A common operational picture in support of situational awareness for
efficient emergency response operations.
Panayiotis Sophronides1,2,*, Chrysaida-Aliki Papadopoulou2, Maria Giaoutzi2,
Henk J. Scholten1,3
1Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Department of Spatial
Economics/SPINlab, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2National Technical University of Athens, School of Rural and Surveying Engineering, Department of
Geography and Regional Planning, 9 Iroon Polytechneiou Street, 157 80, Zographou, Greece
3Geodan BV, President Kennedylaan 1, 1079 MB, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Efficient emergency response needs a multi-disciplinary approach which in turn calls for a high level of
collaboration and coordination among the involved safety agencies. Furthermore, in order to cope with
the complexity, uncertainty and dynamic nature of an emergency, flexible information and communication
systems are required. Based on experiences from the military domain, strategic concepts which can
improve information sharing and collaboration can be derived and adapted towards enhancing
emergency response information systems and operational effectiveness. This study purports to review
the state of the art in this field providing recommendations for emergency response policy makers,
professionals and researchers.
Keywords: Emergency response, shared situational awareness, common operational picture, network
Natural disasters strike since the ancient times and despite the advancements in science and technology,
they still have enormous socioeconomic and environmental impacts each year [1, 2]. In the context of the
dynamic and complex task environment of a disaster, multiple organizations and stakeholders are
required to convert from autonomous actors to interdisciplinary and interdependent emergency response
teams . The probably most significant question that arises for these responding teams is what is going
on ? For the latter, timely access to all relevant geo-information is critical .
During an emergency, several operational field units at different levels with various functional command
structures coming from different organizations which may have different backgrounds, professional
languages and operational expertise, they should share information acquired from various sources,
communicate, co-operate and coordinate their actions within a short period of time towards normalizing
an emergency situation . The quality and timeliness of information can shape the effectiveness of the
emergency response operations . Furthermore, accurate and relevant information can play a pivotal
role towards reducing the potential damages in lots of threatening situations , since the response
operations base on relevant facts regarding the situation concerned . Finally, the need of coordination
in emergency response is axiomatic as its absence drives to a number of possible failures which often
result in the escalation of an incident to a disaster and even higher number of victims . In this
connection it should be mentioned that a number of studies (e.g. [11, 12, 13, 14]) verify that poor
information sharing and coordination during inter-organization emergency response has a negative
impact on decision making and actions. In addition, information gaps along with lack of fluent
communication and absence of a common operation picture in use have been identified as the major
factors that hinder the emergency response organization .
Information sharing and coordination stay at the top of the research agenda, despite the progress that
may have been done through time . In addition, the growing attention on the improvement of the
protection from natural hazards in Europe and beyond, led to an increasing demand for information
sharing . In order to overcome the information management and dissemination problems, the
emergency response organizations support the employment of more advanced and better equipped
information systems derived from the logic of network enabled capabilities [17, 18]. Such systems should
assist emergency response stakeholders to achieve shared situational awareness by deploying a
Common Operational Picture [17, 19, 20]. Having shared situational awareness, the responding
organizations can dynamically understand “what is going on” while their subsequent decisions and
actions highly depend on it.
In short, emergency response organizations still struggle with information sharing, communication and
coordination [17, 10, 21, 22, 23]. The unforeseen, dynamic and complex nature of an emergency in which
multiple groups of professionals need to cooperate is seen by various scholars (e.g. [24, 25]) as the
reason for which the responding agencies battle to share and coordinate information. Although
information sharing and coordination in emergency response are of apparent importance, they have
received relatively little scientific attention [10, 26, 27]. Consequently, the main goal of this study is to
provide through extensive literature survey an objective and systematic overview of strategic information
concepts and to illustrate their empirical usefulness and benefits for effective emergency response.
In this context, the paper commences its mission by presenting in section 2 a literature review on natural
disasters providing a thorough classification of their different types as well as numbers and losses
worldwide. Moreover, after distinguishing between incident and disaster a detailed description of the
different phases of an emergency followed by characteristic types of delays during emergency response
operations is provided. Next, in section 3 the design premises of a flexible and dynamic emergency
response system are delineated based on literature. Thereafter, in section 4 the network centric enabled
capabilities for information sharing during emergency response are analyzed and their real benefit which
is reflected in their value chain is explained. Then, in section 5 situational awareness and in particular
individual, shared and team situational awareness and models are explored. Afterwards, in section 6 a
background to a common operation picture is presented and challenges in its achievement are identified.
Furthermore, the added value service of a common operation picture in emergency response is
theoretically investigated and a basis for its qualitative and quantitative assessment is proposed. Finally,
this contribution concludes by discussing the main findings and providing recommendations for
emergency response policy makers, professionals and researchers.
2. Natural Disasters
Natural disasters have stigmatized the human history, causing peaks in terms of mortality and morbidity
. Τhe Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)  defines disaster as “a
situation or event which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to a national or international
level for external assistance; an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage,
destruction and human suffering”. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
(UNISDR) terminology  determines disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community
or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which
exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”. The
International EMergency Disasters DATabase (EM-DAT)  classifies natural disasters in 5 groups
which in turn cover 12 disaster types (see table 1).
Over the past five decades (see figure 1), the number of the overall natural disasters present an
increasing linear trend causing severe economic losses while the hydro-meteorological disasters are the
most dominant in terms of numbers and economic damages. Biological events are not considered here,
as they require specific approaches and often are not directly related to geophysical and hydro-
meteorological events .
Only in 2014, the NatCatSERVICE of the Munich RE  has recorded 980 loss events distributed all
over the world (see figure 2) that have caused overall 7 700 human fatalities and losses of around $110
billion of 2015 US dollars. From these, 900 were hydro-meteorological events which caused 6 900 human
deaths and losses of $97 billion of 2015 US dollars. Looking at the geographical distribution of the events
in 2014, Asia following the trend of the past three decades  is the most disaster-prone region with the
largest number of people killed and the greatest economic damages. In particular, according to Munich
RE  (see figure 3) Asia was the continent hit by most of the natural disasters (37%) followed by North
America including Central America and Caribbean (20%), Europe (16%), Africa (10%), South America
(9%) and Oceania (8%). In addition, Asia in 2014 accounted for 75% of global disaster victims followed by
Africa (10%). Furthermore, Asia suffered from the 46% of the global damages followed by North America
including Central America and Caribbean (29%) and Europe (16%).
