Human error modelling in emergency management


This talk will provide a brief introduction to human error modelling – describing a small subset of the many different individual cognitive models as well as more advanced concepts dealing with workload, situation awareness and distributed cognition.

This theoretical overview will then be contrasted with the emergency response to both the 2007 UK floods and also to the Buncefield oil storage depot disaster in 2005. Both incidents revealed significant successes as different agencies worked together in flexible ways to solve problems that had not been envisaged before the contingencies occurred. However, there were also notable failures – especially in communication and coordination both between emergency responders and also with the public.

Technical problems and individual errors of judgement are arguably less important than the insights obtained about ‘systemic’ failures in the interfaces between local government, emergency services and the variety of agencies that must cooperate in major civil contingencies.

In this talk I will argue that

  1. Human error modelling can inform the development of emergency procedures;
  2. Recent work on resilience engineering also forces us to consider successful responses to adverse events;
  3. However, neither of these analytical traditions really accounts for the chaos and complexity of real incidents.

In the future

  1. We need to find better ways to learn about individual and team responses to emergency events;
  2. We need to develop better human error modeling techniques that also account for resilience;
  3. We need to place these approaches within the other organisational and technical demands that characterise high-pressure working environments.