FACTORS AFFECTING CRISIS MANAGEMENT1
John T. Roosen
Environmental Management Systems
37 Moncrieff Avenue
Nelson, New Zealand
ABSTRACT: Effective crisis management depends on good judgment, oil pollution incident as one that needs all aspects of management,
good information, effective preplanning, and luck. Three out of these including planning, directing, organizing, coordinating, communicat-
four elements can be affected before a catastrophic event occurs. If suc- ing, delegating, and evaluating. Crisis management involves not only
cessful strategies are used for the ﬁrst three elements, they greatly inﬂu- identifying the best day-to-day procedures, but also planning for the
ence the fourth. This paper discusses these three areas against the back- “what if’s” in the total contingency planning program (Figure 2).
drop of a crisis. Of these, ﬁrst and foremost is judgment. In normal
decision making, many errors in judgment occur. These errors are
greatly accelerated during a crisis event. We will examine how being
aware of these errors can facilitate an efficient and effective response. Contaminated crisis management
Another characteristic of crises, especially in the early hours, is lack of
information. Ambiguity overlies initial actions as the emergency unfolds Processes for choosing a course of action are often contaminated with
and sometimes escalates uncontrollably. Crisis management includes numerous psychological “errors” in thinking. These include the follow-
deﬁning information needs, dealing with short time frames and only a ing types of decision-making distortions (Figure 3).
few hard facts, coping with pressure from inside and outside, eliminat- Mental ﬁlters. One of the largest errors of judgment occurs when we
ing destructive reaction patterns, and ﬁrmly deciding on and executing choose to see only what we want to see. In essence our belief about what
a plan for recovery. Lastly, this paper examines crisis in relation to con- should be happening in an oil pollution incident overrides what may be
tingency planning. There is little that can be done after an emergency happening. We put on ﬁlters and avoid conﬂicting data.
that has not been thought about before the event. Preplanning must be Emotional reasoning. Our emotional (and motivational) state can
part of any integrated system for emergencies. Dealing with “crises” greatly inﬂuence our decision-making capability. It can inﬂuence the
begins with handling day-to-day procedures, identifying the best prac- effectiveness of problem solving and hence the outcome of events in
tices, developing the “what if’s” within contingency planning, and exer- managing a spill crisis. This category may also include focus and vent-
cising as a continuous process system. ing of emotions. The mere stress of the situation may cause a speciﬁc
focus and venting of emotions. The command may focus and blame the
outlying units dealing with the event. The outlying units may in turn
vent their frustrations, creating hasty and ill-thought-out solutions.
Rationalization. Quite simply, this is creating excuses to justify a
Deﬁning crisis certain behavior or action. In crisis management it is often used to jus-
tify a faulty decision.
A crisis is a crucial turning point or decision point in a situation. It is Denial of reality. In an oil pollution crisis, denial occurs because the
an operation out of the ordinary. Often it occurs during an unstable state reality may be unpleasant. By refusing to perceive it or face it, one puts
when there are many issues that need to be solved. It can begin as a slow- off a decision on dealing with it. This often includes discounting the
moving incident that gets out of control, or it can be an immediate occur- positive when our actions have some positive effect. Sometimes we go
rence that explodes into crippling indecision. It is an escalation of events way beyond the steps necessary for recovery because we do not recog-
and requires an abrupt and decisive response. Most often a crisis has lit- nize the positive changes that occur during the event.
tle information, a great deal of ambiguity, and little tolerance for error. Overgeneralization. We commonly tend to want to draw conclu-
The impact of a crisis may be extremely far-reaching. sions from situations occurring in an incident. This is important in mak-
ing decisions. However, we can overgeneralize by inferring too much
or too little from the particulars. We thus make the information unspe-
ciﬁc rather than applicable to an oil spill crisis.
Crisis management Projection. Projection occurs when one’s own thoughts, feelings, or
motives are projected onto others. In the quickness of decision making
Understanding the complexity and constantly changing patterns of a we tend to view things from our own vantage point. We may project our
crisis allows us to organize. Management tools can be developed to exert own thoughts and feelings, especially guilt and blame, onto others.
