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Incident Command and Information Flows in a Large-Scale Emergency Operation

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In this article social and information network theory is used to study information flows through the incident command post in a large-scale emergency operation. The case presented is the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. The data were collected from evaluation reports, media and interviews with the incident, fire, medical and ambulance commanders. The article presents the incident command system in Norway and how this was used as a base for improvisation during the operation on initiative from rescue workers on scene. The main internal information flows in each separate rescue service were connected and coordinated at the incident command point through strong ties between the commanders. Important and novel information also reached the commanders through weak and informal ties to more peripheral actors.
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Incident Command and
Information Flows in a
Large-Scale Emergency
Operation
Rune Rimstad*1, Ove Njå**, Eivind L. Rake***
and Geir Sverre Braut****
*Norwegian Air Ambulance Foundation, Drøbak, Norway;
Department of Industrial Economics, Risk Management and Planning, University of Stavanger, Stavanger,
Norway; Oslo University Hospital, Oslo, Norway. E-mail: rune.rimstad@norskluftambulanse.no
**Department of Industrial Economics, Risk Management and Planning, University of Stavanger, Stavanger,
Norway. E-mail: ove.njaa@uis.no
***RAKOS, Stavanger University Hospital, Stavanger, Norway. E-mail: eivind.rake@lyse.net
****Norwegian Board of Health, Oslo, Norway;
Stord/Haugesund University College, Stord/Haugesund, Norway. E-mail: gsb@sus.no
In this article social and information network theory is used to study information flows
through the incident command post in a large-scale emergency operation. The case
presented is the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway.The data were collected from evalua-
tion reports, media and interviews with the incident, fire, medical and ambulance com-
manders.The article presents the incident command system in Norway and how this was
used as a base for improvisation during the operation on initiative from rescue workers
on scene. The main internal information flows in each separate rescue service were
connected and coordinated at the incident command point through strong ties between
the commanders. Important and novel information also reached the commanders
through weak and informal ties to more peripheral actors.
1. Introduction
Rescuers respond to emergency situations that are
unique. Decision-making on scene is context bound
and embedded in volatile environments,and decisions in
action regularly involve significant uncertainties. The
rescue workers must ensure self-protection and seek
to optimize the outcomes of life-saving and damage
mitigation activities (Rosenthal, Charles, & ‘t Hart,
1989). In the early stages of an incident, its conse-
quences may be unclear. Observations may also be
ambiguous and difficult to interpret.
Several authorities may be involved; numerous actors
engaged on scene, and the media may be paying particu-
lar attention. Common problems at the scene of large-
scale crises are lack of information, information
overload, uncertain quality of information and some-
times fragile interoperability between emergency
agencies (Flin, 1996; Quarantelli, 1988; Rake, 2012).
Inter-service communication in mass casualty incidents
1Current address: SNLA, Postboks 39, 1441Drøbak, Norway.
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management Volume •• Number •• •• 2014
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd DOI: 10.1111/1468-5973.12033
has been identified as a priority research area
(Mackway-Jones & Carley, 2012).
Incident command systems are established to facili-
tate leadership, coordination and information flow
between multiple individuals and organizations partici-
pating in rescue work in large-scale crises.In this article
we focus on the organizational perspective of incident
command.The complexity in crisis operations requires
resources beyond that of single organizations. This
makes cooperation between organizations necessary
(Moynihan, 2009). Commanders are both representa-
tives of the on-scene structures and their different
agencies, and constitute the concrete link between
them.An organizational perspective captures important
aspects of incident command in a larger perspective
(Christensen, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2012).
The case is taken from the context of the terrorist
attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011, in which 77 people
lost their lives (Gaarder, Jorgensen, Kolstadbraaten,
Isaksen, Skattum, Rimstad, & Pillgram-Larsen, 2012;
Sollid, Rimstad, Rehn, Nakstad, Tomlinson, Strand, &
Sandberg, 2012). Two attacks by a single perpetrator
occurred at different locations within a time-span of 3
hours. Our study focuses on the on-scene incident
command system at the main casualty clearing station.
The article presents the official incident command
system in Norway, and compares this to actual opera-
tions during and after the 2011 terrorist attacks. The
research question that is central in this article is:What
was the need for communications between key actors
at the Utøya incident clearing station and how was the
communication resolved among actors during the
operations?
