ISSN 2603 - 9931
A lot has been discussed about terrorism, counterterrorism, antiterrorism and many other neologisms related to one trending security topic: strategies to fight terrorism as a global threat.
But we can say that terrorism, specially its new jihadist form, based on generating mass casualty incidents during, in many cases, highly complex attacks, constitute one more situation of crisis or emergency where a given public administration must provide a solution to the crisis and a recovery to the damage parts of the system, being those society, infrastructures, etcetera.
Boin et alter say that “A crisis marks a phase of disorder in the development of a person, an organization, a community, an ecosystem (…). Crisis are critical junctures in the lives of systems – times at which their ability to function can no longer be taken for granted.” The given social system “experiences an urgent threat to its basic structures or fundamental values, which harbors many “unknowns” and appears to require a far-reaching response”. This definition comprise three key components: threat, urgency and uncertainty:
Threat: something that potentially may disrupt the core values and features of a social system. The more important the values under threat are, the deeper the sense of crisis. “For example, the acts of terrorism typically hit comparatively few, but instill fear and outrage among many. The death toll may be insignificant in comparison with insidious threats of daily life (…), but it is the very act of terrorism, the timing, location and target, that creates a widely shared sense of threat. Many terror attacks are specifically designed to make people worry not only about what has happened to others (somewhere else), but what might happen to them”.
Urgency. We talk about a crisis when it is marked by urgency, bearing in mind that this concept is also a social construction. People perceive a threat as a clear and present danger that needs to be tackled sooner than later. Time is, therefore, a defining element of a crisis. But perception of urgency is also related to proximity to the crisis, physically and related to the chain of response: “Urgency is more self-evident and non-negotiable, for instance, at the tactical and operational level of disaster management, riot policing, or counterterrorism: incident commanders sometimes have to make life-or-death decisions within minutes or seconds. Leaders at the strategic level of a disaster response rarely experience the same sense of extreme urgency. They rarely have to make split-second decisions”.
Finally, we talk about a crisis when there is a high degree of uncertainty, related itself to the potential consequences of the threat. This prospective conditions too the search for solutions.
Related to all this, Boin et al. introduce too the concept of emergency, as those “crisis that require the rapid application of plans and professional skills; the leadership challenge is to have good plans and professional responders in place”.
In situations of crisis or emergency, citizens expect their leaders to take decisions to mitigate de impact of the crisis and start the recovery process. This doesn’t apply to the institutional echelons, but to leadership in all the response network, although changing the timing -the urgency-. Five critical tasks are developed at this level:
Sense making: gathering information and analyzing it will help crisis managers to early detect an emerging crisis and the significance of it as it develops. What are we facing and how is the impact going to be?
Decision making and coordination. Taking over strategic dilemmas and orchestrating a coherent response to implement those decisions. Obviously, this step needs to be in connection to the previous one. In crises no size-fits-all exists, and responses have to be tailored to each event. Therefore, time is a key element.
Meaning making: providing citizens and responders with a logical, helpful narrative. Why and how the crisis has developed, what might be the impact for citizens, establishing channels of clear communication between the responsible managerial institutions and citizens -users, consumers, victims, etc., and clear explanations of how the crisis is managed and what responses are given to the specific case.
Accounting: explaining what has been done to prevent and manage the crisis. As part of the recovery process, it is mandatory to be clear on goals and identified weaknesses from prevention to consequences management.
Learning: integrating the whole process data from causes to mitigation, in order to prevent future similar incidents.
Crisis are increasingly related to governance. They disrupt a specific order and undermine a specific legitimacy, and they are so varied as lone-wolf terrorist attacks, mass revolts, a hurricane, cyber-attacks or geopolitical powder kegs. “In some cases, the quality of crisis management makes the difference between life and death, chaos and order, breakdown and resilience. When governments and their leaders respond well to a crisis, the damage is limited. When emerging vulnerabilities and threats are adequately assessed and addressed, some potentially devastating contingencies simply do not happen. When crisis management fails, the impact increases” . Crisis management is effective only as an integrated process of emerging crisis early detection, responders understand what is happening, the right people take critical decision, responders are organized and deployed, government is able to communicate with its citizens, and the crisis aftermath is adopted as lessons learned with a clear accountable approach.