order and control, even if they are partial, over the outcomes of the cri- Mental disengagement. Particularly in crisis management, mental
sis. Crisis management is speciﬁc measures undertaken to efficiently and disengagement occurs. It is difficult to continue to focus on all the fac-
effectively solve problems caused by an event such as an oil pollution tors involved, the results, the incoming data, and the outcomes. We
incident (Figure 1). A major oil pollution incident, because it is out of therefore mentally disengage from the action momentarily. Long-term
the ordinary, is often a crisis. It is important that responders treat every disengagement may result in the loss of critical information for decision
Framing. The way information and questions are posed has a great
1. The opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the author impact on how choices are structured. People often base a decision on
and do not necessarily represent the views of any other governments, the context in which it is presented rather than explore it from different
organizations, or persons. perspectives. This also includes labeling. We are quick to try to iden-
116 1997 INTERNATIONAL OIL SPILL CONFERENCE
Figure 1. The outcomes of decision making provide an efficient and effective response.
tify what is happening during a spill. In an effort to exert control, we Awareness is the biggest protection against falling into these “thought
attempt to label the event. The speed of labeling may create errors in the traps.” Other ways of dealing with errors in judgment include the fol-
evaluation of the information. lowing:
Reaction thinking. The tendency in crisis management is to respond
to the pace of the event. If the oil spill is fast-moving, thinking and deci- 1. Try not to make hasty judgments from very small samples of infor-
sion making are accelerated. This leads to reaction thinking and jump- mation about the oil spill incident.
ing to conclusions. 2. Consider all sides and perspectives of the situation. Using a con-
Magniﬁcation. The opposite of overgeneralization is magniﬁcation. sultation method that involves different opinions (technical
In lieu of standing back and viewing the situation, we microscopically experts and key players) is a good way to “check” the impact of
view what is happening. This perspective fails to provide a broad crucial decisions.
overview in relation to all other actions and events occurring during the 3. Although the oil spill event may look familiar, it is important to
spill and recovery. recognize the differences. Your tactics may need to be altered
All-or-nothing thinking. In the most critical point of a spill, we may slightly from the previous time.
be pushed into all-or-nothing thinking. The reaction may be “give it 4. Evaluate each decision after it is made to ensure that the impact is
everything you’ve got” or “cut your losses.” We rule out the more mea- what was expected.
sured alternatives. 5. Be aware that the beliefs held by key decision makers may bias
“Should” statements. Should statements often occur immediately their reasoning. (It is important in preevent exercising to state cur-
after a decision is made that is felt to be inadequate. We then go through rently held beliefs.)
an entire litany of what should have taken place. This in turn leads to 6. Learn to be ﬂexible. Instead of jumping to a single conclusion or
personalization and blame. At that point a convenient scapegoat is being forced into “all-or-nothing thinking,” one can allow alterna-
sought. tives to surface. There usually is a different angle or new tactic that
How these errors in judgment affect the decision-making process in can be developed in dealing with a particularly difficult spill.
an oil spill and recovery can best be seen in Figure 4. 7. Shedding assumptions may also help uncover new methods and
ideas. Initial assumptions may limit thinking. One major assump-
tion to guard against is assuming that your judgments must be
Dealing with errors of judgment
Continued practice and rotation of decision makers can also help
There are several ways to deal with these errors in thinking. The ﬁrst guard against common group thinking problems such as “group think”
and most important way is to be aware of their common occurrence. and “bias.”
Figure 2. Dealing with crises begins with identifying the best day-to-day procedures and
planning for the future “what-if’s.”
1997 INTERNATIONAL OIL SPILL CONFERENCE 117
This could include ﬁshing, tourism, broad communities, social systems,
and political entities. Major changes will occur after a major oil spill.
Kouzmin et al. (1993) use the term chaotic set. This term was origi-
nally coined by Sainsbury (1992) to describe the morphology of a major
crisis. The crisis is not merely one event occurring in isolation. It
becomes an event that destabilizes a stable system, which in turn leads
to destabilization of other systems. It normally occurs because of faulty
information. It includes the creation of many other concurrent crises that
are running during the same time as the initial crisis situation. Informa-
tion about the concurrent crises often gets confused with the primary
Information is everything
In a crisis, information is everything. If there is not enough, decisions
are based on too few or the wrong facts. If there is too much, decision
makers become overwhelmed with detail.
There are several sets of information to consider:
Information from the event: This might include the location of the
spill, the amount, and the source.
Information impacting the event: This might include weather, tide,
sea conditions, and temperature.
Information that is technical: This includes likely spill movement, oil
characteristics, and speciﬁc gravity.
Information about response capability: This might include equipment,
personnel available, and special skills.
Information about decision makers’ capability: This includes all the
factors described in the previous section, including motivational
and attitudinal information.
Information about coordination capability: This is the ability of
groups to work, coordinate, and communicate together.