In order to assess this issue we have analyzed infor-
mation provided on communicative activities from
various sources based on prototypes described by Pan,
Pan, and Leidner (2012). Furthermore we analyze the
Norwegian incident command system’s ability to meet
extreme events like terrorist attacks.
2. The incident command system
in Norway
A prominent characteristic of the Norwegian model
for crisis management is decentralized responsibility.
This is reflected in the four basic principles guiding
social safety, contingency planning and crisis manage-
ment (NOU, 2001,p.31; St.meld nr. 29 (2011–2012)):
(1) The authority responsible for a sector or a function
on a day-to-day basis is also responsible for imple-
menting necessary action in times of crisis, according
to the principle of responsibility. (2) Crises are to be
managed at the lowest appropriate level in the organi-
zation, according to the principle of proximity, (3) using
appropriate everyday procedures, the same resources
and organizational structures as in normal conditions,
according to the principle of equity. (4)The principle of
cooperation makes it mandatory for both public and
private actors to contribute to a joint crisis contin-
gency with whatever relevant resources they might
have.
The Norwegian search and rescue (SAR) services do
not have its own resources in the field. Contributions
come from the national police force, the municipal fire
departments and the ambulance service run by regional
public health enterprises. Other public and private con-
tributors join in as appropriate, including volunteer-
based organizations.
The police are responsible for all rescue activities
within its geographical district. Police operation centres
also function as local rescue coordination centres, in
incidents where rescue efforts are not coordinated by
the two joint rescue coordination centres covering half
of the nation each. The SAR services are integrated;
meaning that air, land and sea rescue is handled by the
same organization. The 28 police districts and their
operation centres are not geographically organized in
the same way as the 22 fire operation centres or the 19
emergency medical communication centres.
When an accident occurs, a scalable organizational
structure intended to facilitate multi-agency emergency
response is established on scene (cf. Figure 1). It is
described as a temporary, hierarchical system under
one incident commander.The police service is in overall
control and coordinates the other participating agen-
cies, at the strategic, tactical and operative levels. The
incident commander reports to the operation centre,
where the chief of police is located (The National Police
Directorate, 2011).
The incident commander is expected to establish a
unified command consisting of the incident commander,
the fire commander and the medical commander at the
incident command post to plan and coordinate the
response efforts (The National Police Directorate,
2011). The local rescue operation centre appoints a
police officer to serve as incident commander. This is
done in each incident at the beginning of the response
operation. Some districts have pre-incident appointed
incident commanders on duty, others do not.
The emergency medical communication centre
appoints a paramedic or ambulance officer to serve as
ambulance commander. This will normally be the most
experienced officer on the first ambulance on scene. He
may later be replaced by an officer with more command
training. A doctor is appointed as medical commander.
According to locally available resources, this may be
an on-call general practitioner, an anaesthesiologist
working in the emergency services or a member of a
hospital emergency team. There is an ongoing debate
whether the medical commander, the ambulance com-
mander or both should be present at the incident
command point.
2Rune Rimstad, Ove Njaa, Eivind L. Rake and Geir Sverre Braut
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2014©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
The fire services have a predefined command
structure.
In our description of the Norwegian incident
command system we have used nomenclature from the
MIMMS (Major Incident Medical Management and
Support) system as the English translation (Hodgetts &
Mackway-Jones, 2002).
3. Study approach
3.1. Command and control or coordination
The Norwegian SAR system is founded on traditional
command and control principles. Basic principles of
organization and leadership on scene were laid down
decades ago. Historic development of the civil SAR
services from military tradition, through civil defence
models, is prominent in Norway as in the United States
and elsewhere (Quarantelli, 1988; Dynes, 1994). This
model advocates a hierarchical chain of command and
highlights the need for a single commander in charge of
operations at an incident scene. This hierarchy should
ensure that organizations, units and individuals partici-
pating in operations align their work and function as a
coordinated rescue force with collective goals.
Scholars have criticized this model as being inflexible
and too rigid to suit the volatile environment of the first
phase of a large-scale crisis (Dynes & Quarantelli, 1969;
Flin, 1996). Questions have been raised as to whether it
is at all possible to actually control actions of front-line
responders in this situation (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2010;
Groenendaal, Helsloot, & Scholtens, 2013). Personnel
are also more loyal to their own organization than to a
temporary incident command structure (Moynihan,
2009).
