Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology

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Volume 90 Issue 1 (March 2017), Pages 1-128

Offence or defence? Approach and avoid goals in the multi‐agency emergency response to a simulated terrorism attack (pages 51-76)

When operating in multiteam settings, it is important that goals are cohesive between team members, especially in high‐stakes, risky, and uncertain environments. This study explored goal consistency during a multiteam emergency response simulation. A total of n = 50 commanders from the UK Police Services, Fire and Rescue Services, and Ambulance Services took part in a simulated terrorism exercise, who were split into n = 13 teams. Each team responded to the same simulated terrorist event, which was based on a ‘Marauding Terrorist Firearms Attack’ (MTFA) at a city centre train station. Data were collected using electronically time‐stamped ‘decision logs’ and post‐incident questionnaires that measured team members’ self‐reported goals. Goals that were ‘attack’ focussed (e.g., ‘treat patients’) were coded as ‘approach’ (i.e., focussed on achieving positive outcomes) and goals that were ‘defence’ focussed (e.g., protect emergency responders) were coded as ‘avoid’ (i.e., focussed on avoiding negative outcomes). It emerged that different agencies prioritized different goal types; Fire commanders initially prioritized avoid goals but then increased approach orientations, Ambulance commanders were consistently approach oriented, and Police commanders showed goal conflict (tensions between adopting approach and avoid goals). Despite goal differences, participants rated that their interagency goals were consistent in a post‐scenario questionnaire, suggesting that commanders were unaware of the nuanced differences between their agency‐specific objectives. At the multiteam level, teams who predominantly held attack/approach goals were significantly faster at decision logging early in the incident, yet defend/avoid teams were faster at decision logging later into the incident. Implications for multiteam coordination are discussed.

Practitioner points

  • The ‘save life’ goal in multiteam emergency response settings is vague and open to interpretation. This can impede coordination when agencies assume that they are working towards the same ‘save life’ goal, but are actually focussed on different and role‐specific objectives with regard to how they will achieve it.
  • A joint decision model that helps to clarify agency‐specific tactical priorities may be more useful in multiteam contexts than one that uses ambiguous and abstract (i.e., ‘save life’) interagency goals.
  • A focus on achieving positive outcomes (attack/approach goal; e.g., ‘treat patients’) can speed up decision‐making during the early stages of an incident, but when the situation becomes more complex and dynamic, then a focus on avoiding negative outcomes (defend/avoid goal; e.g., protect emergency responders from harm) might lead to faster action.
  • When responding to complex emergencies, practitioners should focus on satisficing to achieve ‘least‐worst’ outcomes rather trying to maximize gains.

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