Reviewed by: Douglas Paton
School of Psychology
World-wide, large scale emergencies and disasters occur on a daily basis. When they do
occur, the efficiency and effectiveness of the professional response to these incidents is
facilitated by the implementation of plans and procedures that direct response efforts and
facilitate recovery. The starting point for this book is the assertion that while issues such
as crisis management, emergency planning and the organisational and public service
response, have, rightly, received considerable attention within the academic and
professional literature, there exists another issue that is equally deserving of similar levels
In this book Rhona Flin describes the role of the individual leading the on-scene response;
the person responsible for interpreting the situation, adapting plans and managing the
response process. The title, `Sitting in the Hot Seat' not only reflects this focus, it also
highlights the fact that the professionalism and effectiveness of most emergency and
disaster response activities belies the complexity of the command role and the substantial
and complex demands that this role makes on those who fulfil it. Flin brings together
information from many sources to provide a systematic and comprehensive review of the
psychological aspects of critical incident command. Psychological factors have generally
been less extensively covered than their sociological and managerial counterparts. This
book picks up at the point where plans, processes and procedures are being implemented
and asks how the demands encountered influence the effective realisation of the benefits
accruing from sound planning and management procedures.
Although the term critical incident management will be familiar to many readers of this text, this is not a book about critical incident stress management per se. Although stress management is addressed, the content of this book extends beyond this issue. Flin provides a more comprehensive review of the demands encountered by those in command roles, the implications of these demands for well-being and performance effectiveness, and the strategies that can be developed and implemented to promote both well-being and performance.
Throughout the book the concepts and issues being discussed are clearly defined and
illustrated. Flin's extensive use of case studies makes it a straightforward task for the
reader to understand the issues being addressed and their role in the incident management
Flin commences with a discussion of the role of the incident commander within a context
defined by incident demands and the command and control procedures designed to
facilitate the response process. However, this book departs from the conventional
treatment of these issues by focusing on how personal, psychological and group factors
interact with incident characteristics to determine response effectiveness and well-being.
Irrespective of the quality of plans and procedures, the psychological parameters
introduced by the presence of the incident commander can affect the quality of their
adaptation and implementation and thus the extent to which events are contained or
escalate. It is thus important to consider this psychological dimension and to use this
knowledge to facilitate effective incident command. The introductory chapter highlights
this issue and, by making extensive use of disaster case material, provides a sound context
within which the implications of subsequent issues can be understood.
When discussing the psychological dimensions of any area of human endeavour, an oft
asked question concerns whether there are any psychological attributes or characteristics
that affect capability. Flin describes the personal and dispositional characteristics that
contribute to effective command performance and the selection procedures that can be
used to increase the match between attributes and demands. The section on competence
assessment provides a useful introduction to the issue of training which is discussed next.
The training chapter focused on content issues and the role of simulation in developing
competence, but issues concerning training needs analysis for atypical events, training
transfer and the development of the psychological models (schemata) that underpin skill
and knowledge utilisation, certain decision processes and team performance receive only
limited coverage (Paton, 1994).
The training chapter is followed by one on stress. This chapter provides a general
introduction to stress reactions, sources of stress for those fulfilling command roles, and
factors which mediate the nature and intensity of reactions associated with the
management of critical incidents. The notion of responding to major incidents resulting
in positive outcomes is briefly alluded to and could have been covered in more depth.
A focus on the relationship between event characteristics, command and positive
outcomes can provide valuable information that can be incorporated into selection,
development and training programmes and can be used to promote resilience when
responding to highly demanding events (Dunning, in press; Moran & Colless, 1995).
The coverage of the major demands likely to be faced by those in command positions is
comprehensive. The stress chapter concludes with a discussion of traumatic stress
reactions and their management. An omission here, in the context of contemporary
approaches to work-related traumatic stress management, is a discussion of the role of
those in leadership positions as causal and recovery factors. Those in command roles can
influence the development of stress reactions and the speed and extent of recovery from
stress reactions in those for whom they bear responsibility (Dunning, 1994; Paton, Smith
& Stephens, 1998; Smith & Paton, 1997). Consequently, the management of stress
reactions, and the development of organisational environments that facilitate resilience,
adaptation and recovery, must include those in leadership positions.
