Incident Commander: Toward Effective First Decisions

Incident Commander: Toward Effective First Decisions

Amy Wenxuan Ding (University of Illinois, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-228-2.ch007
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Abstract

In natural or human-induced emergencies, decisions made during the very first minutes and hours are critical to successful damage control, the prevention of casualties and structural losses, and ultimately the overall resolution of the disaster (Asaeda, 2002; Aylwin et al., 2006). In the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, for example, the response efforts in the early stages included a serious mistake; as many investigations have noted, without this mistake, Three Mile Island would have been limited to a relatively insignificant incident (The President’s Commission Report, 1980). However, the initial information in emergency situations often is unclear and limited, which can lead to different interpretations of the problem. During the first few minutes of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, more than 100 alarms went off, and there was no system for suppressing the unimportant signals so that operators could concentrate on the significant ones. That is, the information was not presented in a clear or sufficiently understandable manner. Although warnings displayed the pressure and temperature within the eactor coolant system, there was no direct indication that the combination of pressure and temperature would mean that the cooling water was turning into steam. Rather than adding cooling water then, the operators (or those who supervised them) turned off the pumps—a seriously poor decision. Obviously, understanding differences makes a difference. Different response methods may result in different resolutions, and a deficient response may increase losses.
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Factors Affecting First Decisions

In natural or human-induced emergencies, decisions made during the very first minutes and hours are critical to successful damage control, the prevention of casualties and structural losses, and ultimately the overall resolution of the disaster (Asaeda, 2002; Aylwin et al., 2006). In the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, for example, the response efforts in the early stages included a serious mistake; as many investigations have noted, without this mistake, Three Mile Island would have been limited to a relatively insignificant incident (The President’s Commission Report, 1980). However, the initial information in emergency situations often is unclear and limited, which can lead to different interpretations of the problem. During the first few minutes of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, more than 100 alarms went off, and there was no system for suppressing the unimportant signals so that operators could concentrate on the significant ones. That is, the information was not presented in a clear or sufficiently understandable manner. Although warnings displayed the pressure and temperature within the reactor coolant system, there was no direct indication that the combination of pressure and temperature would mean that the cooling water was turning into steam. Rather than adding cooling water then, the operators (or those who supervised them) turned off the pumps—a seriously poor decision. Obviously, understanding differences makes a difference. Different response methods may result in different resolutions, and a deficient response may increase losses.

Keinan and colleagues (1987) find that deficient decision making results mainly from a person’s failure to undertake a systematic consideration of all relevant decision alternatives. In emergency situations however, decision makers usually do not have enough time to take all alternatives into systematic consideration when making the first decisions in the very first minutes. During the events of September 11, for instance, after realizing the potential hijacking, command center supervisors had little time to take action. According to the 9/11 Commission Report (2004), the time interval from the awareness of the hijacking to the first flight crash was approximately 8–30 minutes (see Table 1). Given such time constraints, it is almost impossible for commanders to conduct systematic analyses and carefully consider all alternatives. Therefore, such a theoretical decision-making approach is useful only in ideal situations that include absolutely no time constraints.

Table 1.
Timeline of the U.S. September 11, 2001, event
Takeoff
(EST, a.m.)Likely TakeoverCrash TimeEventControl Center AwarenessElapsed Time
(crash – awareness)
7:598:148:46:40Flight AA 11 (Boston to Los Angeles) crashes into North tower of World Trade Center (WTC) in New York .8:25 (Boston center aware of hijacking)21 minutes
8:148:42–8:469:03:11Flight UA 175 (Boston to Los Angeles) crashes into South tower of WTC.8:55 (New York center suspects hijacking)8 minutes
8:208:51–8:549:37:46Flight AA 77 (Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles) crashes into the Pentagon.9:25 (Herndon command center)12 minutes
8:429:2810:03:11Flight UA 93 (Newark to San Francisco) crashes in field in Shanksville, PA9:34 (Herndon command center30 minutes

Source: The 9/11 Commission Report (2004).

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