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Book Review
Decision Making in Complex, Evolving Emergencies

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2002-2

Review of:

Decision Making Under Stress:
Emerging themes and applications

by : Flin, R., Salas, E., Strub, M. and Martin, L. (eds) (1997)
Aldershot: Ashgate.
ISBN: 0 291 39856 1

Reviewed by: Douglas Paton
School of Psychology,
Massey University, Palmerston North,
New Zealand

Decision Making in Complex, Evolving Emergencies

Fundamental to effective emergency management is competence in decision making. In this context, there is a growing recognition that emergency managers are often required to adapt their decision style to suit situational demands. For example, where time and the relative urgency of response demands permit, the adoption of an analytical decision making style is appropriate. Emergency managers can acquire training and experience in analytical decision making from performing their routine duties. However, by their very nature, the characteristics and demands associated with mass emergencies and disasters do not always afford emergency managers the luxury of engaging in the use of this effective but resource-hungry (in terms of, for example time, information availability) approach. When faced with urgent and dynamic demands, emergency managers must be capable of adopting a decision making style appropriate for responding to these more pressing circumstances. This book provides an introduction to the decision style, naturalistic decision making, required when the emergency manager is called upon to make decisions under conditions of low time availability, high and dynamic complexity, and high risk.

The contents of this text are drawn from a conference held in 1996 to facilitate the debate on decision making in high risk/high pressure environments characterised by uncertain goals, incomplete and missing data, and the need to make decisions while working under these conditions in teams. It thus brings together contributions from noted experts in this field to provide a comprehensive review of naturalistic decision making within its 28 chapters. The reader is assisted in the task of assimilating the wealth of knowledge contained in the book by it being organised into five sections.

The book opens with a critical theoretical introduction to naturalistic decision making. The next three sections review the application of this approach in several practical contexts. Part two focuses on decision making in ‘civil emergencies’. It includes chapters on methodological issues (e.g., developing and testing models of team decision making, video recording of decision making activities in the field), decision making in fire and rescue contexts, and on simulation. Part three addresses issues within the context of military command decision making. This section includes chapters on the analysis of decision making in field environments, the development of critical thinking, team development, and decision support. The chapters in part four are characterised by their focus on discussing naturalistic decision making in aviation. Here, chapters cover topics such as military pilot performance, training for decision making, selection for stressful work environments, and situational awareness. The final section of the text explores the relationship between naturalistic decision making and a major constraint on decision performance under highly demanding disaster contexts, stress. As with the previous sections, the mix of theoretical and practical content ensures that the reader has a sound introduction to this complex field of study. The chapters contained within part five cover topics such as decision making in complex, time-constrained environments, cognitive and motivational aspects of decision effectiveness, and the organisational context of decision making.

Collectively, the contents of these sections provide the reader with a sound and comprehensive introduction to naturalistic decision making, its constituent processes, and some of the contexts within which it is used when responding to complex emergencies. However, despite the practical orientation of the chapters within each section, the theoretical and methodological rigour that characterises these contributions renders the contents more suited to an academic than to a practitioner audience. This book is a valuable resource for those interested in the conceptualisation, assessment and development of decision making in complex, threatening and dynamic environments.

Despite its more academic leanings, however, practicing emergency managers prepared to invest the time in assimilating the theoretical and methodological issues required to develop their understanding of this topic, will find themselves amply rewarded by this effort. From an emergency management perspective, the contents of this book could be used to, for example, guide the analysis of emergency response capabilities and provide a framework for (decision making and team) training needs analysis within readiness programs. The latter is particularly important given the rarity of mass emergencies and disasters. Furthermore, the emphasis placed in this text on the development of the necessary expertise is thus particularly valuable in this context and is sufficiently comprehensive to provide direction for the development and delivery of training in naturalistic decision making. In addition to its discussion of specific skills, the text also introduces the reader to the critical thinking capacity required for effective performance and the need for simulation to develop the ability to use it in practical contexts.

The contents are highly pertinent for contemporary emergency management in other respects. In the final section, discussion of the relationship between naturalistic decision making and stress outlines the potential of this approach as a mechanism for increasing stress resilience in those engaged in emergency decision making. Furthermore, this discussion emphasises the benefits that can accrue from a pro-active, strategic approach to the development of this competence in emergency managers who may be called upon to work under highly stressful circumstances for prolonged periods of time.

The inclusion of examples of naturalistic decision making cited in the text, and the fact that they are drawn from diverse contexts, increases the value of this book as a means of facilitating the development of an “all-hazards” decision making capability. However, despite providing emergency managers with examples of several of the situations that they may have to contend with, the contents do not explicitly address the utility of the construct, or its implications, when responding to large scale disasters. In this regard, the editors both warn against the overenthusiastic application of the construct and provide strategies that could be adopted to reconcile practical and research needs, so providing a useful framework for the application of the scientist-practitioner model to the study and development of emergency and disaster decision making.


Douglas Paton © 2002. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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