Responding to terror: dealing with fragmentation in crisis management operations

Responding to terror: dealing with fragmentation in crisis management operations

Fragmentation is one of the least understood problems in crisis management. Failure to understand fragmentation means emergency responders are unable to mitigate critical situations in the recent terrorist attacks around Europe.

Olso, Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Manchester, Strasbourg. You probably recognize the list. All these major European cities were struck by devastating terrorist attacks. The attacks pushed the response capacity of emergency services to its limits. Despite of their best efforts, the emergency response fell short on several occasions. During the Breivik attack in Norway, police units let the suspect pass through roadblocks on his way to Utøya, while his license plate was known to the command center. After the attack at Zaventem airport in Brussels, fire and rescue crews operated alongside one of the unexploded suitcase bombs for hours, which later spontaneously detonated. In Manchester, fire crews were ordered to stand down by their commanders who believed the scene was too dangerous, to the dismay of the general public, while police and ambulance crews were working on-site. In Berlin, police officers arrested the wrong suspect after the Christmas market attack, realizing only the next day that the real perpetrator had escaped.

It is easy to point out these flaws in hindsight. We sometimes forget the exceptional circumstances first responders were confronted with. Still, it is important to reflect and learn valuable lessons from these attacks. Especially since counter-terrorism preparation in the Netherlands intensified in the previous years, providing first responders with new procedures and guidelines, or resulting in brand-new units, such as the medical Special Operation Response Teams (SORT).

While the counter-terrorism preparation of the emergency services mainly focuses on implementing new procedures and invests in resource allocation, we need to draw additional lessons from the actual response operations across Europe. These operations exhibit a different kind of problem that cannot be solved by procedures or new units. In most operations the organizational problem of fragmentation emerges: the breakdown of collaborative action and sensemaking. Generally speaking, the assumption is that fragmentation needs to be prevented at all cost, while in fact, fragmentation can also be functional. A closer look into operational practice reveals why. Let us zoom in on the role of sensemaking.

Sometimes a breakdown of sensemaking is vital for operational success, because sticking to a fixed frame can be detrimental. This became painfully clear in the ‘Stockwell shooting’, where the innocent civilian Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by Metropolitan Police officers in the mistaken belief that he was a suicide bomber. Only two weeks after the deadly 2005 London terrorist bomb attacks, a second terrorist cell failed to detonate four synchronized bombs in the public transport system. The subsequent investigation led police to a premise in South London, where the alleged suspect was spotted leaving the house and rushing to the metro station. Observation units failed to positively identify him, uttering figurative language: ‘we believe it is him’. At the same time, a firearms team, authorized to use lethal force, was sent in to ‘stop’ the suspect. Under the now active ‘Kratos’ protocol the word ‘stop’ actually meant ‘neutralize’. It sealed the unfortunate fate of Charles de Menezes. Subsequent analysis indicated that the police missed important cues that should have challenged the frame of a suicide bomber on the run, such as the man picking up a newspaper and wearing an open jacket. Hence, in this case a breakdown of sensemaking was very much necessary.

Emergency responders need to have processes in place that interrupt their sensemaking. As we have seen in Berlin and Manchester, the situation often appears to be different than interpreted at first. In hindsight, we know what went wrong in these cases, but we lack a good explanatory model that does not suffer from hindsight bias. The problem is that we do not really know how to mitigate the negative effects of fragmentation, or pinpoint the circumstances under which fragmentation is functional. This makes fragmentation one of the toughest and least understood organizational problems in crisis management.

This challenge needs to be overcome, otherwise it is not possible to answer the question whether fragmentation is of help or hindrance. Failure to understand the role of fragmentation means emergency responders are unable to mitigate critical situations like the delayed response to the 2011 Breivik attack, or the collapse of sensemaking that led to the death of Charles de Menezes in the Stockwell shooting. I will attempt to bring more clarity in the role of fragmentation in the coming years as part of my Veni project. If you are interested, please take a look at my webpage for more updates (jeroenwolbers.com).