Disaster response has always been dominated by the “command and control” paradigm of a highly centralized response with a few select experts issuing orders down the line to responders, employees or the public. The very first step in any response plan is to set up a tight system that focuses control in a central node and strictly limits communication that originates outside of the node.
The model assumes that response needs to be placed in the hands of trained experts who will direct and care for the untrained masses to keep them out of harm’s way. The public must also be prevented from interfering with the work of the real professionals.
Perhaps this model was adopted because many emergency managers have military backgrounds. That said, successful military operations have never been strictly top-down managed. For instance, the U.S. war effort in Iraq stalled after the top commanders insisted that units follow a prescribed method of daily patrols. Eventually, lower-level officers tried a new tactic: Stationing snipers at strategic locations around a city for continuous control of the area from a safe location. They shared the results with others using blogs, with one top general proclaiming “The only thing that worked was blogging, everyone ignored doctrine.” (Snowdon: 2010).
More importantly, the strict top-down model does not match reality. Nearly a million people needed to be moved off of Manhattan after 9/11. With the subways and tunnels closed, how did they do it? Many were assisted by hundreds of boaters who arrived in lower Manhattan and organized the evacuation themselves. No central planning, just ordinary people organizing the response spontaneously.
As one researcher noted, “Studies of evacuation at times of crises have now been undertaken for the last 50 years. They have consistently shown that at times of great crises, much of the organized behavior is emergent rather than traditional. In addition, it is of a very decentralized nature, with the dominance of pluralistic decision making, and the appearance of imaginative and innovative new attempts to cope with the contingencies that typically appear in major disasters.” (Quarantelli: 2002).
The public is becoming much more involved in disaster response. As Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, put it: “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.” (Allen: 2010).
The top-down paradigm is being replaced by a distributed “structured network” approach that is revolutionizing disaster response. Emergency managers need to understand this new model and how to harness its power in disaster response.