Beyond ‘command & control’
: developing a new paradigm for incident command systems, critical decision-making and 21st century crisis response

  • David Rubens

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The nature of crises has changed radically in recent years, so that rather than being merely ‘major incidents’ or ‘routine emergencies’, they are now characterised by their hypercomplexity and the catastrophic impact of their cascading consequences. The centralised command systems that have
traditionally been considered the bedrock of crisis response programmes are repeatedly failing to stand up to the challenges posed by this new class of crisis, and it has become clear, following incidents such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, that new forms of non-hierarchical, decentralised decision-making and strategy setting frameworks need to be developed.

This thesis makes the case that the organisational vulnerabilities that led to many of the high-profile crisis management failures that have become the major case studies for such incidents are both well known and highly predictable. It examines the nature of current hierarchical command-centered crisis management systems, and questions as to why these are still accepted as the default framework for such programmes. It then looks at some of the critical capabilities that are necessary for multi-agency operations operating in
high-pressure crisis environments, and how they can be incorporated into current crisis management practices.

It then goes on to offer two alternative paradigms to the traditional understanding of ‘efficient’ crisis management, based on the concepts associated with organizational resilience, that would allow multi-agency
operations to main their functionality in high-volatile crisis environments, and the lessons that can be learned from high reliability organisations in terms of recognising the importance of reliability over efficiency.

It concludes by demonstrating that the fundamental weaknesses that are the root causes of repeated failures are not so much technical or operational, but rather are reflective of the culture of crisis management organizations themselves, and makes the point that the acceptance by all levels of the crisis
management community of their responsibility to create and maintain ‘organizations that work’ could lead to a rapid improvement in the rates of success.
Date of AwardApr 2015
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAlison Wakefield (Supervisor) & Sara Hadleigh-Dunn (Supervisor)

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