The disaster management organization

By: Lieutenant-colonel M.A. Hans De Smet, Professor Dr. Ir. Jan Leysen (Belgian Royal Military Academy), and Dr. Bert Schreurs (Maastricht)

The context

Each society and its components (individuals, groups, organizations, communities, etc.) are occasionally and usually in an unexpected way exposed to emergencies and disasters. Whether such an event is triggered by a natural phenomenon (storm, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.), a technological failure or an industrial accident (widespread power outage, explosion, structure collapse, etc.), or at the instigation of humans (terroristic act, riot, etc.), the normal functioning of a society and its parts will be disturbed in a more or less serious manner.

Throughout history, men have systematically developed a whole range of means to cope with and survive emergencies and disasters by mapping out specific emergency management procedures which are implemented by the intervening Disaster Management Organization (DMO).

The Disaster Life Cycle and the development of a DMO

The idea of the Disaster Life Cycle was first introduced by J.J Carr (1932), considering a four-stage sequence pattern of events. He distinguished:

  • A preliminary or prodromal stage during which the forces that are to cause the ultimate collapse are getting under way (e.g.: the detection of a developing hurricane above the ocean, approaching a coastline).
  • A dislocation and disorganization phase referring to the injuries, deaths and losses due to the collapse of the cultural protections.
  • A readjustment and reorganization phase, reflecting the community’s attempt to respond to the situation.
  • A confusion and delay phase, reflecting the term until the moment at which the emergency plans begin to operate.

Later on, other researchers such as J.W. Powell (1954), E.R. Stoddard (1968), and A.H. Barton (1970) developed similar models of the Disaster Life Cycle, all considering a set of disaster phases which occur sequentially in time. Those early models mainly emphasized the aspect of immediate preparation and response activities, neglecting the importance of mitigation and long-term recovery efforts. In the early 1970s, a shift in philosophy began to emerge and the concept of comprehensive management was developed by the National Governors Association (1979). The governors proposed a ‘Comprehensive Management Approach’ referring to a state’s responsibility and capability for managing all types of emergencies and disasters by coordinating the actions of numerous agencies and considering the four phases of contemporary disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Since response operations will always remain a vital aspect of disaster management, it is very important to think about all possible ways to better prepare emergency management organizations to face modern disasters. The traditional disaster management theory, elaborated during the second half of the last century, and which is essentially built upon best practices and lessons learned, might be no longer sufficiently adequate to deal with modern disasters (De Smet H., Lagadec P., & Leysen J., 2012). Founded on a qualitative in-depth study of the response phase following upon a disaster, H. De Smet et al. (2011) obtain a better insight of the course of the relief operations and the development of the DMO.

A first major finding is that the response phase consists of three successive sub-phases: a term of paralysis, of operational response and of strategic response. When a disaster hits a society, there is first confusion and disbelief among its residents (an especially among the struck individuals), and thus causing a ‘gap of action’ in the relief work following the impact. After a certain time, when people begin to realize what exactly happened to them, the first relief operations will lead off. Initial actions will be executed by people on site (those accidentally in the vicinity, victims not too seriously injured, etc.). Gradually on, their actions will be complemented and taken over by units of formal emergency management organizations arriving on site (fire brigades, medical teams, SAR teams, etc.). This organized operational response activities have as main objective to save as many as lives and/or property as possible. The emphasis is thus on quick reaction (act first, think later) and a greater part of the actions will be based on existing and known emergency procedures. During this operational sub-phase there will be a progressive building-up of capacities in the disaster zone and a gradual construction of a DMO, directed by a DMO-authority, surrounded by a strategic group of advisors. The global responsibility of the DMO-authority is to direct the emergency managementefforts in the most efficient and effective way in order to stabilize the situation, prevent further damage and even prepare initial recovery activities. The emphasis of these activities is more long-term, and by consequence strategic oriented.

