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Study on Emergency Operations: Success Depends on Reliable Networks among Agencies

Press release issued jointly by Freie Universität Berlin and TU Kaiserslautern

№ 067/2017 from Apr 03, 2017

Numerous slip-ups in connection with the investigation against the terrorist attacker Anis Amri are just one indication that cooperation between authorities is not always smooth. In spite of many findings by federal and state authorities in Germany, Amri was able to move around freely in the country. To find out how the police, fire department, and other emergency personnel can better work together, researchers from Berlin, Kaiserslautern, and Tilburg in the Netherlands investigated the deployments and work processes of the fire department in Düsseldorf. They found that in order to ensure a reliable process, good networking and regular exchange between all the parties is important. The findings were published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.

When the police, fire department, German Red Cross, or technical aid organizations cooperate after bomb attacks, extreme storms, or other catastrophes, the participants have to make important decisions in a very short time. Errors in agreements between the authorities of different federal states and those of European countries can have serious consequences.

"From research we know that organizations are well positioned in the event of a crisis. There are usually clear guidelines for action, and everyone knows what to do," says Professor Gordon Müller-Seitz, who does research at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern in the area of strategy, innovation, and cooperation. This type of structure is well studied in individual organizations. In this context experts speak of high reliability. "It is different, however, when they have to work with other partners," says Olivier Berthod, the lead author of the study, who does research on organizational theory at Freie Universität Berlin.

The two researchers, along with their colleagues Professor Jörg Sydow, also from Freie Universität Berlin, and Michael Grothe-Hammer and Jörg Raab, both from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, investigated how this type of collaboration between authorities and other institutions should be carried out in the best case.

Their work focused on the fire department of the city of Düsseldorf, a large German city. Over a two-year period, the researchers interviewed participants and accompanied operations and work processes. Several years ago the Düsseldorf Fire Department had already developed procedures with other authorities and institutions that help it to be well prepared for major events, but also for unexpected catastrophes.

The participating authorities use two different approaches. "For big events such as soccer matches or concerts, they convene a round table where all the players exchange information. Here they can plan the common procedure, but also express concerns, for example," says Müller-Seitz. "The whole thing has an informal character. We refer to is as a supportive control model," says Berthod.

For other large-scale deployments, such as a large fire or the evacuation of a bomb from World War II, the participants use another procedure that researchers refer to as a "defining control model." Berthod explains, "There are clear hierarchical structures, one or two authorities are in charge, and the other participants have an advisory function." In cases such as the discovery of an old bomb, for example, the fire department is in charge. They notify the police as to which streets need to be closed and where residents need to leave their homes. In criminal cases, on the other hand, the police are in charge and determine what procedure to follow.

These two models have proven themselves valuable to the Düsseldorf Fire Department and their partners for years. "Well-established teams work together, and depending on the situation, can change quickly from one mode to another," says Müller-Seitz. In examining these structures more closely, the researchers found that the interaction among the various participants plays a role for the smooth running of large-scale operations. "The social fabric fits. The participants know each other through regular meetings, phone calls, or emails, and they have good networks. That is particularly important in stressful situations," says Berthod.

The researchers recommend that other institutions and authorities should also set up similar structures. "This type of procedure is not common. The example in Düsseldorf, however, shows that different authorities can reliably work together," says Müller-Seitz.

The findings were published in the international leading journal, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: „From High-Reliability Organizations to High-Reliability Networks: The Dynamics of Network Governance in the Face of Emergency”. Olivier Berthod, Michael Grothe-Hammer, Gordon Müller-Seitz, Jörg Raab, Jörg Sydow.


Michael Grothe-Hammer is currently a researcher at Helmut-Schmidt-Universität in Hamburg. At the time of this study, he was working at Freie Universität Berlin.

Queries about the Study:

  • Prof. Dr. Gordon Müller-Seitz, Technische Universität Kaiserslautern, Tel.: 0631 205-5008, Email: gms@wiwi.uni-kl.de 
  • Dr. Olivier Berthod, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-71623, Email: olivier.berthod@fu-berlin.de