Adaptive Standard Operating Procedures for Complex Disasters

Shawn Harwood


The nature of disasters has evolved, but emergency management has not kept pace with the change. Today’s crisis environment is subject to countless influences—a product of our globalized, complex society—which produce random and volatile events. Despite the unpredictability of modern disasters, the Homeland Security Enterprise still adheres to prediction-dependent standard operating procedures (SOPs) to guide emergency response. As a result, police, firefighters, and other crisis professionals are less able to manage complex crises.


Professional crisis responders perform their duties using four essential tools: professional training, job-specific technology, accumulated work experience, and SOPs.[1] The SOP anticipates the operating environment and provides a checklist of recommended actions to accomplish an objective. Sociologists Charles Parker and Eric Stern claim, “SOPs are based on past experience and expectation.”[2] As long as the actual event adheres to the prediction, personnel can rely on the SOP to impart relevant guidance. However, when reality diverges from the anticipated scenario, SOP guidance becomes less useful.

Beginning in the late twentieth century, the global community experienced tremendous improvements in telecommunications and information sharing, allowing agents within this worldwide system to interact with and exert unprecedented influence on each other. This significant increase in connectivity and feedback intensified the complexity of many social systems. Sociologists David Snowden and Mary Boone describe complexity as the behavior of large numbers of agents dynamically reacting to and influencing each other within a bounded system.[3] One of the essential characteristics of complexity is that behavioral outcomes often prove non-intuitive and difficult to predict. Modern disasters can also demonstrate complex characteristics, erupting quickly and evolving in unexpected ways.

Modern crises often demonstrate the prediction-defiant characteristics of complexity. To examine these unpredictable characteristics and assess the utility of SOP-driven crisis response vis-à-vis adaptive behavior, this thesis explores three modern crises that demonstrated complex characteristics: the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the Tohoku Tsunami/Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear incident. Each of these events exhibited complex characteristics and affords the opportunity to assess both SOP-driven and adaptive responses.

The case studies consistently showed that SOPs provided inadequate guidance in these crises while adaptive approaches would have been more effective in the complex environments in which the crises occurred. When the actual disasters deviated from the prediction, emergency responders found themselves adhering to irrelevant procedures. For instance, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) attempted to follow a hijacking SOP, its officers failed to recognize that the event had become a terror attack. Alternatively, the U.S. Coast Guard successfully supported the maritime evacuation of Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks by consciously departing from SOP guidance. While instances of adaptable behavior did not significantly mitigate these crises, they serve to illustrate the advantages of adaptive behavior approaches over rote, SOP-driven responses in the complex environment.


The fundamental weakness in SOP guidance for complex crises is its static approach to a variable environment. To mitigate this vulnerability, SOP-driven crisis response must pivot to embrace an adaptive posture. Toward that end, the thesis recommends two methods to integrate adaptability into SOP-driven crisis response. These proposals make use of contemporary research into complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory and a practical application of the Socratic method to the emergency response paradigm.

Louise Comfort et al. describe the essential nature of CAS as “the spontaneous reallocation of energy and action to achieve a collective goal in a changing environment.”[4] Essentially, CAS describes the adaptive behavior that agents must demonstrate to achieve their objectives within a complex system. The ability to engage in flexible, dynamic responses to unexpected deviations is necessary, particularly when navigating the hazardous environment of a complex disaster. Similarly, Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion, and Bill McKelvey contend that emergency responders must function as a CAS, following a course dictated by a dynamic interaction with the environment rather than by bureaucratic protocols.[5]

The Socratic method is a particularly relevant tool for emergency response in a complex crisis as it promotes an active search for knowledge to achieve comprehension. Its emphasis on challenging assumptions and re-evaluating a problem prepares emergency responders to expect an evolving scenario. Therefore, it is an ideal foundation to develop a dynamic process for succeeding in a complex environment.

The first proposal is the incorporation of adaptability prompts into pre-existing crisis SOPs. Based on the Socratic method, these prompts urge emergency responders to challenge their assumptions about the crisis event and continually seek a better way to achieve their objectives. These instructional steps help identify unanticipated events or behaviors in the field and adjust the crisis response plans accordingly. The proposal of adaptability prompts is a simple upgrade to pre-existing SOPs that urges awareness of complexity and promotes adaptive behavior.

Patrick Lagadec and Benjamin Topper recommend the provision of cognitive assistance during an emergency.[6] Their analysis suggests that leading emergency response actions in the field while constantly evaluating the crisis environment is a task that may exceed the capacity of a single crisis professional. To accommodate this dilemma, the second proposal recommends the creation of a crisis co-pilot, an ad hoc advisor who helps the lead emergency responder identify any divergence from predicted behavior and encourages adaptation in the field. Essentially, the crisis co-pilot assists the lead emergency responder in adhering to the Socratic tenets recommended by the adaptability prompts, reminding him to challenge initial expectations in the crisis scenario and adapt the operational plan to accommodate the unexpected.


A multi-agent computer simulation is a framework for approximating human decisions within a virtual system to identify the best means for a desired outcome. The computer simulation cannot represent every nuance in human behavior or unpredicted influences in a complex system, so experimental conclusions appear as “if/then” statements rather than concrete assertions. While these results are only hypothetical, they can effectively promote or denigrate a policy proposal by quantifying and depicting its potential value. To illustrate the potential benefit of the adaptive design proposals, the thesis presents a computer simulation based on the FAA response on the morning of September 11th.

The simulation experiment approximated the hypothetical value of the adaptive design proposals by incrementally increasing the FAA’s ability to detect the first hijacked airliner on 9/11 as a threat. The goal of this experiment—the point at which the adaptive design proposals achieve a meaningful improvement in the scenario outcome—was to prompt the order to launch alert fighters in time to intercept the second hijacked airliner before it struck the World Trade Center. The outcome of the experiment suggests that if the adaptive design proposals yielded a 25 percent improvement in FAA threat detection, the fighters could have intercepted the second airliner. These results, therefore, may be more broadly construed to indicate that the adaptive design proposals could yield a significant benefit to the field of crisis response.


While ineffective SOPs do not presuppose the failure of emergency responders in every complex event—the quality of their experience and technology arguably overshadows the shortfalls of these static guidelines—they remain a flawed yet fixable problem within the emergency response field. As such, this thesis proposed two executable methods to integrate adaptability into SOP-driven emergency response. By incorporating adaptability prompts into crisis SOPs and instituting the role of a crisis co-pilot, response agencies can more effectively manage complex emergencies. Further, by implementing these steps to integrate adaptability into standardized emergency response, crisis professionals can better manage complex disasters and, in doing so, better protect their communities.



[1] The author bases this statement on 18 years of experience in federal law enforcement as both a criminal investigator and an emergency medical technician.

[2] Charles F. Parker and Eric K. Stern, “Blindsided? September 11 and the Origins of Strategic Surprise,” Political Psychology 23, no. 3 (2002): 615, doi: 10.111/0162-895X.00300.

[3] David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review 85, no. 11 (2007).

[4] Louise K. Comfort et al., “Complex Systems in Crisis: Anticipation and Resilience in Dynamic Environments,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 9, no. 3 (2001): 146.

[5] Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion, and Bill McKelvey, “Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting Leadership from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Era,” The Leadership Quarterly 18, no. 4 (2007).

[6] Patrick Lagadec and Benjamin Topper, “How Crises Model the Modern World,” Journal of Risk Analysis and Crisis Response 2, no. 1 (2012): 28.

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