Table 1: Classification of natural disasters.
 Figure 1: Numbers and types of historical natural
disasters (Adapted from ).
Figure 2: Geographical distribution of Figure 3: Loss events in 2014 ordered by
loss events during 2014. continent.
 (Adapted from )
Natural disasters, particularly floods and storms present an increasing trend in terms of frequency and
seriousness affecting the mortality, morbidity and welfare of the society. Montanari and Koutsoyiannis 
mention that the growing impacts of extreme events, along with the observation that the environment
alters in a phenomenal manner, stresses that human facilities are becoming more exposed to natural
hazards and risks. Furthermore, the level of vulnerability of an exposed community to such hazards, it
specifies the extent to which a hazard can cause a disaster . In the years ahead, the international
community should face the root causes of crises . In this context, transnational solutions enabled via
an effective framework for regional cooperation by allocating resources towards better preparedness as
well as by reinforcing the early warning systems are needed . Humanitarian relief is and will always be
required due to unforeseen natural events which call for effective emergency response during a crisis
2.1 Incidents versus disasters and emergency response
Oxford Dictionaries  determine incident as “an instance of something happening; an event or
occurrence” while disaster as “a sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or
loss of life”. In order an incident not to escalate to a disaster effective emergency response is required.
According to UNISDR  response is “the provision of emergency services and public assistance during
or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and
meet the basic subsistence needs of the people”. In this context, plans and institutional arrangements that
involve and guide the efforts of the multiple safety agencies in a comprehensive and a coordinated
fashion towards responding to the entire spectrum of emergency needs are engaged.
Emergencies are considered as high stress situations which need organizations to respond in a way that
is different from their normal operating procedures [37, 38, 39, 40]. Walle and Turoff  note that
emergencies are by definition situations in which the stakeholders are not familiar with nor likely to
become familiar with; and their occurrence evokes intense feelings of stress, anxiety and uncertainty.
During an emergency situation, not only will they have to manage these feelings, but also they should
comprehend the situation among conflicting or missing information, deciding for the appropriate response
actions in a short period of time.
Jennex  see emergencies as a series of four phases (see figure 4) i.e. Situational Analysis (SAn),
Initial Response (IR), Emergency Response (ER) and Recovery Response (RR) and five decision points
i.e. the Initiating Event (IE), the Control Event (CE), the Restoration Event (RE), the Normalizing Event
(NE) and a Terminating Event (TE) which are described below in details:
SAn phase: During this first phase, information is acquired and assessment of the situation is
performed by the safety agencies. It has a base level of activities which include monitoring and
analysis of a set of predetermined conditions for detection of unusual or pre-identified deviations,
identification of the IE and training and preparation of the emergency responders. When an IE is
determined during the SAn phase, an emergency is considered that initiates and it causes the start of
the IR phase.
IR phase: This is a short duration phase in which verification of the emergency is being done, followed
by generation of early warning notices, initialization of preplanned preliminary actions and introduction
of the emergency response plan.
ER phase: It begins directly after assuming control by the emergency response teams i.e. after a CE
and in general after the completion of the immediate response actions and early warning notifications.
This phase implements the emergency response plan and begins the coordination of the responders,
the deployment of the assets and the allocation of the resources. Being the command and control
phase of emergencies, it requires from the emergency responders to monitor conditions and progress
of the response operations, adjusting them accordingly. The ER phase reaches the maximum activity
level during an emergency, ending with the RE. At this point, the emergency responders deduce that
the emergency conditions are under control and hence no further response actions are needed
leading to the termination of the command operations of the emergency control center and the
entrance of the emergency into the RR phase.
RR phase: This phase has a declining level of activities during which is verified that the emergency is
under control and organization, management and coordination of long term activities and
reconstruction for the normalization of the situation takes place. Furthermore, lessons learned from the
management of the emergency are identified and documented towards better preparation for potential
future emergencies. The RR phase ends when the NE is formally declared. At this point, all the
emergency response actions are completed. Moreover, long term response activities as well as a
basic level of restoration have been made, the situation is normalized and the safety agencies are
operating in their routine procedures being in the SAn phase.
Figure 4: Phases and decision points with indicative amount per unit time of immediate response and
decisions that need to be made following an IE.
The figure does not correspond to scale and it is a general illustration of an emergency timeline.
TE can occur in the case of a false detection of an incident or in the case where another emergency has
been prioritized or in the case of any event that could cause the suspension of the response. In general,
TE can take place in any phase and time denoting the termination of an emergency. This is also the
reason for which is not illustrated in the diagram of phases and timelines of activity levels of a typical
emergency (see figure 4).
2.2 Delays during emergency response operations
Chen et al. , see emergency response as a social activity where multiple agencies across functional
disciplines and jurisdictions are involved. In particular, during an emergency, several response teams
from various safety agencies with different organizational goals and cultures must cooperate in order to
minimize the potential negative effects of an emergency . For this, good coordination and
communication not just within a response team, but also among the several teams involved is required.
During the emergency response operations, Chen et al.  identify three characteristics types of delay:
Type 1: This delay is related to the dispatch process of the emergency responders due to a limited
Situational Awareness (SA) and comprehension of the extent of an incident. Coordination and decision
making in a limited amount of time lacking relevant, complete and accurate geo-information is crucial.
Novel information concepts with the capability to integrate and present up-to-date information about
the incident, the surrounding environment and the response operations in real time are often needed.
Furthermore, decision support systems which build upon such information concepts incorporating and
adjusting decisions are often necessary. As the understanding of the situation may change and
improve through time, the capacity of adjusting the decisions accordingly is of critical importance.