The time urgency characteristic of responding to major incidents, and the fact that the
commander is operating in an ambiguous, unstructured and dynamic environment,
highlights both the importance of decision making and the complexity inherent in the
formulation and implementation of decisions and actions. This issue is tackled in the next
chapter and focuses, essentially, on two contrasting approaches. Traditional, structured
approaches are contrasted with naturalistic approaches to decision making. While both
are seen to have a contribution to make, Flin highlights the fact that the style adopted will
change with the role adopted with the response management process (c.f., operational
versus strategic roles) and with the demands of the situation. Naturalistic processes, such
as recognition-primed decision making, are described as being most appropriate in
unstructured, urgent contexts. Overall, four approaches; classical decision making,
recognition-primed decision making, the situational/resource model, and the method of
tactical reasoning are described. The discussion of decision styles is framed in an applied
context (e.g., fireground, medical and military) and this assists appreciation of the demand
characteristics of the decision making process and the implications of stress on choice of
decision method and decision quality.
The nature, number and diversity of the demands triggered by a disaster calls for the co-operative input of several individuals. Moreover, the complexity and ambiguity inherent
within the response process often requires that incident commanders call upon their
colleagues to obtain appropriate information, make decisions and decide on course of
action to deal with the demands encountered to a far greater extent than would be
required when responding to more `routine' events. The next chapter deals with team
performance and discusses the issues that affect it, including attitudinal diversity amongst
team members, stress and decision making and the use of simulations to facilitate
effective team performance. The contrast between routine and disaster contexts, and the
issues that require attention when considering the effective utilisation of team resources,
is illustrated by a discussion of crew resource management. The need for a transition
between the usual autocratic and directive management style prevailing in emergency
services organisations and a management style better suited to team resource use makes
this an important issue in planning, training and simulation for disaster work and this
discussion provides some useful pointers in this respect. This discussion provides useful
insights into the factors that underpin effective team performance under emergency
circumstances. In addition to illuminating these special characteristics, this information
can provide a framework for guiding team selection and training.
The final chapter summarises previous chapters, provides some direction for the
development of emergency management psychology, presents some concluding comments,
and outlines issues deserving further attention. Their atypical nature, their inherent
ambiguity, and their frequently dynamic and escalating nature can make incident
management a highly uncertain process. Yet, subsequent inquiries and legal proceedings
frequently draw on hindsight, a resource that is never available to incident commanders
during the performance of their role, to assist their analysis and to allocate responsibility
and blame within a process that tends to focus on what went wrong and the human and
property losses rather than on the quality of management under conditions of uncertainty.
Flin highlights the issue of legal responsibility and liability as an important issue in this
context. Increasing scrutiny of the command process should focus on developing this
capability rather than on attributing blame.
While this book provides an excellent introduction to critical incident command a note
of caution is warranted before applying its content, comprehensively, to emergency and
disaster situations. The international move towards adopting integrated emergency
management will increasingly result in command responsibilities being exercised in a
context described by multi agency and multi-jurisdictional response. Training,
information management, decision making, co-ordination, team work and incident
management processes will be significantly affected by their application in a multi-disciplinary context (Paton, Johnston & Houghton, 1998). The discussion of the concepts
described here, and their implications for critical incident management, cites evidence
drawn from diverse professional groups. Consequently, care must be taken before
applying the recommendations drawn from these sources without first considering the
implications of their application within a specific profession or agency. Notwithstanding,
these issues detract only slightly from what is an excellent introduction to incident
command for those who will find themselves `sitting in the hot seat' when responding
to a major emergency or disaster.
To conclude, Flin does an excellent job of discussing the theoretical basis of critical
incident management and in demonstrating the use of psychological principles to identify
problems and to develop practical solutions to manage or contain them. An accessible
style, and extensive use of case study material to illustrate command problems and frame
strategies for promoting their effective management and the well-being of those in
command positions, combine to give this book a strong practical and applied focus. It
should be read by all those concerned with emergency management.
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Dunning, C. (in press) Strategies To Support Performance Of Police Officers
Responding To Traumatic Incidents. In J.M. Violanti and D. Paton. Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat. Charles C. Thomas. Springfield. Illinois.
Moran, C. and Colless, E. (1995) Positive reactions following emergency and disaster
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Paton, D. (1994) Disaster Relief Work: An assessment of training effectiveness. Journal
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Paton, D., Johnston, D. and Houghton, B. (1998) Organisational responses to a volcanic
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