Figure 3. Some errors in decision making Improving information linkage
Birth of a crisis within a crisis Attempts should be made to examine each of these sets in advance of
the emergency. The effectiveness of how any group deals with an emer-
The birth of an oil spill crisis follows a common path. An initiating gency depends on how well the group matches the degree of uncertainty,
event or circumstance puts out of balance or critically destabilizes a pre- the complexity, and the response.
viously stable system. This generates the primary crisis. As Kousmin Information about the nature and scope of the problem is critical
et al. (1993) state, “Critical destabilization means that the intensity of to implement the initial phase of corrective action. It is often this
destabilization greatly exceeds the ability of the affected entities to tol- ﬁrst information-gathering stage that ensures good communications
erate it.” The system is simply unable to cope with the effect of this new throughout the incident. Knowledge of the facts about what happened
situation. is essential in making informed judgments.
Kousmin et al. go on to state, “Environmental crisis can be measured Incident command systems and other disaster management systems
in terms of the intolerable impact of an oil spill upon the natural systems, should encourage an “all-channel” or free ﬂow of information from all
stake holders and situations comprising the marine environment.” Often levels and divisions. Determining what information is relevant or irrel-
the initiating incident may not seem to be overtaxing. However, as the evant is also important. Irrelevant information tends to lead people
incident escalates and information becomes cloudy, destabilization astray, and decision making then gets bogged down. Providing a prede-
occurs. An oil spill will always occur at a particularly vulnerable time termined look at what information ideally is needed helps cancel out
for the decision makers. And once they are unable to cope, the crisis sit- useless information.
uation escalates further. Other systems, people, or events that are depen-
dent on the initial stable system in turn may become destabilized.
Through this process numerous secondary crises are generated after the
initial crisis. This too adds to the already escalating downward spiral. Crisis management as part of contingency plans
An example of this effect might be a marine oil spill in which the ini-
tial spill appears under control. The destabilizing event may be a change Contingency planning often fails to take into account the crisis nature
of shift during which instructions are incorrectly passed, a dramatic of a “major or catastrophic” oil spill and tends to focus on the amounts
change in the weather contrary to previous information, or a sudden of oil spilled and what should be done about it. Oil spill plans typically
increase in the spill source despite information that it was unlikely. The concentrate on the operational aspects of oil spill response rather than
event rapidly turns into a crisis, and what was planned as a single-day on a more strategic and total systems approach. Thus the perspective is
cleanup lasts for several months. From the initial event a secondary immediately narrowed.
environmental crisis is generated. Not only are the marine offshore, Often a contingency plan narrowly focuses on a speciﬁc event and
inshore, and intertidal marine habitats affected, but an economic crisis generally concerns only those issues that are directly related to the health
is also generated concerning the livelihoods from the marine ecosystem. and safety of workers or others in the immediate vicinity. Workers may
118 1997 INTERNATIONAL OIL SPILL CONFERENCE
Figure 4. How errors in judgment affect the decision-making process
be told how to shut off a piece of equipment if something goes wrong or The crisis aspect of planning
how to evacuate a facility in the event of a ﬁre or other speciﬁc contin-
gency. Rarely is there any consideration given to the needed support Contingency plans need to incorporate issues that are not directly
structures for decision makers, including gathering information, ana- related to what has caused the crisis or where it is occurring. The fol-
lyzing the situation, and choosing an appropriate course of action. lowing are some examples of issues that should be considered in devel-
Although these “direct action” plans are useful enough, they are no sub- oping the crisis aspect of contingency plans (Figure 5):
stitute for a systems approach to contingency planning. Systems thinking
is required to effectively deal with the broader issues that are presented • Identiﬁcation of key players. Players should be selected for their
by large-scale environmental disasters when they arise. This begins ﬁrst speciﬁc response role, their past track record of success, their ﬂex-
with identifying in advance the common characteristics of a crisis. ibility, and their immediate availability.
• Procedures for notiﬁcation. These should be clear and simple. If
possible, they should be on a single page, should be easily readable,
and should be updated regularly. Pocket-sized notiﬁcation cards are
Common characteristics of a crisis useful.
• Routine practice on notiﬁcation procedures. Everyone in the sys-
The following are some common characteristics of a crisis as seen tem should try initiation and response. Response systems may vary,
from the responders’ point of view: and speciﬁc incidents may trigger different variations of the system.
• Information gathering. During the ﬁrst few critical hours following
Control issues an environmental disaster, it is important that well-prepared
• Loss of control response teams obtain as much information as possible. Informa-
• Possibility of lack of complete control tion from multiple sources must be gathered.