Such a change can occur as individual observations of the scene are often biased by the observer’s
comprehension, background, reminiscence and verbiage. First responders, mention that these
observations are frequently contradictory resulting in delays in regards to actionable decisions, as
puzzling out conflicting information is hard and time consuming. Finally, the systems used to support
decisions for emergency response should not refuse information seemingly useless, but maintain and
analyze such information for potential useful content.
Type 2: This refers to the time spent on the preparation of the responders for the implementation of
their tasks and it can be reduced by organizing ex ante relevant training exercises. This preparation
time can include identification of proper outfit and suitable equipment related to the type and severity
of the emergency to be managed and travel time required to reach the hot zone (location awareness).
Better preparedness for emergency response as well as better coordination during the emergency
may contribute to the minimization of this delay.
Type 3: This delay can occur during the process of information acquisition, communication and
decision making. It can be addressed by facilitating Shared Situational Awareness (SSA) among the
responders. SA and SSA are defined and discussed in a later section.
3. Design Principles for an Emergency Response System
Information and communication of varying scopes and proportions are of utmost importance during crisis
situations . Furthermore, teams of people who often represent different organizations, resources and
roles are required to work effectively in a coordinated fashion supporting each other’s’ objectives even
when they have never before worked together . For this, flexible and dynamic emergency response
information systems resting on generic design principles and tailored to the needs of the different safety
organizations are required. Based on historic experience, Turoff et al. [46, 47] suggest nine design
premises for a Dynamic Emergency Response Information System (DERMIS) (see table 2).
Table 2: Design premises for a DERMIS.
System training and
An emergency response system which has functions for the day-to-day operations, it partly eliminates the
need for training and simulation. This occurs due to the fact that the professionals who must operate the
system, they already gain extensive experience with it just by using it for their daily routine.
The professionals dealing with the emergency response are often flooded with information and hence the
emergency response systems should filter information according to the needs of the different actors.
However, these should still be able to access all contextual information related to an emergency as
information elements that are filtered by the system may be of utmost importance under unforeseen
The system should enable logs of the events’ chain during an emergency, without charging the
emergency responders with extra workload. The information included in these logs can be used for
system improvements for future emergencies as well as for analysis of the emergency situation itself.
Expectations as norms
Most of the emergencies are unique and hence a planned response to an emergency is not feasible to be
followed in details. Furthermore, the majority of the actions are expectations to the earlier defined norms.
Therefore, an emergency response system should be flexible enough to enable alterations in the
configuration and allocation of resources during response operations.
Scope and nature of
Depending on the nature of an emergency, the different response teams may have to be structured with
members who will provide the appropriate knowledge and experience for fulfilling the teams’ tasks. In
addition, attention should be paid on the fact that some teams may operate for a specific amount of time
transferring their tasks to other teams or actors. This applies also for individual team members who due to
exhaustion may need to be replaced by others.
Emergency responders must be able to pass their roles to others when they are not capable to deal with
an emergency. This means that an emergency response system’s software should explicitly describe
these roles and also the tasks, responsibilities and information needs of each of them.
Information validity and
During emergency situations, actions are taken based on incomplete information. Thus, it is of utmost
importance for an emergency response system to be capable to store all the available information in a
central database equally open to all those involved in the management of an emergency situation. In this
manner, all the involved stakeholders can count on a wide base of information which in turn it may
support them towards more effective and efficient decision making for the management of an emergency.
Furthermore, when these stakeholders require unexpected (unpredicted by humans or technology i.e. the
system) information, they need to be able to identify whether this exists or not and also who can or must
be providing it.
Free exchange of
During an emergency response, a vast amount of information should be shared and exchanged between
the involved stakeholders in order these to become aware, gain control of the situation and supervise the
response operations. However, a large amount of exchanged information can lead to information
overload which can have negative contribution to the emergency response. Hence, the system must
prevent the information overload of its users by assuming all the bookkeeping of communications and all
the organization occurred.
Due to the unforeseen nature of an emergency, the actions that should be taken as well as the
responsibilities of the emergency response teams and individuals cannot be predetermined. In this
context, an emergency response system should support flow of authority towards where the actions take
place (usually on a low level of hierarchy) and simultaneously reverse flow of accountability and
situational information upward and sideways through the organization.
[41, 46, 47]
People can deal with a high degree of uncertainty to make timely decisions as long as they know that
these are not based on hidden information which will make their actions to look wrong later. In this
context, the persons required to make decisions during an emergency should be ensured that they can
find and precisely understand all the information relevant to their decision in a timely manner; as in an
emergency what might be considered the most relevant, may simply not exist .
An emergency management system should face the reality of an emergency situation which requires
movement of authority to lower levels and rapid responses . Otherwise, the system will be designed
inadequately without being capable enough to handle the oversight function in a timely and effective
manner during an emergency. As many serious decisions are irreversible , the latter can lead to
incorrect decisions which cannot be altered or to delays in making a decision that eliminates the
opportunity for choosing the best alternatives.
The nine design premises suggested by Turoff et al. [46, 47], can lead to an emergency response system
flexible, robust, dynamic and capable to support the information and communication needs of the
emergency responders at all the levels. Furthermore, according to Eede et al. , they can allow the
development of a dynamic emergency response information system capable to support and be integrated
across different organizations.
4. Network Centric Enabled Capabilities for Emergency Response.
When a disaster strikes, coherent coordination requires acquisition of relevant information from multiple
sources, verification of its accuracy and sharing among responding organizations, all within a short period
of time . Information quality and timeliness can shape the effectiveness of the emergency response
operations . Furthermore, accurate and relevant information can significantly reduce the potential
losses in lots of threatening situations . Lack of information and knowledge, their incorrect interpretation
or discharge as irrelevant are among the main reasons of disaster management failure [50, 51, 52, 53]..
Furthermore, at the peak of an emergency when information accessibility, flow and distribution are of
utmost importance; the lack of interoperability among the variety of databases, the information generation
systems and the telecommunication platforms utilized by these systems are some of the most obtrusive
contributors to mismanagement [54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59].