An alternative presented to Command and Control
is the Coordination model (Quarantelli, 1988; Dynes,
1994).This model states that organization must remain
as before the incident, but the participating agencies
should establish mechanisms for inter-organizational
coordination, exchange of information and common
decision-making. This model may seem to be more in
concordance with the four Norwegian principles of
crisis management. The incident commander’s role as
a facilitator of inter-organizational cooperation, as
opposed to issuer of detailed orders, is also explicit in
recent guidelines (The National Police Directorate,
2011).
3.2. Inter-organizational networks
The incident command structure may alternatively be
described as an inter-organizational network (Provan,
Fish, & Sydow, 2007). Involved organizations, but also
groups and individuals, form a social network (Varda,
Forgette, Banks, & Contractor, 2009). Such networks
are dynamic. In the course of a crisis they are likely to
change rapidly and involve a variety of actors. Charac-
terization of the connections between involved actors,
called ties between network nodes, is traditionally seen
as the key to understanding and analyzing social net-
works (Granovetter, 1973).
The nature of a network’s ties has an influence on
the information flow between the tied nodes and in the
network as a whole (Granovetter, 1973). Strongly tied
nodes would be expected to keep in closer and more
frequent contact, providing a high volume information
flow (Pan et al., 2012). The formal on scene organiza-
tion, with its defined chains of command, would be
expected to be constituted of strong ties. Weak ties
have a cohesive function in the network by binding
clusters of strongly tied nodes together. Diffusion of
information through weak ties may increase the speed
and distance of information flow through the network.
Figure 1.Norwegian Incident Command System – The On-Scene Organization.
Incident Command and Information Flows 3
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An actor is also more likely to receive novel informa-
tion through a weak tie (Granovetter, 1973).
Whether decision-making is centralized or distrib-
uted, central commanders and front-line units will need
information as a basis for decision-making and action.
Inter-organizational networks and their communication
infrastructure may be important to secure information
flow horizontally across organizational boundaries
(Kapucu, 2005; Comfort & Haase, 2006). The incident
command or coordination function can be viewed as a
network governance function (Moynihan, 2009), dis-
tinct from a hierarchical command function (Powell,
1990).
There is not necessarily concurrence between formal
network structures as described in incident command
systems and the way information flows through it (Uhr,
2009).
3.3. Information network prototypes
Based on empirical studies from crisis response set-
tings, Pan et al. (2012) have developed a model to
describe the nature of information networks, consist-
ing of four basic network prototypes. It takes into
account the volume and speed of information that
flows through the network, the density or reach of
the network, main direction of information flow and
the information managing role of the central response
organization (cf. Table 1).
The information star network is a wide-reaching
network with a high amount of information flow.There
is a central response organization that functions as a
central information hub. Information is distributed
between a large number of stakeholders with little
processing of the information. Information flows freely
both horizontally between organizations and vertically
within them.
The information pyramid network does not reach
quite as far, and involves fewer nodes or actors. The
information flow within the pyramid is of high intensity.
The central organization gathers most of the informa-
tion and disseminates it in a more structured manner
within the response network.This means that the direc-
tion of information flow is mainly top-down, as the
central response organization serves as an information
gatekeeper.
The information forest network can only manage a
smaller amount of information.The central organization
is missing, which is expected to hamper cooperation
and information transfer between organizations and
individuals participating in the crisis response. The
network consists of organizations (pictured as trees)
with a working internal information flow, but limited
communication from tree to tree.
The information black-out network is under strict
control of the central response organization. The
network is characterized by minimal information
flow. The central organization filters and alters
information.
3.4. Methodology
The first step in our study was to undertake a docu-
ment analysis of official reports and evaluations of the
rescue operation following the 2011 terrorist attacks.
The largest document was the report of the official
governmental commission (NOU, 2012, p. 14). Police,
fire and health services have issued evaluation reports
on the national level (DSB, 2012; KAMEDO, 2012;
Lereim, Prietz, Strand, Klinkenberg, Ellefsen, Misvær, &
Jamtli, 2012; Sønderland, Dahl, Eriksen, Frøyland,
Krogstad, & Paulsen, 2012), and on the local level from
the participating organizations and governmental bodies
(Lien, Ørn, Øye, Skille, & Solberg, 2011; Oslo University
Hospital, 2011; Tomlinson, Rosenlund, Hammer,
Hovland, Hallgren, & Salhus, 2012). Data on formal
organization and its development, information flows
that were important for decisions and detailed descrip-
tions of rescue activities, were extracted from each of
the reports as intact text blocks and discussed in the
author-group.
