergency Response Teams) are a positive concept but really limited to civilian training for only the response phase and do not encourage contributors to any of the other critical phases such as planning and mitigation. Also there is no easy way for leadership in the community to be actively involved except for an occasional table top exercise. This might happen once every six to twelve months, never get to a professional level of detail, be conducted face to face only, and rarely have a detailed result except for some top level insights by the leadership, who may not come back to a second exercise.

Local severity and probability risk assessment could well serve as a first motivational tool. This should be generated and compiled on an asynchronous basis much as in an online Dynamic Delphi, allowing continuous input and discussion by members of the community as well as collective ratings of risks. The results of such an approach could well serve as a collaborative process for the community and leadership to determine the important planning details and preparation for having the necessary resources and equipment.

A new variant of Wikipedia allows people to link information to specific points or areas on a map, which can utilize detailed maps of a given area as the knowledge structure. This means a lot of community information and viewpoints can be linked to the potential location of a risk, problem, resource, etc. The Wikimapia system is available online and is accessible anywhere there is Internet connectivity and a browser.

There have been other recent calls for the use of modern web technology to create a 911 system that would integrate all the community activities in emergency management at the local, regional, state, and federal level. It would cut across all the different physical devices available to community members (Shneiderman and Preece, 2007). The name suggested has been “” in the United States and it would provide a variety of applications tied to any phase of emergency preparedness and it would provide for open access to all citizens.

Involving the public and other organizations in the planning process as well as the other aspects will lead to many important benefits for all the phases of emergency preparedness and management. Once the public feels it is getting reliable information from all levels of government, efforts to improve mitigation of future disasters or emergencies will be a lot easier to accomplish. Carrying out emergency response will be much easier when virtual representations of response plans and especially evacuation processes can be viewed and understood by any concerned citizen.

Collaboration and Collective Intelligence

When disasters cross political boundaries, emergency response teams are often partially or fully distributed virtual teams. Virtual teams have been an area that has seen a great deal of prior work at NJIT, with teams involved on such tasks as software development and project management (Hiltz, Fjermestad, Ocker, and Turoff, 2006). A partially distributed virtual team is a hybrid team whereby there are some individuals collocated in subgroups, and the subgroups are distributed from one another (Huang and Ocker, 2006). In an emergency, people from each organization that is involved in the response may form such distributed collocated subgroups. The challenge is for the subgroups to form an effective team. A communication/ information system must enable the teams to overcome the inherent difficulties of working in such teams. For example, collocated members may tend to have “collocation blindness” (Bos, Olsen, Nan, Shami, Hoch, and Johnston, 2006) whereby they will resist reaching out to distributed members even when the best expertise lies outside of the collocated group. Deferring to Expertise (HRO theory) is something too often lacking in extreme events.

Lindblom in his book, The Intelligence of Democracy, (1965) put it in very clear terms: "that people can coordinate with each other without anyone's coordinating them (Lindblom, 1965, p. 3)." In disaster planning and response it is full scale collaboration that is needed and we would extend the above quote to encompass coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.

Elements of a Dynamic Response Information System

Real-time, effective decisions are required of experts collaborating on management and response. Without effective response, outcomes can be catastrophic, with more dire consequences than expected or experienced previously. Errors in management and decision making can exacerbate the situation and result in greater injury, loss of life, or a disastrous financial toll. Lessons learned from past experiences include the need for a feedback mechanism in a support system so that the processes of an event can be critiqued and further utilized to promote learning from failures. Characteristics or values of success need to be identified and integrated into the information system. Expecting the unexpected and managing disasters effectively calls for a system with dynamic features conducive to support group collaboration on a large scale.

Thurstone’s Law of Comparative Judgment helps to reflect best a group’s opinion by breaking complex situations down to a manageable set of characteristics (Thurstone, 1927a, 1927b, 1928; Torgerson, 1858). We have made a major theoretical modification to Thurstone’s method that allows complete dynamic voting and the introduction of new items with a fluctuating number of contributing voters possible on any subset of preference items in the list (White, Turoff, and Van de Walle 2007a; White, Plotnick, Turoff, and Hiltz 2007b). The critical contribution is a new measure of uncertainty that provides a separate Thurstone scale that shows the greatest possible uncertainty condition that results from some items having only a few votes and others having a lot more. This results in a second Thurstone’s scale that can be lined up with the first scale to show the potentially large variations that can occur for items that are new and/or have currently only a small number of evaluations.