Leaving out of consideration the emerging groups of volunteers5F[1], the parental organizations of a DMO consist of different types of formal Emergency Management Organizations (EMO), which generally are public-based organizations such as the fire brigade, the medical service, the civil protection, the police force or national Defense and, in some cases complemented by contracted specialized private organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As a rule, the units of the EMOs are geographically dispersed over the territory in barracks or Emergency Management Organization Units (EMO-Us) permitting a quick intervention. Examples of EMO-Us are fire stations, police stations, army barracks, hospitals, etc. When an emergency or a disaster occurs, various EMO-Us6F[2] will bring into action intervening units or Organizational Entities (OE), which are standard configurations set up of specific individual Resources (R) in response of a defined emergency operations aspect (the DMO theoretical framework is represented in figure 1). For instance, a basic OE in case of a medium fire is composed of the following vehicles7F[3]: a command vehicle, two vehicles equipped with water pumps and a ladder truck. In case of a fire in a high rise-block, a second ladder truck is added.

Multiteam systems

Consequently, every DMO, whether small or big, consists of a collective of different teams belonging to heterogeneous parental organizations, having their own specific objectives, capacities, operating procedures, etc., but which have to work tightly together in order to achieve a superordinate objective which is to manage the emergency or disaster in the most efficient and effective way. Based on these considerations, a DMO responds to the definition of a Multiteam System (MTS) as defined by Mathieu et al. (2001, p. 290): “[T]wo or more [component] teams that interface directly and interdependently in response to environmental contingencies toward the accomplishment of collective goals. MTS boundaries are defined by virtue of the fact that all teams within the system, while pursuing different proximal goals, share at least one common distal goal; and in doing so exhibit input, process, and outcome interdependence with at least one other team in the system.”8F[4] According to these authors, an MTS as an unique entity falls along five distinguishing characteristics (2001, p. 291):

  • MTS are composed of two or more teams
  • MTS are unique entities that are larger than teams yet typically smaller than the larger organization(s) within which they are embedded
  • All component teams exhibit input, process, and outcome interdependence with at least one other team in the system
  • MTS are open systems whose particular configurations stem from the performance requirements of environment that they confront and the technologies that they adopt
  • Although component teams may not share proximal goals, they share a common distal goal or set of goals”.

The DMO as a specific kind of MTS

In the following paragraph we apply the above mentioned characteristics of MTS to the DMO constellation by considering the context of a minor emergency.

After a regular traffic accident (e.g.: a car accident on a busy provincial road with material damage and a severe injured person which is stuck in the vehicle) a limited DMO will be constituted in order to ‘save the victim’s life in a safe and sound way’. The DMO will be based on the following intervening teams (see figure 29F[5]).

  • A police team (PT) from the local police station (P1), responsible for traffic management, road safety and the investigation on scene of the accident. This implies the installation of a security perimeter around the emergency ground and the control of incoming and outgoing traffic and personnel into that zone.
  • A rescue team (RT) from a fire station (F1), responsible for liberating and rescuing the victim out of the vehicle.

A medical intervention team (MT) from a local hospital (M1), responsible for the stabilization and the transportation of the injured person to a hospital.


Applying the above mentioned characteristics of an MTS to the DMO gives the following result:

  • MTS are composed of two or more teams
  • Three component teams interact during the emergency management operations: 1 PT, 1 RT and 1 MT.
  • MTS are unique entities that are larger than teams yet typically smaller than the larger organization(s) within which they are embedded
  • Each component team belongs to a different parental organization, forming a cross-boundary MTS.
  • All component teams exhibit input, process, and outcome interdependence with at least one other team in the system

To explain interdependence among teams, Mathieu and colleagues (2001) adopted a ‘tripartite framework’ depicting three forms of functional interdependence: inputs (the sharing of resources), processes (the sharing of functions necessary for effective collective action), and outcomes (the accomplishment of sub goals). They further state that all component teams of an MTS must have all three types of interdependence with at least one other team of the system.


  • All three of the component teams share at least information with each other. Teams may also share other types of resources such as expertise (e.g.: extracting victims from the car in a correct way), material (e.g.: communication equipment), etc.


The three teams have to work closely together and in a mutual dependent way to accomplish the common goal, which is ‘saving the life of the victim in a safe and sound way’. During the extrication activities, the doctor and nurses must work closely together with the firemen to save the victim’s life. The medical personnel can only transport the victim to the hospital once he is safely extricated from the wreck by the firemen and when the police officers clear the way for the ambulance through clear and timely mutual communication.


The outcome interdependence is closely related to successful process interdependence. The firemen and the medical personnel can only accomplish their tasks when the police officers secure the emergency ground (traffic management and road safety) and the medical personnel can only transport the victim to the hospital when the injured person is safely extricated from the wreck by the firemen.