This preliminary analysis established the casualty
clearing station on Elstangen as the most fruitful focal
point for further studies because this was the part of
the overall operation where all involved agencies coop-
erated over time and established a full-scale incident
command structure.The analysis identified four pivotal
activities of importance for the rescue operation.These
critical activities were as follows:
Organization of the Utøya Island rescue operation
Establishment of the casualty clearing station at
Elstangen
Ta b l e 1.The Four Crisis Response Network Prototypes (Adapted from Pan et al., 2012).
Information
intensity
(amount)
Network
density
(reach) Direction of information flow
Role of central response
organization
Information star High High Both top-down and bottom-up Central information hub
Information pyramid High Low Top-down Information gatekeeper
Information forest Low Low In silos There is no central organization
Information black-out Low High Top-down Information filter
4Rune Rimstad, Ove Njaa, Eivind L. Rake and Geir Sverre Braut
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2014©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Selection of commanders and build-up of the
command point
Managing information flows in the rescue
organization
The extracted text was restructured using these
headlines as sorting categories, and rewritten as a
coherent case narrative.
The available documents were rich in detail of rel-
evance for the creation of the case narrative, but the
preliminary analysis revealed that the category con-
cerning information flows was disappointingly scarce
when it came to operational work in the field.
Reports are, however, processed material and are as
such coloured by the interests of its writers. It is
therefore a finding in itself that we could not find a
solid database for analysis of information flows in the
on-scene response network. A lot more was written
about information flows on higher levels of adminis-
tration and leadership on the level of coordination
centres.
Our study protocol was therefore revised and
expanded to include interviews with the formal leaders
at the command point at Elstangen.An interview guide
was developed with the primary focus on mapping of
information flows and how they were managed. Ethical
approval (#33134) was attained from the Norwegian
Social Science Data Services.
Four semi-structured interviews with leaders at
Elstangen were conducted in March 2013. Written
consent was obtained in advance. The respondents
were initially asked to present their version of the
timeline and significant events to quality assure the
case narrative. Each interview lasted between 45 and
90 minutes and was held at the participants’ work-
place or home. Interviews were recorded and tran-
scribed. The recording itself was deleted within 24
hours, in accordance with the protocol.
4. Results
At 15:25 a car bomb detonated on the pavement at the
base of the 18-story high building housing the Prime
Minister’s office in the heart of the Oslo government
district.The bomb also caused major damage to several
of the surrounding buildings. Fires broke out in two of
them. Windows were blown in over a vast area sur-
rounding the detonation site. Eight people died on site,
13 were taken to hospital and some 60–100 patients
suffering from minor injuries were treated at a nearby
casualty clinic (NOU, 2012, p. 14; Sollid et al., 2012). A
large rescue force with all the capital’s available police
patrols, police special forces, fire and rescue units and
ambulances from Oslo and neighbouring districts
was gathered at the incident scene. Uninjured office
workers and security company officials contributed in
the rescue work. By around 17:00 the buildings had
been searched, all casualties evacuated, and downsizing
of resources on site had begun.
At 17:10, shooting started at a political youth camp
on Utøya Island located in a lake 40 km inland from the
capital. Shooting continued until the gunman surren-
dered to the police at 18:33. For reasons of personnel
safety, health and rescue resources were held back on
the mainland during this period. Local civilians with
boats played an essential part in both police and rescue
operations.
The two attacks launched the largest rescue opera-
tion in Norway since the Second World War. The
response mobilized resources not only from the local
area but from quite distant regions of Norway and even
cross-border from Sweden.
4.1. Organization of the Utøya Island
rescue operation
A gas station near the hotel served as a point where
commanders and first responders gathered in the ear-
liest phases in order to obtain an overview of the
situation and organize the rescue work. The situation
was unclear when the first responders arrived at this
holding area, but there was a general impression that
something ‘big’ was going on.The fire dispatch centre
was getting messages describing fires in buildings,
shooting, multiple perpetrators, etc. One respondent
commented: ‘before I came to Elstangen I was really
frustrated, it wasn’t easy to obtain a picture of the
situation. But when I arrived at Elstangen, I was calm’.
