Breakdowns in Coordinated Decision Making in Teams Fighting Large-Scale Australian Bushfires

Presentation at Research Forum of the 2012 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference.

Complex emergency situations are by their nature difficult to manage. Success in such situations is often highly dependent on effective coordination and communication within and between the teams involved. Problems in coordinating emergency incident management are not uncommon in emergency events and can introduce significant potential dangers into an already difficult situation. This paper examines breakdowns in coordination and components of breakdowns, known as disconnects. Disconnects are the lower level breakdowns between individuals and teams that comprise a larger breakdown situation. Two large-scale fire incidents (Kilmore East and Wangary) were examined using a top-down and bottom-up qualitative analysis technique. Across both reports 24 breakdowns in coordinated decision making were found, which yielded 55 disconnects. Similar to the findings of Bearman, Paletz, Orasanu and Thomas (2010) disconnects could be grouped into three main types: operational, informational and evaluative. Operational disconnects occur when there is a difference in the plans between the two parties, informational disconnects occur when there is a difference in information and evaluative disconnects occur when there is a difference in evaluation or interpretation of the same information. Across both fires it was found that neither operational nor informational disconnects were effectively resolved by the teams. When a disconnect was unresolved it would often lead to further disconnects as the team progressed through their team situation awareness, planning and plan execution activities, leading to a chain of unresolved disconnects. Not resolving disconnects could directly or indirectly result in impaired team functioning, such as not possessing important information, being unprepared for action, developing conflicting plans and not acting in a timely way. The lack of effective resolution of disconnects is a concern, particularly where early resolution could have prevented an extended breakdown in team functioning. Further research is examining how disconnects are identified and resolved. This research was funded by the Bushfire CRC

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