Architectures to support complex problems solving as well as coordination and information sharing during
emergencies can be traditionally characterized as hierarchical solutions [60, 61]. Furthermore, Janssen et
al.  state that hierarchical control is often viewed as a necessity for managing disasters. However,
Comfort and Kapucu  mention that under the urgent and dynamic conditions of a disaster, such
procedures almost always crash. In addition, Comfort  points out that under cumulative stress, the
hierarchical organization tends to fail and personnel are obstructed by a lack of information, constraints
on innovation and an inadequacy to shift resources and actions to timely meet new demands. Schraagen
et al.  experimentally demonstrated that in complex environments, the network centric structures were
more efficient in terms of speed, accuracy, information distribution, knowledge sharing and decision
making compared to the hierarchical structures.
For complex, time dependent operations carried out in dynamic environments, the concept of “network-
centric warfare” based on extensive use of information technology, information management and
progressively increasing incorporation of knowledge management techniques, it has been introduced
several years ago by the US Department of Defense (DoD) . In particular, the Network Centric
Operations (NCOs) have emerged as the solution to the major information and knowledge deficiencies
and requirements during complex, large-scale crisis management operations [65, 55, 56, 57, 58]. The
NCOs' concept recognizes the need of empowering humans during emergency response. By
incorporating NCOs, the military aimed at a broad sharing of situational awareness through the utilization
of a Joint Operational Picture . According to Alberts and Hayes , DoD has identified four
propositions of a NCO and a set of governing principles for a network centric force which are the tenets of
netcentric warfare: i) a robustly networked force improves information sharing; ii) information sharing and
collaboration reinforce the information quality and share situational awareness; iii) shared situational
awareness allows self-synchronization and strengthens sustainability and command speed; iv) All these
in turn are significantly increasing the mission effectiveness.
Lubitz et al.  mention that the concept of network-centricity has emerged in two parallel approaches.
These are the Doctrine of Network-centric Warfare (DNW)  and the Network Enabled Capabilities
(NEC)  also known as Network Enabled Operations (NEO). From the two approaches, Lubitz et al.
 identify that the NEC concept is more adaptable to the conditions of emergency response in which
multiple uncoordinated and disorganized governmental, non-governmental, local and volunteer
organizations are required to collaborate within the same operational environment, yet entirely without
common information sharing capability. This is because unlike the network centric doctrine, NEC enables
effects-based operations at the level of command and control as well as on the level of operational
capability. Lubitz et al.  state that the “NEC may be the essential tool required to change the persisting
individualism of the participating organizations”. Furthermore, NEC is a potential enabler of an adaptive
management philosophy which can allow collaborative and flexible responses to future disasters .
Networks, information and humans are the three overlapping and mutually dependent dimensions of
NEC, which need continuous development for achieving full realization of the concept . The
networked information environment offers the capability to acquire, generate, manipulate and distribute
information which in turn is crucial for the decision makers. The real value of NEC is reflected in its value
chain (see figure 5). In essence, NEC value chain corresponds to the tenets of net-centric working [72,
73] and it attempts to indicate the NEC cause and effects chain that leads in “Better effects” i.e. the
desired emergency response outcomes.
NEC timely provides and exploits information and intelligence to enable effective decision making and
versatile actions . However, despite the fact that they offer decisive advantages in emergency
response, they have some deficiencies. For example, Lubitz et al.  mention that these concepts are
technology driven, with technology itself being one of the first victims of a major emergency. As a solution
to this, Patricelli et al. , suggest that preparation and planning can contribute in assuring that in spite
of severe infrastructure damage, the essential network capabilities either keep operational or are timely
restored to an acceptable functional level. Some other issues on NCO have been identified by Bharosa et
al. [76, 77], who have done field research and in particular empirical analysis on the implementation of
NCO and the resulting problems. Through their research, they identified that the implementation of NCO
can unveil some shortcomings which cannot be addressed by NCO descriptions. In addition, they found
that NCO can highlight some issues such as information overload making also the validation of
information quality a difficult task. Furthermore, they acknowledged that despite the technological
advances, the NCO concept’s effectiveness depends on the formulation of new institutional policies and
roles in regards to information sharing. For all these matters, further research needs to be carried out.
Therefore, the concept of net-centricity is not a panacea which solves all the crisis management
problems, but it is a part of the solution.
Figure 5: The value chain of Network Enabled Capabilities (NEC).
5. Situational Awareness
Many definitions of Situational Awareness (SA) exist [78, 79]. Most of them converge that SA is about
“knowing what is going on” . According to Gilson , the concept of SA has been identified during
the World War I by Oswald Boelke who understood “the importance of gaining an awareness of the
enemy before the enemy gained a similar awareness, and devised methods for accomplishing this” [81,
82]. In technical and academic literature, the area did not receive much attention until the late 1980s, but
thereafter diligent work has been done . The aviation industry where pilots and air traffic controllers
are required to develop better SA has been the driving force for research and development in this domain
. In this context, Nofi  mentions that the concept of SA entered military usage through the aviation
community. Both the concepts of SA and Common Operational Picture (COP) have been employed by
the military as a guiding principle to define and/or supervise warfare operations .
Lack or inadequate SA has been found as one of the main causal factors in accidents attributed to human
error (see [74, 85, 86, 87, 88]. For example in the aviation industry, a review of over 200 aircraft accidents
revealed that their main cause was the poor SA. Despite the fact that SA has its roots in aviation, the
concept is equally applicable to human supervisory control for ground based industries . Some
researchers criticize the concept for being very subjective , very intuitive and lacking a coherent
definition  while other researchers overcome these accusations, claiming that SA is a useful concept
with utmost importance for operational settings . Steenbruggen et al.  see SA as especially
important in work domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions can cause
disastrous results. Klein  considers SA as a critical concept because: it is linked to performance;
limitations in SA may result in errors; it may relate to expertise; it forms the ground for decision making.
SA can be distinguished as individual or shared/team SA which will be analyzed in the following sections.