A number of youths escaped from the island by
swimming the 600 m to the mainland in 14°C water or
were evacuated by boat by tourists and people living in
the area. Organized evacuation from the island started
after the gunman had been arrested.The first wave of
evacuated casualties consisted of 10 severely injured
and 15 lightly injured victims.They were brought to the
quay immediately opposite the island. This point was
later abandoned as a casualty clearing station due to
practical difficulties with ambulance logistics, lack of
landing sites for helicopters and the fact that the per-
petrator’s car had been left on the quay and deemed a
possible threat in view of the car bomb attack a few
hours earlier.
Police continued to search the island for further
terrorists for several hours. Helicopters were not
allowed to land and there were a limited number of
medical personnel on Utøya Island. Police operations
on the island and evacuation were led by a police
incident commander, supported by his leader of opera-
tional tasks and the leader of ‘Beredskapstroppen’, a
police special task force trained to fight terrorism,
hostage situations and complex armed missions.
A hotel a few kilometres north of Utøya Island was
converted into an evacuee and next-of-kin centre.The
Incident Command and Information Flows 5
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police allotted a second incident commander to this
centre. A general practitioner was appointed medical
commander and was in charge of the health services at
the hotel.
4.2. Establishment of Elstangen clearing station
The change of location for the casualty clearing station
to Elstangen 3 km north of Utøya Island, cf. Figure 2,was
a local initiative.The emergency medical communication
centre directed two ambulances to a golf course that
was assessed as a suitable landing area for helicopters.
The ambulance crews found that a narrow bridge over
to the course would be a logistical bottleneck and
decided to use a more convenient spot landside. Near
the bridge are some open fields and a gravel beach,
which provided a suitable location for casualty clearing.
Distributing this information to and among the rel-
evant personnel was not easy. Communication was
technically difficult and much of the information had to
be given face-to-face.The incident commander and fire
commander had to relocate themselves from the pier
to Elstangen when the decision to change patient flows
were made.
At around 19:00, rescue resources poured in to
Elstangen: police forces from nearby districts, ambu-
lances, buses, helicopters, fire trucks and boats. There
was enough space along the road for some 50 ambu-
lances and three buses for patient transportation.Six air
ambulances, two SAR helicopters and three military
helicopters were involved in the operation. The
responders initiated a series of normal operational
actions like clearing fences, preparing surface divers,
requesting light equipment and ordering food. The
Figure 2. Map of Utøya Island and Elstangen Clearing Station (modified from http://www.norgeskart.no).
6Rune Rimstad, Ove Njaa, Eivind L. Rake and Geir Sverre Braut
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2014©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
overall SAR operation landside was coordinated from
Elstangen from this point forward.
From 19:10, casualties and evacuees from Utøya
Island were transported to Elstangen by boat and by
ambulance on the old road along the shore. In an
open space near the beach they were triaged by
several two-person teams of anaesthesiologists and
nurses or paramedics. Further evacuation was effected
by bus to the evacuation centre, by ambulance to local
hospitals or by air ambulance to the regional trauma
centre.
Civil defence forces relieved the fire service from
supporting tasks such as parking, traffic control, fuel
logistics and catering from around 20:00.The last boat
with evacuees arrived at 20:55. Most ambulances were
decommissioned at 22:00. The search for victims con-
tinued through the night on water and on islands in the
area. Volunteer organizations with boats and rescue
dogs participated in the search.
4.3. Selection of commanders and build-up of
the command point
Build-up of command structures on Elstangen was to a
large degree initiated on the spot by arriving front-line
personnel.Their decisions and appointments were later
communicated to and approved by their superiors and
the operational centres.
The incident commander was initially ordered to
participate in the police operation on Utøya as an
operative police officer. After consultations in the
holding area at the gas station he decided it would be
more efficient to set up a command structure on land,
separate from that on the island. He had special training
for incident commanding and decided to take on the
role as incident commander and informed the opera-
tion centre through the staff officer for operational
planning.
The fire commander had his formal role from the
beginning of the operation.The local firefighters arrived
at Elstangen where they temporarily were under lead-
ership of the fire operational officer while the fire
commander went further on to the temporary clearing
station.
