Fire Chasers presented new research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, TX in February 2018. Meeting with the theme of the conference – “Advancing Science: Discovery to Application” – Branda Nowell and Toddi Steelman addressed the important issue of effective governance structures for managing complex disasters.
The challenges of managing large scale, complex disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and the 2017 California wildfires highlight the criticality of improving local, state, and federal capabilities to prepare for, and respond to, catastrophic events. Large scale disasters require governance structures and management tools that can integrate numerous responders quickly under often chaotic conditions. In part, this means we need to understand the capabilities and limitations of the governance structures and management tools that are embedded in our national policy tools and frameworks.
Complex disasters are collectively “managed” through networks of local, state, and federal agencies, private and nonprofit organizations, and unincorporated groups of local actors. However, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the US Federal policy guidance for disaster response, is a classical bureaucratic structure that operates from the top down with an incident commander in charge. Consequently, complex disasters exhibit both networked and hierarchical characteristics.
One challenge in the field of disaster management is how to structure a response that reconciles the need for centralized coordination among varied responders while retaining flexibility to mutually adjust operations to quickly changing conditions. Key questions with both practical and theoretical relevance are, “What is the right governance structure for managing a complex disaster?” and “What do high performing networks look like?”
Our findings suggest that the structure is neither highly integrated nor rigidly centralized. Rather, it is best characterized as a moderate “core-periphery” structure, which suggests it can adapt in size and composition while maintaining function in coordinating information flow and connectivity across the network. For disaster managers working in complex transboundary settings, understanding the capabilities and limitations of different network configurations can improve network management, providing them with the mental models they need to manage whole networks more effectively.
Our research suggests that:
- Governance in complex incidents will always fundamentally be a task bureaucratic governance embedded within a broader system of network governance.
- Currently available tools of the incident command system perform best under conditions of limited jurisdictional complexity
- Top down, bureaucratic structures may be necessary, but will never be sufficient, as a policy tool for governing a complex incident.
- Network governance is often ad hoc and lacks the institutionalized frameworks that can improve network performance.