5.1 Individual SA: Definitions and models
A commonly accepted definition of the SA of individuals is still missing . In a high level of
simplification, SA can be seen as an appropriate awareness of a situation . Individual SA can be
considered as a personal attribute . The world around the individuals is approached in personal terms,
based on their cultural background, education and experiences as well as on the strengths and limitations
of their senses .
According to Stanton et al. , three main definitions dominate in the literature: Endsley’s  which
focuses on an information processing framework; Smith’s and Hancock’s  that pinpoints the reflective
quality and Bedny’s and Meister’s  which presents an embedded world view. In essence, Endsley’s
 definition focuses on the perception and understanding of the world employing future projection of its
current situation. In contrast to the latter, Smith and Hancock  determine SA in terms of the interaction
between the person and the world and hence it focuses on the way in which the two main systems
cooperate. Bedney and Meister  pinpoint the reflective perspective of SA and in particular the relation
with mental models incorporating understanding of the present system. The differences between these
definitions are identified on the orientation of SA either as cognitive process used to develop and maintain
SA or tangible product; as well as in terms of the underlying psychological approach.
As suggested by Stanton et al. , three main theoretical approaches dominate in the SA domain: the
information processing approach which is represented by Endsley’s theoretical three - level model ;
the activity theoretic approach which is best described by Bedney’s and Meister’s interactive sub-systems
model  and the ecological approach which is delineated by the Smith’s and Hancock’s perceptual
cycle model . In terms of SA orientation, the interactive sub-systems and the perceptual models focus
on the process while the three-level model mainly concentrates on the product. However, Stanton et al.
 mention that in measuring SA none of these product-process perspectives should be ignored as the
latter can be determined by the former.
From the theories of individual SA, based on Salmon et al. , Endsley’s three tier model of information
processing has been the most useful for describing SA of an operator as well as for informing system
design and evaluation (e.g. ). In addition, Gorman et al.  mention that many SA researchers have
agreed in principle on Endsley’s three part definition of SA. Endsley  defines SA as: “the perception of
the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning
and the projection of their status in the near future”. Therefore, SA is about perceiving critical factors i.e.
status, attributes and dynamics of relevant elements in the environment (Level 1), understanding of the
meaning of these elements after being synthesized, in light of the decision maker’s goal (Level 2) and at
the highest level (Level 3) predicting of what will occur with the system in the near future. Higher SA
levels are dependent on the success of the lower levels . An extensive review of Mica Endsley’s
articles on SA theory and measurement can be found in .
Endsley’s theories do not employ concepts such as COP and network centric operations in the definition
of individual SA. The latter is more determined as a set of goals and decisions tasks for a certain job or
activity of individuals within an organization and thus its context depends on what is the right information
to support a SA environment . However, when the individuals work as team members and are
required to perform their tasks in a network centric environment based on individual SA, there is an
interrelation between the qualities of shared SA in terms of interaction. In addition to the different SA
levels of the environment, relevant is the SA of the own organization also known as organizational
awareness which is defined by Oomes  as “an understanding of the multiple parties that make up the
organization and how they relate to each other”.
5.2 Shared and team SA backgrounds
Perla et al.  mention that “With all the imprecision and debate surrounding the basic meaning of the
idea of situational awareness, it is hardly surprising that the broader concept of shared situational
awareness suffers from similar conceptual and semantic difficulties”. In general, when actors are working
together towards achieving a common goal, a “compatible” understanding of the situation is supportive
. Endsley et al. , introduce shared SA as the degree to which team members have the same SA
on shared SA requirements where shared SA is dependent not on a complete sharing of awareness
between team members, but only on a shared understanding of that subset of information which is
necessary for each of their goals. Therefore, shared SA is about the level of overlap in common SA
elements between team members . However, each team member has specific SA requirements of its
task, from which some may overlap with other team members' requirements . The latter is related to
what team SA is about. Endsley  defines team SA as “the degree to which every team member
possesses the situation awareness required for his or her responsibilities”. Shared SA and team SA are
not the same. Endsley  and Endsley and Jones , make the distinction between the two.
However for successful team performance, the individual team members should have good SA on their
specific elements and simultaneously the same SA for those elements that are shared .
Seppänen et al.  state that interaction is critical in building SA, while communication is in the heart of
interaction being the driving force in the formation of an adequate shared SA. Salmon et al.  identify
that most researchers have focused on communication as the key component in the development of team
SA. In this line, Nofi  finds communication as the most crucial element in the formation of team or
shared SA. Endsley  reflects the latter by suggesting that a team member’s SA of shared elements
can provide team coordination or communication. Entin and Entin  stress that communication is a
prerequisite for achieving a high level of team SA. Furthermore, Salas et al.  pinpoint the significance
of communication in the acquisition of team SA.
Nofi  point out that “shared situational awareness obviously differs from individual SA because it
involves a number of persons trying to form a common picture”. For the development of shared SA,
Bolstad and Endsley  identify four factors: (1) shared SA requirements (e.g. the degree to which
team members understand which information is required by other team members); (2) shared SA devices
(e.g. network systems, communication devices, shared displays and the share environment); (3) shared
SA mechanisms (e.g. shared mental models) and (4) shared SA processes which is about efficient team
processes that enable sharing of relevant information. However, for the development of SA for the team
as a whole, Endsley and Jones  state that this depends on: (1) a high level of SA among individual
team members for the aspects of the situation relevant to their job and (2) a high level of shared SA
between members, based on an accurate common operational picture of those aspects of the situation
common to the requirements of each member.
6. A Common Operational Picture for Emergency Response
During emergencies, agencies with heterogeneity in terms of background, specific operational expertise
and professional language need to organize their actions across jurisdictional and institutional boundaries
in a coordinated fashion for efficient and timely response operations . In this context, a Common
Operational Picture (COP) can be utilized for overcoming coordination and information management
problems throughout emergency response. Following, the COP concept is introduced and its contribution
to emergency response operations is explored.