The first arriving ambulance crews had an internal
discussion about organization and found it appropriate
that the most experienced paramedic from the local
ambulance service should take on the role as ambu-
lance commander. Another paramedic was appointed
deputy ambulance commander. One of the air ambu-
lance anaesthetists was later approached by the ambu-
lance commander who asked him to take on the role
of medical commander. After discussion with other
doctors on site, he accepted the task. Although not
from the district, he some years earlier held a position
as instructor in the local ambulance service and knew
many of the ambulance crew members participating in
the operation.
On arrival at Elstangen the incident commander gath-
ered the fire and ambulance commanders and estab-
lished the command post outdoors between two
vehicles.These three commanders spent most of their
time at or near the command post. The medical com-
mander attended some of the briefings led by the
incident commander, but was not stationary at the
command post.
4.4. Managing information flows in the
rescue organization
The commanders kept in contact with their respective
operation centres. This was an important source of
information at an early stage. Once the organizational
structure at the clearing station had been established,
the operation centres did not play such an important
role in information flow.
Facing a mass casualty incident on a small island with
limited access and considerable uncertainty about per-
sonnel safety made it hard for the commanders to
develop an overview of the situation. Several practical
difficulties had to be overcome before it was possible to
search the island, the landside and the intermediate
waters to reach the many casualties. The single most
important issue was whether or when it was safe on
Utøya Island to land unarmed rescue personnel.
The incident commander felt he had tight control of
the organization at Elstangen and that work there went
rather smoothly. He regarded his contact with the inci-
dent commander on the island and the operational staff
leader as sufficient. Rushing a decision to define the
situation as safe for the divers was not an objective.
In contrast, the fire commander was under pressure
to clarify surface search and diving operations.Accord-
ing to their situational awareness there were possibly
numerous young people in the water struggling to
survive. In his view, collaboration with the others was as
usual on any other large accident.
The medical commander kept in regular face to face
contact with the ambulance commander. Apart from
that, he emphasized that he had not much communica-
tion with the other commanders. His focus was on the
casualties and the preparations at the trauma centre.
‘We had enough to do in organizing an effective medical
team at Elstangen’, he commented about the workload.
The ambulance commander too was so occupied with
logistics that he did not reflect over information beyond
what was immediately relevant to ongoing tasks.Initially
they were told that they might expect as many as 750
patients, which required heavy size-up. Among the
ambulance personnel there was uncertainty about the
number of perpetrators and whether the area was safe
for them.
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Radio communications were seriously hampered by
poor coverage in the area. Each rescue service used its
normal, separate frequency.Personnel from some of the
neighbouring districts used tetra radios.These also had
poor coverage. The different radio systems could not
communicate with each other. Cellular phones were
used for longer conversations and exchange of sensitive
or restricted information, although they too suffered
from poor coverage.
Figure 3 presents the core information network at
the casualty clearing station where commanders at the
command post are depicted by the yellow boxes. The
bolder lines represent high-volume information flow.
Despite the high flow of information following the
formal lines of organizational structure,some important
bits of information were gathered through personal
social networking. One of the helicopter pilots had
private connections to some of the police officers.
While the helicopter was on the ground, he had the
opportunity to talk to these police officers and listen in
on their discussions and radio communications. He
thereby picked up information he could share with his
colleagues in the air ambulance service, giving them a
better understanding of the overall operation.
A helicopter crew returning from the regional
trauma centre after delivering a patient could inform
the medical commander of the situation and current
capacity of the trauma centre. They had also been
instructed to ask the medical commander to contact
the leading trauma surgeon directly, which he was able
to do by cellular phone.
One of the returning air ambulance doctors was
temporarily without specific clinical tasks and used the
opportunity to contact by phone one of the doctors on
Utøya Island. Information directly from the island was a
valuable asset to the medical and ambulance com-
mander in deciding priorities locally on Elstangen.
5. Analysis
The incident command post was an information hub
both for the rescue personnel working on Elstangen,
and for exchange of information between the rescue
services. The commanders at the command post were
strongly tied in this regard.Most of the information was
practical and immediately task related.There was a high
flow of information passing through the commanders,
vertically in each organization and horizontally across
organizational boundaries.