The approach provides two separate visualizations based upon the interval scales generated by the Thurstone method. If two alternatives are at the same point this means that half of the individuals who are voting on that comparison prefer A to B and the other half prefer B to A. The linear distance between the two is the current vote. Thus, P(A>B) = P(B>A) = .5 is the zero difference point between the two options. In the second scale those not voting but who indicate they are likely to vote at some point are assumed to be able to drive the vote back in the opposite direction and this gives a new version of the scale that measures the uncertainty when compared to the original scale. The first votes cast are meant to expose any disagreements so they can be brought out and discussed by everyone focusing on the particular problem, quickly bypassing areas of agreement and saving precious time. With this method anyone can change their vote at any time based upon the discussion that has occurred about what appears to be meaningful disagreements. The interval scale provides a visual measure of the degree of agreement on the relative preference of any two items. With this feedback, and the visual information provided by the second scale that shows the uncertainty as previously mentioned, experts have a more complete understanding of the level of agreement and status of opinions for decision making. People may choose to vote via “paired comparisons,” rank order, “yes,” “no," “no judgment,” or “no judgment at this time,” the latter showing other participants their intention to vote in the future. The feedback mechanisms of the voting scheme allow participants to see just how many vote changes have occurred for any one item in the list. We are adapting the standard Delphi design practice of only encouraging those who are confident in their judgment to express a preference (Linstone and Turoff, 1975).

Thus, this new method allows for providing a group reflection of individual experts to vote, revote, or not vote at all on a given situation, depending upon the relevance of the decision to the experts’ domain of knowledge. These subsets of experts can then work more effectively given the dynamic nature of the event, and with the aid of Internet technology, from anywhere, anytime, and asynchronously. Prior research supports implementing the following list of characteristics into a distributed group support system to aid the decision making process so that better solutions are produced (Linstone and Turoff, 1975, Turoff 2002, White, Turoff, and Van de Walle 2007):

• Anytime, anywhere participation in decision processes
• Ability to vote on an issue, not vote, wait for more information to vote, or change a vote based on the changes in merit from evolving information input
• Visual feedback on real time vote status
• Anonymous voting
• Total vote changes on any item and histogram of recent vote changes over time
• Contribution to any part of the decision process by any team member

Anyone can participate in any part of the process at any time; this is crucial as the experts can change their minds, change a vote on a given decision based on the changes in merit of the arguments. Discussion is stimulated by disagreements made salient to the participants by a visual voting feedback system. This discussion amongst experts furthers understanding of a given situation and lessens ambiguity. In many cases the individuals converging on a specific problem will have different professional backgrounds and represent different viewpoints. In such situations the quick recognition of differences in meaning (ambiguity) is critical to reaching the stage where the more difficult issue of uncertainties can be dealt with.

Thus, expertise is used when it is most needed. Teams of experts should be in a standby mode ready to respond anytime when disaster strikes. However, the system must be used by the contributors in the interim because having a history of using the system regularly will promote ease of use. Waiting until a disaster to use a system impedes making full use of its capabilities. Only when a system is used on a day to day basis will the experts and teams be able to interact efficiently and effectively use it as a means to communicate and solve problems. This means that the thousands of people involved, who come from a great many different organizations and affiliations, must have access to the system between emergencies. This is for the purpose of replacing the need for a physical system as the basis for an HRO (e.g. nuclear power plant, aircraft carrier) with a virtual command and control system which can be fine tuned and used for training on a continuous basis (Turoff, Chumer, and Hiltz 2006). They can become part time participants in a virtual organization (Mowshowitz, 2002) where they can also develop the social relationships and other factors necessary to evolving a team and developing trust in each others’ capabilities necessary to allow for the sharing of roles and responsibilities in any event with an unknown duration.