6.1 Background to a COP
According to Hager , early studies of Common Operational Pictures (COPs) were carried out in the
eighties. A major milestone was the deployment of a large group display to facilitate the development of
SA in military command posts . However, as Wolbers and Boersma  suggest, a single definition
of a COP does not exist both in the operations field and the literature. Copeland  stresses that
disagreements exist in terms of COP considerations as it is treated as a product, process or operating
environment. In the literature, two types of definitions are the most common: the first focuses on the
capabilities of information distribution while the second pinpoints the need for developing an adequate
level of shared understanding .
Based on Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , a picture can be seen as a design or
representation made by several means or as a description so vibrant or graphic which provides either a
mental image or an accurate idea of something. Also, it can be a mental image itself. Similarly, this
dictionary defines common as something that belongs to or is shared by two or more individuals or things
or by all group members which has a connotation to widespread or general knowledge. Finally
operational is of, or relating to, or utilized for or in operations . Kuusisto et al.  building upon
these frames, consider a COP, as a shared representation of widespread and general knowledge
A COP provides stakeholders with a “common picture” of the field of operations at the same time, on a
terminal device at their location , while the operational picture refers to a predefined representation
of information related to the operations. The US military Doctrine for Joint Operations  defines COP
as “a single identical display of relevant information shared by more than one command”. Furthermore,
the doctrine sees the COP as a facilitator of collaborative planning which supports all echelons to achieve
SA. In emergency response, COP can be seen as an auspicious solution towards improving the quality of
information sharing and supporting the development of SA .
A COP can also be treated as a boundary object because its deployment is about sharing and building
information in regards to the response operations by enabling users to constantly redefine and adapt their
relationships . By utilizing a COP, coordination and negotiation of the polyphony of the experts’
perspectives via general procedures of exchange without making their points of view uniform or
completely transparent to each other are facilitated [113, 114].
A COP often represents geographic information as typical applications are tied to a possible large
geographic area (location awareness) . In this line, COP is considered as a geographical
representation (geo-COP) combined with a checklist that delineates the evolution of an emergency along
with the characteristics and progress of the emergency response operations. The information tailored in
terms of content and detail is merged into a common frame of reference and visualized on a screen,
supporting the comprehension by the response organizations of the current view of the situation .
The US Department of the Army mentions that a COP which may cross horizontal, vertical and functional
boundaries is made of three components : (1) situation maps and overlays (the current status of an
emergency, the projected emergency situation and the available resources); (2) friendly battlefield
resource report and (3) intelligence products. In a network centric information environment, a COP is fed
with (automatically updated) data derived from different sources such as reconnaissance and surveillance
assets, emergency response teams in contact, intelligence acquired from analysis, information from
higher echelons and estimates about incomplete information . By employing networks as well as
emerging technologies, the different emergency response organizations can use current positional
information to obtain the desired operational picture on one display. Access to a common picture that
displays the evolution of an emergency and the progress of the response operations can enable these
organizations to collaboratively plan and execute comprehensive tactical operations .
In emergency response operations, a COP depicts static information predetermined in the preparedness
phase of emergency management as well as dynamic information related to the evolution of an event
which needs to be shared between different emergency response chain members (see table 3). It may
contain geographical displays of emergency resources and assets, alternative evacuation routes as well
as other tactical information all on a single display. In essence, a COP contains elements common to all
the types of emergencies as well as critical variables which can be extracted at the time of the event
through different sources of information including emergency responders. For example, by taking
advantage of inputs from different intelligence sources all the deployed units in the field of operations can
be mapped in real-time . Therefore, with the suitably implemented information/knowledge
management services, all the relevant to an emergency factors can automatically be incorporated into a
comprehensive, real time description of the present and future needs, which may include availability of
resources and assets, their appropriate deployment and field control i.e. actionable knowledge (see ).
In short, Hager  mentions that a COP displays all acquired and combined data derived from different
means in a single presentation to the user. As a consequence of realizing a COP, SA can be increased
because every emergency responder can have the same information regarding the evolution of an
emergency and the progress of the response operations.
Regarding the role and the function of a COP within multi-agency operations, McMaster and Baber 
suggest that there are several perspectives. The potential alternatives of a COP are delineated in table 4.
However, for facilitating multi-agency planning and implementation of response to a complex
environment, the distributed cognition point of view can be seen as the only one in which the COP
product becomes part of the decision making process enabling the different agencies to share multiple
perspectives on the problem and achieve a common understanding of the situation .
Table 3: Examples of common and variable elements included in a COP.
(related to an emergency)
Digital maps at national level which include
hazards, vulnerable objects and risk analysis
results related to different potential types of
The nature and the magnitude of the critical
Geographic location of the event, size of the
affected area, location and magnitude of the
Networks infrastructure is depicted in maps;
Networks accessibility, condition and capacity are
Alternative evacuation routes are predetermined
during the preparedness phase of emergency
management. These take into account the nature
of a potential emergency, estimated numbers of
evacuees based on the population of different
areas as well as time availability for the
The maximum size of an area affected by the
emergency and consequently the networks
became or about to become inaccessible;
Degraded and destructed networks due to event
related conditions, weather;
Non-forecasted networks’ degradation due to
Material resources such as ambulance and police
vehicles, fire brigade engines, trucks, aerial
Degradation due to event related specific factors
which can cause for example damage of the
resources, inaccessibility of the place(s) in which
they are located;
Due to allocation of the emergency resources to
the response operations’ scene, the number of
the available resources changes dynamically as
the response operations escalate.
The number of personnel in all categories (e.g.
policemen, firemen, field medics, support staff)
available for deployment to the response
operations’ scene is known;
Personnel requirement for traffic control, barrier
maintenance, evacuated territory security patrol;
Deployment sites for personnel predetermined in
the preparedness phase of emergency
management; based on different types of events
with different magnitudes and the associated
The required personnel number for the
emergency response operations which depends
on the nature of the event.
Due to allocation of the personnel to the
operations’ scene, its availability changes
dynamically as the response operations
The unavailable personnel who are unable to
reach the deployment sites due to specific
factors related to the evolution of the
Location and capacity of available short/long term
shelters and field medical facilities as well as
optimal access routes predetermined during the
preparedness phase of emergency management;
Location and capacity of local and national
healthcare resources/advanced treatment facilities
and triage/treatment/evacuation plans.