If we attend to the response provided to a given crisis, Hilliard defines three variables which determine “crisis typology” based on the effectiveness of response. Intensity is increased when multiple problems are present at the same event; complexity refers to the number of agencies involved in the response, and familiarity refers to the frequency of occurrence of a specific type of incident and thus is connected to experience in the response. Consequently, the low-intensity, low-complexity and high-familiarity crisis are considered the easiest to be dealt with. On the opposite, highly intense, highly complex and low familiarity crisis are seen as extremely difficult to manage[iii]. Probably one of the best examples than we can mention of the second category, based on intensity, complexity and familiarity, are armed incidents with multiple victims.
Let’s see just one example from Moody’s analysis about NIMS and ICS systems (2010) facing attacks as Mumbai or Columbine:
“First responders outside Columbine High could not have known that Harris and Klebold had likely committed suicide even before the first SWAT teams attempted entry. Nevertheless, SWAT teams moved very slowly through the school as they attempted to locate suspects and victims, and to navigate among numerous explosive devices which had been placed throughout the buildings. (…) It would be hours before SWAT teams could reach the library, where many student victims were located. Sanders was not located by SWAT teams for two and a half hours after he was shot; however, confusion and miscommunication between police and fire-medical personnel created an additional delay in completing his medical evacuation from school. After locating Sanders at 2:42 pm., a SWAT team member was assigned to wait with him pending arrival of paramedics; paramedics, however, waited outside the east entrance, expecting the victim to be carried out by police. The result was another 20-30 minutes delay in transporting Sanders to a nearby triage location which had been set up just outside the same east side entrance. Sanders died of his injuries”.
The point of this paragraph is that, even in cases where there is an operating system allegedly in post, to coordinate the different actors responding to a complex incident, in these kinds of situation command and control just fails. Aspects as communications collapse or overconvergence have been dealt with and mitigated in last years with technological evolution. But still one main problem remains: in a situation where there is an active threat -meaning, killing people and increasing the number of victims-, is really there time enough as to set a command and control post and then intervene? Or the main premise should be to intervene in order to save lives, since as the example shows, every minute counts.
Cases as Columbine, Virginia Tech shooting, Mumbai terrorist attacks, Sandy Hook, and lately – and consequently still with a fresh memory in all of us- Bataclan, Las Vegas or Parkland, meant a progressive watershed in the tactical doctrine. From a concept based on isolate-contain-call SWAT, intervention moved towards isolate, contain and if possible, suppress the threat and assist the victims. Obviously SWAT -or their different national equivalents- plays a key role, but the point is to gain time in assisting victims until the SWAT teams arrive. Concepts as IARD and later one MACTAC go in this way. In other words, until the SWAT arrives… it is the task for patrol policemen to contain the threat by intervention: stop the killing so there are no more victims, and assist those ones when possible -bleeding control, extrication to warm/safe zone, etcetera, again, no one-size-fits-all -.
It looks like we have an answer to our problems when managing complex crisis as a mass casualty armed incident. For sure? The answer is clearly no. We don’t have the time to set a command and control post while there is an ongoing, active threat. We have to rely on first responders in the meantime. Columbine and Mumbai are also clear examples of what happens in normal conditions: patrol police officers normally lack the training and the equipment -weapons, protection, etcetera- to overcome a timely planned attack, which in many cases combines different tactics and looks for maximizing the number of victims.
Then, what? In order to rely on these first responders until a multi-agency coordination is possible and ready, the only answer is training. Not closed-quarter training following our own rules and procedures, but multidisciplinary training joining and developing common standard operational procedures common to all the first responders range, and even -as Hartford Consensus remark- involving when possible immediate responders -citizens and private sector, especially private security- in the task. These common knowledge and standardization of protocols may create an operative, acting framework to respond complex armed incidents with multiple victims and to create a window of time which allows both stop the killing and containing the threat while other resources are coordinated from a command and control post and the tactical teams arrive. What is clear is that that gap cannot remain empty, since otherwise it will be filled with more casualties.
Full-exercises have revealed a good tool to start working in this line. They allow to test cooperation, different procedures and the odds of convergence and coordinating the strengths of them, and specially they are extremely useful to detect flaws in the system that, again, in a real case would translate into more casualties. But full-exercises are not “theatre”. They have to go wrong to be useful. They have to be able to detect the failures. Believe us, it is better when injures are latex-made than when blood, and eventually lives, are lost for good. If this premise is forgotten, all the decision making in the world is meaningless.
 Boin, A., ’t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2017). The politics of crisis management. Public leadership under pressure. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 5-9.
 Ibid, 4.
 Hillyard, M. (2000). Public Crisis Management: How and why organizations work together to solve society’s more threatening problems. Bloomington: iUniverse, pp. 250-251.