This approach allows those who feel confident through experience and/or expertise to self choose the problems to which they believe they can contribute. The shared motivation to reduce or mitigate the harm occurring in an emergency or crisis and the trust that only those that feel qualified to contribute are enough to eliminate the problems we usually fear in group collaboration due to Arrow's paradox. What we hope can be accomplished in this type of collaborative process is "collective intelligence" (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978, 1993) where the group result is better than any one member would have reached working alone and where decision making can occur as quickly as a single individual seeking to collect and consider carefully all the available information that might influence the process.

Accessibility to an easy to use management system can also create a bank of experts in which subsets can dynamically come together and handle unforeseen situations with the best outcome given the set of events. Such dynamically formed groups of experts need a system to support making fast decisions based on merit. No one can predict the composition of the perfect teams needed for problems that cannot be predicted ahead of time. What is needed is a system that is open to all the participants and provides the necessary information and alerts for individuals to find the problems they feel they can contribute to at any given moment or place in the response activity.

A Dynamic Emergency Response Management Information System (DERMIS) has been proposed by Turoff et al. (2004a, 2004b, 2006) which will provide for supporting dynamically changing teams of experts as they respond to or plan for extreme events. By focusing on roles, changes in personnel assigned to those roles can occur seamlessly and not adversely impact the effectiveness of the team. Each individual needs to have access to information that is relevant for an effective response. Flexibility, robustness and a dynamic nature are keys to effective handling of such emergencies. It is proposed (White, Plotnick, Adams-Moring, Turoff, and Hiltz, 2008) that a dynamic voting Delphi-like process can further increase effectiveness and ameliorate some of the problems that are inherent in rapidly changing, critical environments.

Other benefits of consistent use of a system are that users will meet one another and have a means of building trust within a virtual social network (Turoff et al., 2004a). On the other hand, during large scale or unexpected events, numerous participants in the command, control and analysis process may not have interacted before or have a plan that fits the circumstances. The secret for planning in emergencies is have a process that works and known resources that can be commanded, not in designing decisions ahead of time. Trust may need to develop quickly as swift trust, and/or have challenges not present in more static, well-defined situations (Iacono and Weisband, 1997; Coppola, Hiltz, and Rotter, 2004). A person in a decision role may be reluctant to hand over that role to someone they do not know well enough to trust to carry out the role as well as they do. This is what leads to individuals working until exhaustion becomes a problem where it concerns making reliable decisions. Roles have to function on a 24 hour, 7 day basis. This also requires systems that track accurately the status of any response so that those taking over roles can have all the information dealing with an open response event. Familiarity with a system is a critical factor, especially when the participants in a crisis are further challenged with duress from psychophysical symptoms (Turoff et al, 2004a) such as the Threat-Rigidity Syndrome. Even during down times, it is important for participants to stay abreast of the situation so that when they come back on shift, they are aware of any drastic changes and can seamlessly continue the teamwork as an effective member.

Alleviating Information Overload in Communities of Practice

When experts work collaboratively with a goal of learning from one another about a common interest, a Community of Practice (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002) can emerge; this strengthens the likelihood of good performance in situations of great stress. If the system has been used previously and is well understood, attention can be focused on the emergency and not diverted to issues of system use.

The history of the U.S. federal government in Emergency preparedness and management has resulted in numerous and diverse sources of information for communities of practice. There is no single source of collaboration among all those involved including the state and local governments and no single source for the collection and dissemination of plans and best practices for any or all of the many phases of the emergency preparedness process. Instead, there are numerous fragmented sources in specific areas, where some organizations or agencies have many more resources than others. The result for the practitioners is a proliferation of diverse documents that is not handled in any systematic approach and which has lead to practitioners in all areas and phases of emergency preparedness and management being overwhelmed with information they cannot adequately find, filter, or utilize (Turoff and Hiltz, 2008).

While there are significant efforts in the medical emergency area to overcome this information overload problem, even there the primary current emphasis from an information science viewpoint is on classical information retrieval utilizing largely academic sources of literature. There are no systematic attempts to collect best practices, working plans, case studies, and other sources of what is commonly called the “gray literature.” A search on the web for “emergency management” or “emergency preparedness” turns up about nine million hits. A recent study of the behavior of practitioners in this area clearly identifies the conviction of practitioners that they all feel the problem of information overload. Just joining a few of the relevant message lists produces hundreds of new documents every week. Many emergency practitioners feel these documents might have something useful, but they have no time to skim anywhere near that number of documents. Their feeling that something is there that might improve their performance but which they have not seen is very real (Turoff and Hiltz, 2008). There is no library type organization that takes the role of integrating all this material into an integrated index relevant to all the different concerns, in the U.S. or internationally.

