The Future Emergency Command Centre: Will It Work?

By: Prof Avi Kirschenbaum, Kirschenbaum Consulting

Picture1A consensus has emerged that rule and protocol compliance training, especially in routine and repetitive type of situations, should bring about better work performance.  This axiom has been the holy grail of most organizations that deal in ‘risk’ where safety and security are paramount. For this reason we see nuclear generating plants, petro-chemical facilities, airports and even financial institutions employees obligated to go through such training programs. In these cases, safety and security are mainly dealt with through sophisticated technology with the aim of reducing human intervention in the decision making process. Alarms are set off by machines and not by people. Training is designed to educate employees to perform their tasks efficiently by actions that are rule and protocol compliant. Simply follow the rules, regulations and guidelines and all will be fine.

Compliance training has also become the gold standard for improving disaster and crises management. We prepare for the next incident by drills, table top exercises and even computerized scenario demonstrations. But such types of preparation are still a far cry from taking advantage of sophisticated technology to assist in decision making during an ongoing disaster or emergency. This may be one reason why the scant research on the effectiveness of ECC’s in its present bureaucratic form is that overall they are doing a poor job. And most plans never work in reality.

Yet, ECC’s are slowly going through a change following a trend toward using technology either as a replacement, or in assisting, personnel in the decision making process. Control and command centers are awash in large LED screens, displaying animated software using GPS technology, scenario simulations, automated mass warning and logistics systems; all that have become an integral part of the ECC’s SOP. If this trend continues, as it has in other high risk type service and production organizations,  to what extent can we feel comfortable with compliance training that will deprive us of making sense out of all the information and output delivered by the technology we have invested in?  Will the future of emergency and disaster managers be captive in the hands of software programmers that dictate decisions and a training program that emphasizes rule/protocol compliance that is technology driven?

Bending Rules

All is not lost! A recent study on the impact of rule and protocol compliance training on security related decisions among employees in a large  number of airports across Europe sheds a great deal of light on what can be expected in organizations where decisions have a direct impact on managing or containing a potential crises. Again, a cardinal belief in airport security is that workers’ training has a direct impact on actual rule compliance behavior; thereby assuring optimal security through correct decisions. Given the complex social and organizational nature of airports, however, it is not surprising that substantial proportions of security employees (actually about 40%),  including screeners, security guards, ground personnel actually bend, break or ignore rules and protocols, bringing into question the effectiveness of training and the ability to deal and manage a threating situation.

Apparently, as employees gain actual experience in dealing with threats, they tend to break, bend or ignore the rules. From an administrative perspective, such non-compliance with rules and protocols have direct negative consequences on the level of “security” of the airport leading to potential loss of lives and property. But as the employees state themselves, “if we followed all the rules and protocols, not only would the airport  stop functioning (congestion) but we would be making lots of mistakes that would embarrass us and annoy the passengers.”

Implications for ECC Operational Effectiveness

It does not take a great deal of imagination to recognize that a “technology oriented” Emergency Command Center would bring about a revolutionary transformation of those involved in its operation. Being the police or fire chief simply won’t be enough. To deal with the new sets of rules and protocols that decision making technology will impose means everyone would have to upgrade their technology skills including learning a new set of “rules and protocols”.  How else would it be possible to understand the technology output and utilize it to make a critical decision? This would likely make the ECC into an even more bureaucratic organization than it is at present! The ‘upside’ would be the use of cutting-edge technology and “big data” sources to help in the decision making process but the ‘downside’ would be the technology driven decisions would not always be followed.  Here is where being an experienced fire or police chief counts in sometimes ignoring what the computer spills out! Just recall that 40% of the airport employee’s break, bend or disregard the rules and protocols in order to keep the airport functioning!

Let’s make this even more complicated by introducing the human factor into the technology-training transformation that ECC’s will likely undergo. For example, these can include the personal conflicts that arise, professional rivalries and territorial prerogatives. And, of course, there are different interpretations of the technology’s output.  Will rank or technology skill level be given precedence in decision making? While the ECC will have its formal structure that might determine internal power relationships there exists a much more powerful informal set of social networks that extend beyond the physical premises. These informal social networks have been repeatedly shown to disproportionately influence decisions as well as act as conduits for communication outside the formal administrative guidelines.  And, it is here, in the informal social networks that decisions will be made to abide by or ignore rules and protocols. Rank might count on paper but less so in reality of human interrelationships.

The Transformation

With the gradual transformation of ECCs into a format reflecting a technology driven decision making organization, we should expect pressure by public policy makers to redesign the ECC structurally so as to reflect an overwhelming presence of technology and a shrinking number of traditional experienced crisis and emergency personnel. This change follows the logical path of marginalizing human-made decisions and increasing reliance on “IT” decisions. Toward this end, rule and protocol compliance training will gain momentum to fit the need of the technology – and not entirely the resolution of the emergency or crisis!  It may simply be a case where the ‘means’ replaced the ‘goals’. Taking this approach to its logical end, I would suspect that somewhere along the road will be an initiative toward an automated ECC; just as we are moving along the same path toward “Smart Cities” based on the utilization of technology and IT in all areas of urban living with a minimum of human interference!

ECC: The Reality

Going back to the airport example and the empirical evidence how security decisions are made by employees should put these dire predictions of the automated ECC in proportion. One of the key discriminators and predictors that affected rule/protocol compliance was the “trust” put in the technology being employed to mitigate a threat. The fact that security technology manufacturers will readily admit is that even the most sophisticated technology is not flawless. False positives occur; inaccurate output appears; system glitches occur. In addition, the scope of decision assisted technology is rather narrow and falls under the “garbage in- garbage out” euphemism that tends to be inflexible when non-routine situations occur. All these issues are picked up by those who utilize technology to assist in making a decision and here is where “trust” enters the picture.  How far are we willing to trust the technology, to trust the information inputs, the types of software analysis generated and the often simplistic decisions that are provided? Over 80% of the airport employees said they did not trust the technology as the sole and only source for making a security decision. This gives us hope that despite the drive to increase technology based decisions in ECC’s, there will always be trained and experienced professionals in crisis and emergency management to oversee – and even break, bend or ignore the technology driven decisions –  by utilizing their collective wisdom.