Need for ad-hoc facilities arising from the
evolution of an event;
Unavailability of facilities due to event-related
specific factors (e.g. location within a radius of
Simulations’ forecasts based on hypotheses
related to different types of emergencies. Risk
maps are based on such forecasts.
Forecasts based on dynamic inputs (real
observations) derived from the evolution of an
(Adapted from )
Table 4: Potential roles and functions of a COP.
Nature of interaction
(observe the dynamic COP as it is
(COP as the product of information,
surveillance, target of emergency
response operations acquisition and
(process of command driven by the
(Adapted from )
A robust network for information sharing can contribute in achieving shared SA based on a COP which in
turn will result in improved decision making. Nevertheless, in order the emergency response
organizations to gain maximum advantage from the network centric working logic; they should attempt to
implement self-synchronization which can lead to improved use of capabilities to control the situation.
Self-synchronization needs a level of shared SA which means cross-domain SA as well as SA across
domains . To achieve shared awareness, all teams are required to share information and share
understanding of the situation . Self-synchronization is described in a maturity model (see figure 6)
suggested by Alberts et al. . In essence, this model proceeds from the traditional command and
control process (Level 0) to self-synchronization (Level 4).
Command and control mode of operation
Level 0: Baseline, traditional command
Level 1: Substantial amount of
Level 2: Collaboration across location,
function and organization among
Level 3: Improved level 2 by not focusing
on sharing information but on its
Level 4: Enables self-synchronization.
Figure 6: Network-Centric Maturity Model.
(Adapted from )
The implementation phase of network centric working for achieving shared SA based on a COP by the
emergency response organizations is not easily described. In order to move on to the different levels of
the maturity model, the focus of the response organizations should not only be on technical capabilities
but also on the preparation and training of the emergency responders employing operating procedures
which will eventually enable their self-synchronization. The latter is not always easy as it may stumbles
upon legal issues related for instance to the structure of the emergency response organizations.
Emergency response organizations have to become capable in responding to an emergency using
network centric approach for information sharing as it intends to improve information processes,
communication and coordination leading to the development of a COP-based shared SA. However, this
requires the development of individual network centric capabilities in the emergency response
stakeholders’ cognitive domain.
6.2 Challenges in achieving a COP
Coherent, accurate and timely SA as well as vertical and horizontal information integration at all
command levels; they enable the emergency responders to share common knowledge at the operations'
field. However, one of the major challenges is information overload . In the context of a COP, all
information is made available to everyone, but not all information is relevant to the tasks of the different
emergency organizations . Also, different command levels do not need the same level of detail and
hence it must be determined which level of information is relevant to their duties.
Coordination between actors with heterogeneity in terms of institutional background can be seen as a
process of dialogic coordination where professionals can confront their different professional languages
via scientific contestation achieving collective sense-making . However, during complex
emergencies, responders should make rapid coordination decisions in order to support fast response
. Achieving a shared goal among the emergency responders in a limited amount of time, it is
extremely challenging due to the dynamic nature of the emergencies where the situation continuously
changes and the goal becomes outdated. As a result, the responders frequently do not share information
because from their perspective, they consider this information no longer significant or even outdated. This
can lead to a dynamic information sharing situation constantly in flux, but dependent on the perceived by
the response actors’ information relevance .
An extensive literature survey demonstrates that emergency response organizations struggle with
information sharing, communication and coordination [17, 10, 21, 22, 23]. Furthermore, Wolbers and
Boersma  based on empirical research mention that despite the fact that emergency response
organizations rely upon each other’s information to align work processes, they do not share information
tending to operate within their own professional boundaries.
Information management can play a critical role in addressing the coordination and information sharing
problems between the involved organizations’ boundaries [124, 125]. Information management can also
be seen as both the problem and the solution for adequate SA to support coordination . However,
emergency response organizations may attempt to solve the information management problems through
information systems which support its users to reach shared SA by deploying a COP [20, 21]. Such
systems can be derived from the logic of Network Enabled Capabilities (see section 3) .
6.3 The added value service of a COP in emergency response
The familiar three Cs (Communication, Coordination and Control) of emergency response necessitate an
interdependent, evolving process of organizational management. In the language of practice, creating a
COP is crucial for clear communication and coordination of actions as it enables the achievement of a
sufficient level of shared information among the different organizations participating in emergency
operations. In particular, a COP enables data fusion providing a collection of correlated recognized
pictures which facilitate a shared picture of operations [126, 127]. In this way, all the involved actors can
understand each other’s constraints as well as the potential combinations of collaboration and support
among them under a given set of conditions .
SA is about how individuals and teams know and comprehend what is going on around them .
Furthermore, good SA provides a firm ground for effective decision making. The development of this good
SA is facilitated through the deployment of an effective COP which visualizes the relevant information
. Furthermore, a COP can ease collaborative planning and it can support several levels of command
across the various agencies involved in an operation to achieve shared SA . On the contrary,
Comfort  stress that the lack of a COP tend to drive the emergency response operations to a
hierarchical structure of control, fact that creates asymmetry in the information processes. This
asymmetry results from the fact that organizations with higher level of responsibility and authority transmit
their orders to lower levels without having any operational feedback from the ground of field operations
outside the formal chain of command. Thus, a COP tends to support the development of a shared
perspective on priorities for emergency operations.
For achieving shared SA based on a COP between different emergency response organizations, systems
underpinned by the network centric working logic must be employed. The relation between the NEC value
chain components and the emergency response process phases (adapted from ) is attempted to be
demonstrated in table 5. The basic idea is that better networks can lead to better information which feeds
detection, warning and verification processes, which in turn can contribute to the development of better
situational interface. Better information leads to improved response by the emergency organizations
which in turn it contributes to the more efficient utilization of resources and assets so that better actions
can take place in the field of operations. Better actions lead to better outcomes i.e. faster normalization of
the situation and hence minimization of the incident’s or disaster’s consequences (socioeconomic and
Table 5: The NEC value chain components and the emergency response process phases.
