Disaster responseMore effective response to unpredictable disasters

Published 13 March 2017

When the unthinkable happens and the unpredictable takes over, crises cannot be handled by the book. Traditional emergency work emphasizes fixed procedures and strong leadership, as is typically exemplified by the police force. This approach works in most emergency situations – but not when the unthinkable happens. Evaluations of past events show that the scale of many disasters could have been reduced if local decision-making power had been greater — that is, if the part of the team that was closest to the situation had been involved in a different way.

When the unthinkable happens and the unpredictable takes over, crises cannot be handled by the book. What should the police have actually done during the 2011 attack on the Norwegian island of Utøya?

22 July 2011: A terrorist attack in the government quarter has crippled Oslo, and reports of shooting on the island of Utøya are coming in. Desperate youths have already started swimming, and many of them are picked up by individuals in small boats.

The first police patrol arrives at the Utvika ferry dock opposite the island forty-four minutes after the perpetrator landed on the island.

The patrol has been ordered to observe, and decides to wait for the emergency squad that they believe to be heading in by helicopter. But Police officers only arrive on Utøya thirty-three minutes later. At least twenty people are killed during the last quarter hour of the massacre on the island. All told, the attack by Anders Behring Breivik on Utøya and the government quarter killed seventy-seven people, and was the deadliest attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War.

Should police have violated the order?
Police received sharp criticism in the 22 July Commission report, which came out a year after the terrorist attacks. According to the Commission, the police officers who first arrived at Utvika should have immediately acted on their own, despite the fact that they had been ordered to observe what was happening.

“Police were strongly criticized in the report, but according to their existing procedures they actually did everything correctly,” says NTNU associate professor Endre Sjøvold at the Department of Industrial Economics and Technology Management.

“In retrospect,” he says, “we can see that maybe the police should allow their operational units greater autonomy in complex situations like this.”

SINTEF says that Sjøvold has researched team dynamics and group processes for several decades, and over the past three years he has led the Innovative Teams project, which deals with managing operational situations where uncertainty predominates, and where the consequences could be great if something fails. He stresses that he has not studied the police conduct in the 2011 Norway attacks, but those attacks are good examples of issues that the project concerns itself with.