The Problems of Maintaining Effective Teamwork During Out-of-Scale Events

This is a paper presented at the 2013 Bushfire CRC Research Forum.

The coordination of very large, complex, long duration, and multi-agency emergencies (what we refer to as out-of-scale events here) requires that teams form and work together quickly and effectively. In addition to the pressures of dealing with the emergency at the incident management team level and above emergency management teams will likely include people who do not know each other, may have very different skill sets and knowledge, and may be from different agencies that have different priorities and perspectives on the emergency. As the emergency continues new members are added to teams as shift replacements become necessary to manage fatigue. These factors exert pressure on the team and may lead to situations where the team lacks important information, leading to a breakdown in coordination and an impaired operational response. This paper provides a preliminary exploration of the problems of maintaining effective teamwork during out of scale emergencies through an examination of some of the broad causes of situations where one party has information that the other party does not have. Fourteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with emergency managers with experience at the IMT and above. All participants had recent experience of out-of-scale events in Australia and New Zealand. Key issues that emerged from these interviews were: Not getting to know the team and others, bypassing normal communication channels, disrupted coordination between different agencies, and sub-optimal take over of control from another team. The findings from this research demonstrate the need to consider team processes and to ensure effective information flow even under the extreme pressures of an out-of-scale emergency.