• Fight for control • Effective use of information. Whatever information is available
must be relayed to someone who has clear authority to make the
Personal issues necessary decisions concerning the initial response. Response
• Surprise timing is critical and should be practiced in nonemergency situa-
• Panic tions. The information gathered can be directly used for the ﬁrst
• High stress and exhaustion strike response program.
• A siege mentality • Review, revise, and recharge. Always be prepared to review each
decision and revise as necessary. Recharging comes with incorpo-
Event issues rating a fresh outlook and ensuring that all players during a crisis
• Ambiguity take time out. Past mismanagement has often been attributed to
• Threats to high-priority goals or resources overtaxed decision makers.
• Escalating ﬂow of events • A second strike response program is put into action as needed.
• Insufficient information Communications planning
• Limited amount of time for response
There is no area more overworked in crisis commentary than “com-
Organization issues munications.” However, a contingency plan should thoroughly analyze
• Intense scrutiny from outside the response organization every link within the communications chain:
• Short-term focus
• Unclear goals 1. Collection of information through initial notiﬁcation and contin-
• Decisions without evaluations ued follow-up as the incident progresses.
2. Sufficient communications equipment to deal with likely scenar-
A thorough review of these factors during exercise scenarios can ios that may be encountered both in industrial and urban areas and
greatly enhance the outcomes during a real incident. in rural settings.
1997 INTERNATIONAL OIL SPILL CONFERENCE 119
A crisis in retrospect
So how do these factors described in preceding text play on each
other? This is best seen with a ﬁctional scenario:
A train wreck near the Southern River sent 32,000 gallons of oil
into the swiftly ﬂowing water, which serves as the catchment for
the City of Metropolis, population just over 5 million (factual
data). Dazed and a bit confused, the brakeman in the ﬁnal car sent
an unclear message concerning a needed rescue that was received
by local government officials 13 miles away (stress and emotional
reasoning). Helicopters were dispatched to rescue surviving per-
sonnel, and a command post was established in the local city hall
(reaction thinking). On scene the ﬁre department set up a command
post 2 miles from the overturned train (unclear goals). They began
assessing the ﬁre raging near the wreck, ignoring the material
spilling from the tank cars (mental ﬁlter and decisions without
evaluations). A team from the Central Government’s Fish and
Game working near the scene also established a command center
(control issue). They issued directives in an attempt to control the
spill (jumping to conclusions and conﬂict and coordination). The
Environmental Protection Group notiﬁed an oil spill swat team,
which was dispatched from Metropolis (escalating ﬂow of events).
They arrived on scene to “take control” but were unable to discern
who was in charge so that they could relieve them (ambiguity). The
EPG set up their own command and control site in the general store
(control issue). It appeared that not one of the existing six agencies
on site within the ﬁrst 4 hours could communicate with any of the
others because of different radio frequencies (information ﬂow
problem). Limited discussion occurred, and no group was willing
to relinquish control (focus and venting of emotions). Over the
next 3 days, more agencies and officials entered the scene, and a
total of 38 different agencies vied for control of the incident (high
stress and siege mentality). Meanwhile, thousands of gallons of oil
poured into the drinking water source with little or no cleanup
being done (factual data). After 4 days, the newspaper reported that
the lack of control demonstrated that the “disaster was not the oil
spill but . . . mismanagement” (personalization and blame).
A lack of organizational structure, turf battles, and a universal desire for
control can complicate and paralyze response actions until what was
once deﬁnable becomes an unrestrained frenzy of one faulty decision
after another. Poor information and poor communications systems can
compound an emergency, making the management as much of a crisis
as the oil ﬂowing onto the public beach, river, or protected reserve. No
organization is immune; no emergency operations center is protected;
no group is infallible.
Thus, the best protection against total chaos in crisis is protection in
Figure 5. Critical issues in planning advance. Like a vaccination, advance planning, exercising, awareness,
and organization can stem the tide. Chaos can turn to control; misman-
agement can turn to master-management; and public criticism can be
3. The ability to process and distribute the information in a timely turned into public praise.
manner to those persons that need the information. This latter cat-
egory includes responders as well as local agencies, jurisdictions,
the media, or other commercial entities.