The largest information flows went vertically in each
service. Radio and telephone communications,and face-
to-face information exchange was a continuous task for
the commanders. This mainly took place within the
vertical chain of command. Horizontal information
exchange between organizations mostly went through
the command point. Short, perhaps 3-minute briefings
every 15–20 minutes were the main arena for horizon-
tal information flow. In contrast to the vertical informa-
tion flow, this meant that information presented at the
command point was highly processed by the command-
ers before the exchange.This pattern matches the char-
acteristics of an information forest network (Pan et al.,
2012). From the normative incident command model
one would expect the information network to be more
of an information pyramid with the police department
as the central organization and with a stronger empha-
sis on top-down information distribution (Pan et al.,
2012).
A possible weakness in an information forest
network is that each organization is working in silos,
Figure 3. Core Information Network at the Command Post on Elstangen.
8Rune Rimstad, Ove Njaa, Eivind L. Rake and Geir Sverre Braut
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2014©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
and the organizations do not coordinate their activities.
When any one of the commanders presented new and
important information at briefings, the others were led
to think that he had a generally better overview of the
whole situation than the others. This added to their
personal impression of being in lack of essential infor-
mation.The respondents pointed out information con-
cerning personnel safety, the total number of patients
and whether there where people in the water as
essential. These are the areas of greatest opera-
tive uncertainty. Information on more practical and
mundane details constituted the gross of information
exchange, but was not characterized as important in the
interviews.
Commanders actively searched for relevant informa-
tion throughout the operation. They were in need of
information that could serve as a basis for making
decisions, but did not to any extent ask for decisions to
be made by their superiors.The commanders generally
did not seek external expertise during the operation.
The incident commander also functioned more as a
monitoring supervisor than a decision-maker on behalf
of the other organizations.
Novel and sometimes vital information was obtained
through weak ties to actors outside the formal
command structures. Such active information gathering
through unofficial lines seems to have been an activity
initiated only when there were available personnel
without other pressing tasks on hand.
Commanders were not picked at random.They had a
thorough knowledge of the local area and the available
capacities, and on a professional level knew each other
or at least most of the others. Competent personnel
took on the different roles, sometimes after collegial
consultation. Our respondents all claim that local
knowledge and the presence of people who were pro-
fessionally and socially acquainted were major drivers
for creative solutions and facilitated communication and
cooperation. This is consistent with what Waugh and
Streib (2006) call ‘common wisdom’.
Our respondents expressed that they most of the
time were more than busy enough concentrating on
their sector-specific tasks.This was not generally felt to
be a problem, which is an interesting comment on the
debate in relation to the need for command and control
or coordination on scene. There was, however, a huge
need for negotiations on when and where rescue
workers could work safely (Wolbers & Boersma, 2013).
Information on safety issues was at first not available to,
and later interpreted differently by the commanders.
Organization of leadership structures in the overall
operation was not carried out in accordance with
standard procedures when it comes to two aspects: the
number of commanders at each level and the appoint-
ment of commanders by a higher authority.There seem
to have been a collective understanding among front-
line personnel of the need for, and appropriateness of,
establishing an incident command structure in accord-
ance with the official system, but on each spatially
limited scene: on Utøya Island, at the casualty clearing
station on Elstangen and at the evacuee centre. The
rather large operational area made it a natural choice to
managerially divide the command structures. In some
incident command systems it is a recommended feature
to appoint more than one commander or leader on
each level when practical circumstances make this
appropriate (Mackway-Jones, 2012). Personnel in the
field interpreted the Norwegian incident command
system to be flexible in this sense, and modified the
organizational structures as they found appropriate.
6. Conclusion
We have studied information flows in a large-scale
rescue operation, using the 2011 terrorist attacks in
Norway as our case. The information network at the
casualty clearing station adhered to a large degree to
the formal command network. Main information flows
went vertically in each rescue service or participating
organization. These were tied together horizontally by
the commanders at the incident command post.This is
consistent with the Information forest prototype of
information networks in crisis response. Some vital bits
of information were also provided by more loosely
connected actors with weak ties to the commanders.
The command organization emerged from needs
defined by the on-scene actors, and was not set by their
superiors. The resulting organization had its base in
official and normative plans, but was modified ad hoc.
The vast and complex accident scene was divided spa-
tially in functional areas of operations,each with a more
or less separate command structure.
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