The resulting design for the emergency response community to attempt to solve their information overload problem involves interpreting their requirements to create a new type of information recommender system controlled by the practitioners themselves. Such a system would have to allow vetted practitioners in Emergency Preparedness and Management to:

1. Nominate documents to be included
2. Retrieve and skim or read these documents
3. Comment on the usefulness of a given document.
4. Vote on the usefulness if they are vetted professionals in a specific area.
5. Be able to view very useful documents rated as such by others who are in the same specific areas of EP&M as themselves.
6. Provide visualizations of document clusters on an interval scale such as provided by Thurstone’s law of comparative judgment.
7. Allow them to change their vote or viewpoint based upon the information provided by others.
8. Allow for collaborative tagging to let the community keep the indexing tags for documents current and evolving with the latest changes in knowledge.
9. Provide vote summaries broken down by the types of professionals that voted on any particular document (medical, fire, hazards, etc).

This would represent a system supporting a “community of practice” to accumulate and acquire their own knowledge base of what they consider the most current and useful material for their field of endeavor (White, Plotnick, Turoff and Hiltz, 2007; White, Plotnick, Adams-Moring, Hiltz and Turoff, 2008; White, Hiltz, and Turoff, 2008). But all the above is somewhat foreign to the classic approach to information retrieval and would bypass the current journal industry. Essentially a recommender system for a community of practice would take the control of the literature out of the hands of journals, reviewers, and the publication industry, reduce costs greatly, and allow total control of the process by the actual users themselves. It would be the ultimate “open access” system (Poynder, 2008). It would still require vetting the contributors to insure they are active and knowledgeable professionals in some particular aspect of Emergency Preparedness and Management. Also, there would still be a need for editors in specific areas to look for anomalies of strong disagreements among professionals that should be investigated. Even Wikis today now have roles for editors for given pages to assess changes and conflicts.

Final Observations

Currently the process of bringing bottled water to a disaster site by the federal government is a very complex one which requires going up a significant number of governmental layers and engaging in outsourcing to a contractor that will actually acquire and supply the bottled water (Byrne, 2008), no doubt at a higher cost than one would expect. Local authorities and clearances between local emergency managers in a region and sources of bottled water from local established stores would require very few agreements and a few phone calls to have such deliveries made to a point of need within hours, if in fact we had the right sort of agreements and command and control structure integrating all the local or regional parties involved.

The fragmentation of participation by existing human- determined boundaries and the presumption that these divisions are appropriate for planning and dealing with an emergency has been a principal reason why we have not seen major improvements in many of these areas since 1972.

  • Lack of commonality with respect to interface design, visualization, and decision support, making it difficult for practitioners to master a range of very different systems necessary to their concerns.
  • The separation of threats by source (terrorism, natural disasters, and man made disasters) with very different priorities for different phases and dissimilar activities.
  • Lack of major integration requirements across organizations.

The above properties result from a web of deeper problems that tend to prevent the actions and developments that are needed. For example the common perception is that the response phase of an emergency will only last a week or two. However, this was not the case with the Anthrax emergency in the US and clearly the response phase of hurricane Katrina was far in excess of what usually occurs in urban areas. If we ever encounter a true pandemic, the response phase will last years. Fundamental issues of this sort greatly impact the design of information systems to deal with all the phases that can occur in any of these events.

There is a very dedicated community of professionals in emergency management in the US and elsewhere in the world. They have often faced terrible examples of mismanagement and lack of influence in the processes associated with many recent disasters. They need to be better integrated with those developing and implementing the systems needed to address the problems they face. They need to be part of a continuous community of practice that integrates across all local organizations and has the resources to involve all the local community, agencies, organizations, and individuals that want to participate in any phase of the Emergency Preparedness process. There is a significant element of truth in the unofficial motto they have expressed in the IAEM (International Association of Emergency Managers) message list in recent years:

“We, the willing, led by the incompetent to do the impossible for the ungrateful, have done so much for so long with so little, we are now capable of doing practically anything with nothing."


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