NEC value chain
Emergency response phases
B E T T E R
Emergency organizations and
Better situation interface
Based on better situation interface
Respond, driving and arrival
Optimal use of resources and assets
Site management operations
More efficient response operations
Faster treatment of the situation and
minimization of socioeconomic and
(Adapted from )
For measuring the added value service of SA for emergency response, a 3D cube (see figure 7) is
introduced which bases on: 1) SA levels derived from Endsley’s definition (see ); 2) SA components
of emergency response; 3) emergency response process phases (adapted from ).
Figure 7: 3D cube for measuring Situational Awareness for emergency response.
(Adapted from )
The proposed 3D cube can form the basis for quantitative and qualitative measurement of the value
added service of a COP in supporting emergency response processes between the involved
organizations. The qualitative aspects focus on the economic effects in the sense of reduction of losses
and casualties which may result from a false detection of an incident or disaster. The quantitative aspects
focus more on cooperation, system and information quality [74, 132, 133, 134, 135].
7. Concluding Remarks
Emergencies are unique, dynamic and complex situations where it is virtually impossible to forecast their
evolution. Furthermore, during the emergency response operations several teams coming from different
safety organizations with different backgrounds, cultures and goals have to cooperate in order to
minimize the negative impacts of an emergency in terms of human injuries and casualties, environmental
disruption and economic losses. Nowadays, information systems have become increasingly important in
supporting emergency response tasks which can range from management of routine and small scale
incidents to the more severe and large scale disasters. Nevertheless, information sharing between
different emergency response organizations is still in its infancy. Noteworthy is that one of the primary
factors in accidents attributed to human error is the lack or inadequate information which limits situational
For effective response, flexible information and communication systems which facilitate communication
and coordination not only within but also among the multiple teams involved are required. In this context,
the concept of network centricity which is rooted in the military domain, it can be seen as a vehicle
towards better information sharing which in turn can support faster decision making and enhanced
spatiotemporal organization of resources and assets in the increasingly fluid environment of the
emergency response. In particular, by working in a network centric way, information sharing advantage
can be gained through technology and effective network mechanisms delivered for geographically
dispersed resources and assets. Military battlefield situations can be as chaotic as emergency response
operations and they may require even faster response times. Therefore, the concept of network centricity
can be adapted from the military field and it can be applied for emergency situations tailored to their
specific conditions towards creating a surplus value for the response operations. However, the successful
adoption of such a concept requires its careful introduction in different stages based on a maturity model.
In addition, it requires training of the emergency response stakeholders in order to overcome potential
lack of knowledge.
Network centric information systems facilitate networking of emergency response stakeholders towards
achieving operational effectiveness as well as integration of new information derived from multiple
sources with other knowledge. Furthermore, they enable unobstructed flow of information and knowledge
among the entirety of the emergency response administrative structure. Instead of information passed
vertically within the command chain where it may be lost or even discarded, it is circulated freely among
all the involved emergency response actors. In essence, the information shared for developing a common
operational picture is conveyed to all the parties involved in the operation, the field team and people in the
command post. As a consequence, while officers at the uppermost levels of the involved safety agencies
are aware of the real time conditions at the emergency response site through a common operational
picture, the field personnel can have readily access to tactically relevant information if needed as much as
to this common operational picture, if such may affect their operations. In general, by incorporating the
network enabled capabilities in emergency response, the attributes and flexibility needed by adaptive
management can be facilitated, which as suggested by Wiese  it can be the most effective
management approach to potential disasters.
Data acquisition from multiple sources and dissemination of the collaborative information through network
centric systems contribute to the development of a common operational picture which can support all the
responding units to have the same understanding and awareness (shared situational awareness) of
information and emergency status when conducting operations. Thus, network centric systems and a
common operational picture are basic components to achieve improved situational awareness.
Developing shared situational awareness in the complex and dynamic environment of an emergency, it
can drive to self-synchronization and better coordination of the emergency response stakeholders. As a
consequence, operational risk can be reduced and at the same time the total performance of decision-
makers as well as the speed of operations and responsiveness in the physical domain can be increased
towards improving mission effectiveness.
In the context of emergency response, the criteria which should drive the design of information systems in
order to meet the requirements of the end-users, they go beyond the technological capabilities. Such
information systems must satisfy the information requirements of the emergency response agencies but
also they should support cognitive and psychological capabilities in the information-rich and complex
dynamic environment of emergency situations. In particular, special attention needs to be paid to the
cognitive domain. Humans are limited by working memory and attention. New information from multiple
sources must be integrated with other knowledge. How people direct their attention when acquiring new
information has a fundamental impact on which elements are incorporated in their situational awareness.
Therefore, network centric information systems should be designed to support working memory and
attention which in turn they can assist in addressing information overload. Otherwise, the limits of working
memory can cause constraints on situational awareness (Endsley, 1988b). Furthermore, as not all the
information is relevant to the tasks of all the safety agencies, a comprehensive inventory of which
information is relevant for each safety organization needs to be done towards preventing information
In short, a common operational picture achieved through network centric systems, it can contribute to
create shared situational awareness towards faster normalization of an emergency situation. Hence, it
can be seen as an emergency response tool with an added value not only in effective sharing of
information but also in understanding the real meaning and the temporal value of the required and used
information for the operation, communication and coordination processes. In the cognitive domain,
technology combined with organization, processes and people can provide efficient decision making
behaviors with better actions and effects in the physical domain. This article has shown through an
extensive literature survey from different domains and perspectives that the utilization of a common
operational picture is a promising instrument for smart emergency response. However, more work still
needs to be done towards empirically measuring in a statistical consistent way the added value of
incorporating such systems in emergency response operations. Furthermore, not only training of the
emergency response professionals in a network centric way of thinking and handling of information is
required, but also the institutional and legal implications of utilizing such networks for sharing and
exchanging information between the involved safety organizations have to be addressed.
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