Effective communications should be established between the incident
command post, the incident scene, and any other support areas, includ- No organization or jurisdiction is protected from the effects of crisis.
ing headquarter units and jurisdictions. Multiple command posts by dif- Whether the crisis “creeps” along at a slow pace or explodes into front
ferent agencies should be eliminated early in the game. page news during a major or catastrophic oil spill, the organization is at
risk for uncertain outcomes. Crises are often characterized by surprise,
insufficiency of information, ambiguity, high stress, loss of control and
a limited time for response. This all adds to the creation of a “siege men-
Exercising tality” on the part of responders.
Most crisis events follow a similar morphology. The main theme of
Exercise preparation is often time-consuming and tedious. Hours any crisis is the destabilization of a “system” by a “triggering” event or
might be spent for a relatively short exercise span. However, the most series of events. This creates the “primary crisis.” The destabilization of
effective method of dealing with a crisis is to preplan and practice the the system in turn leads to further destabilization of other systems, cre-
most likely crisis scenarios. That is why exercise planning, preparation, ating yet other “secondary crises.” Thus one crisis may give birth to a
and execution are so crucial in identifying methods for dealing with the multitude of far-reaching crises that may affect natural resources, habi-
various crises that are expected to occur. The more a group exercises, tats and ecosystems, economies, social systems, and ultimately political
the more familiar it is with the common issues and challenges it is systems.
expected to face during a crisis. Exercises also build a strong organiza- However, effective crisis management has speciﬁc tools and
tion team to counteract the chaos that ensues during an evolving crisis. resources to combat the three areas most likely to break down: judg-
120 1997 INTERNATIONAL OIL SPILL CONFERENCE
ment, information, and preplanning. An awareness of these tools greatly served 20 years with his last reserve position as commanding officer of
aids both the responders and the manager in containing and lessening the U.S. Coast Guard Paciﬁc Strike Team Reserve Unit. He spent 8
the inevitable crisis. years as manager of the Technical Assistance Team with Ecology and
Planning for crisis within the contingency planning context involves Environment, Inc. under contract to U.S. Environmental Protection
a number of key areas, most of which are related to effectively gather- Agency, Region IX. The team provided technical and engineering
ing, analyzing, and disseminating information through good communi- resources to the Emergency Response Section. John served as the
cations: national on-scene commander of New Zealand with the Maritime Safety
Authority of New Zealand during 1995–96. He was responsible for
• Notiﬁcation of concerned responders, agencies, and publics coordinating emergency operations, providing training to responders,
• Effective use of information, particularly by responders and developing a national program for the acquisition and distribution
• Communications planning of pollution control equipment. He now lives in Nelson, New Zealand,
• Collection of information and is a senior consultant with Environmental Management Systems
• Equipment (EMS).
• Processing and distribution
Lastly, it is absolutely critical to exercise contingency plans by incor-
porating the most likely crisis scenarios into the crisis management com- References
ponents. Practicing crisis scenarios helps the response team build order
out of the chaos that a crisis generates. Practice helps develop the spe- 1. Kouzmin, Sainsbury, Jarman, 1993. Oil spills: Creeping crisis and
ciﬁc structures, organizational tools, and communications necessary to planning vulnerabilities. The Australian Journal of Emergency Man-
manage crisis instead of being overwhelmed by it. In the ﬁnal analysis, agement, pp 13, 14
the objective of any emergency management system is to anticipate 2. Weiten, 1992. Psychology. Brooks/Cole Publishing
events and minimize destructive occurrences to the environment. Plan-
ning ahead is a major step to controlling the unexpected.
In addition, by understanding the morphology and development of a
crisis, contingency planners are better able to incorporate crisis man- Bibliography
agement into the planning process. Thus, contingency plans do not focus
purely on operational responses that concentrate on spill amounts and Comfort, Louise K., editor, 1988. Managing Disaster: Strategies and
operational remedies. The broader focus of crisis management takes into Policy Perspectives. Duke Press Policy Studies, London
consideration the extended ramiﬁcations of the spill incident and its Janis, Irving L., 1989. Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking
effect on the community, ecosystems, social systems, and economies. and Crisis Management. The Free Press, New York and London
Krech and Crutchﬁeld, 1969. Elements of Psychology. Alfred A. Knopf
Lagadec, Patrick, 1993. Preventing Chaos in a Crisis. McGraw-Hill
Book Company, London and Sydney
Biography Rosenthal, Urial, M. T. Charles, and P. T. Hart, editors, Coping with
Crises. C.C. Thomas, Springﬁeld, Illinois
John Roosen has been working for over 20 years on environmental Sainsbury, N. W., 1992. The crisisware crisis management system:
issues. He is a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, having Foundations, capabilities, applications and strategic alliances