  • MTS are open systems whose particular configurations stem from the performance requirements of environment that they confront and the technologies that they adopt

As stated by researchers, no two disasters –and by extension no two emergencies– are alike (Kirschenbaum A., 2004), although they have profiles (Gunn S.W.A., 1992). The variability of the environmental requirements will thus have an impact on the composition of the concrete DMO. A regular traffic accident as the one presented in this example can take different forms: different types of vehicles can be involved in the accident (e.g.: regular car, ordinary lorry, lorry transporting dangerous products, etc.), a different physical environment (e.g.: normal road, highway, bridge, tunnel, etc.), etc.

  • Although component teams may not share proximal goals, they share a common distal goal or set of goals”.

The feature of goal hierarchy is clearly present. The different intervening component teams all have proximal goals, which are serving the common distal DMO-goal which is saving the victim’s life in a safe and sound way.

Concluding remark

As demonstrated in previous paragraphs any DMO, whether installed to manage a minor emergency or a huge and complex disaster, will respond to the characteristics of an MTS, where the interdependence between different intervening teams, belonging to diverse parental organization, is the key factor to success for emergency and/or disaster management.

For further readings about MTS, we refer to Zaccaro et al. (2012).


Barton A.H. (1970). Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. New York: Doubleday Anchor Book.

Carr L. (1932). Disasters and the sequance-pattern concept of social change. American Journal of Sociology, 38, 207-218.

De Smet H., Lagadec P., and Leysen J. (2012). Disasters out of the Box: A a New Ballgame? Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 20, 138-148.

De Smet H., Leysen J., & Lagadec P. (2011). The Response Phase of the Disaster Life Cycle Revisited. In IIE 61st Annual Conference and Expo, Take your Career to new Heights. Reno, Nevada: Institute of Industrial Engineers.

DeChurch L.A., Burke C.S., Shuffler M.L., Lyons R., Doty D., and Salas E. (2011). A historiometric analysis of leadership in mission critical multiteam environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 152-169.

Gunn S.W.A. (1992). The Scientific Basis of Disaster Management. Disaster Prevention and Management, 1, 16-21.

Kirschenbaum A. (2004). Chaos organization and disaster management. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc.

Mathieu J.E., Marks M.A., & Zaccaro S.J. (2001). Multiteam Systems. In Anderson N., Ones D., Sinangil H.K., & Viswesvaran C. (Eds.), International handbook of work and organizational psychology (pp. 289-313). London: Sage.

National Governor’s Association (1979). Emergency Preparedness Project Final Report Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Powell J.W. (1954). An introduction to the National History of Disaster. Baltimore: University of Maryland Disaster Research Project.

Salas E., Dickinson T.L., Converse S.A., & Tannenbaum S.I. (1992). Towards an understanding of team performance and training. In Swezey R.W. & Salas E. (Eds.), Teams: Their training and performance. (pp. 3-29). Norwood: NJ: Ablex.

Stoddard E.R. (1968). Conceptual Models of Human Behavior in Disaster. El Paso: Texas Western Press.

Zaccaro S.J., Marks M.A., & DeChurch L.A. (2012). Multiteam Systems. An Organization Form for Dynamic and Complex Environments. New York: Routledge.

[1]    Although such ad-lib groups are generally very valuable (they provide additional resources and man-power), they do not have a structured role since they logically are not aware of the standing operation procedures used by the formal emergency organizations which can lead to disorganization (DeChurch L.A. et al., 2011)

[2]    For the greater part of the emergencies (and certainly during all disasters), several EMO-Us belonging to different EMOs will deploy units on the emergency ground. Only in the case of a small accident, one single unit belonging to one EMO-U will intervene (e.g. a police patrol in the aftermath of a car accident with little material damage and no injuries).

[3]    These examples of OEs are based on fixed procedures used by Belgian fire brigades.

[4]    A team is commonly defined as “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact, dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a common and valued goal/objective/mission, who have each been assigned specific roles or functions to perform, and who have a limited life-span of membership” (Salas E., Dickinson T.L., Converse S.A., & Tannenbaum S.I., 1992, p. 4).

[5]    The composition of the OEs is based on predefined constellations used by Belgian emergency organizations.