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Decision making in disaster response

Decision making is one of the key points of success (or failure) in disaster response.

Decision making is one of the key points of success (or failure) in disaster response. It’s also one of the most challenging elements. In this article, we’re going to consider the decisions that need to be made during the early phase of the disaster response, and evaluate them against research findings and models of decision making.

Real-time evaluation reports of recent humanitarian interventions frequently identify that decision making is at the heart of many limitations in the timely and effective delivery of humanitarian action (Murray et al. 2015; Sanderson et al. 2015; Darcy 2016).

Academic research into decision making is extensive across numerous sectors; it’s common in business management, commerce and finance, environmental management, and medical and surgical situations, as well as incident management from a uniformed public service, military, commercial aircrew, and high-risk industrial sites perspective. In fact, almost every sector where risks tend to be great, losses are potentially significant, and uncertainty is high, has extensive research about decision making. In the humanitarian sector, this research has really only started to gain traction in the last few years.

A decision can be viewed as a choice between a number of options (Hobbs, Gordon and Bogart 2012). It usually involves information gathering, reviewing the utility of actions against objectives, and taking a specific course of action. Ortuño et al. (2013) align decision making with problem solving; it requires an awareness of context, and the best course of action emerges as the decision maker’s understanding of the context develops. Ortuño’s perspective has much in common with the naturalistic decision-making and sense-making approach that is widely applied in incident command decision-making literature (Flin 1996).

Increasingly, disaster and emergency response academic literature takes account of the fact that decision making can be a collaborative activity, even in a situation where there is a lead decision maker.

Your task

What is common about the challenges of decision making across sectors that respond to risks and their unfolding impacts? Do some research and discuss this in the comments area.


Darcy, J. (2016) Synthesis of key finds from inter-agency humanitarian evaluations (IAHEs) of the international responses to crises in the Philippines (Typhoon Haiyan), South Sudan and the Central African Republic. [online] New York: Steering Group for Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluations. available from [28 April 2020]

Flin, R. (1996) Sitting in the hot seat: Leaders and teams for critical incident management: leadership for critical incidents. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Hobbs, C., Gordon, M., and Bogart, B. (2012) ‘When business is not as usual: Decisionmaking and the humanitarian response to the famine in South Central Somalia’. Global Food Security, 1 (1), 50-56

Murray, A., Majwa, P., Roberton, T., and Burnham, G. (2015) Report of the real-time evaluation of Ebola Control Programs in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. [online] Geneva: IFRC. available from [28 April 2020]

Ortuño, M. T., Cristóbal, P., Ferrer, J. M., Martín-Campo, F. J., Muñoz, S., Tirado, G., and Vitoriano, B. (2013) ‘Decision aid models and systems for humanitarian logistics: A survey’. in Decision aid models for disaster management and emergencies. ed. by Vitoriano, B., Montero, J., and Ruan, D. Paris: Atlantis Press

Sanderson, D., Rodericks, A., Shrestha, N., and Ramalingam, B. (2015) Nepal earthquake appeal response review. [online] London and Ottawa: Disasters Emergency Committee and Humanitarian Coalition. available from [28 April 2020]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

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