Large-scale disasters--whether induced by human, technological, or natural causes--require society to plan for and respond to substantial disruption. As agents of sometimes profound change, disasters require integrated planning and response at multiple levels: at the social level, their complexity requires coordination through communication; at the behavioral level, time pressure creates the need for rapid decision making about response activities; at the cognitive level, uncertainty and rarity require creative thinking. Historical experience has demonstrated the importance of improvisation--serial creativity executed under time constraint--in responding to disasters, and how skill in improvising may complement skill in plan following. Improvisation is often conceptualized as the joint product of cognition, behavior, and social interaction. This project constitutes the first large-scale study to investigate improvisation at the nexus of cognitive, behavioral, and social phenomena in emergency response. The three main goals of this work are expected to lead to improved scientific understanding of improvisation in emergency response, thereby informing educational and policy initiatives to improve how society plans for, responds to, and learns from disasters.

The first goal is to explain the cognitive, behavioral and social dynamics of improvisation in emergency response. This will be accomplished through an integrated multi-disciplinary analysis of data from two important U.S. disasters: the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK (OKC); and the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, NY (WTC). To provide continuity with prior studies, research questions are first developed for the individual phenomena and then for the links between them, leading to an integrated, event-based model.

The second goal is to present and make publicly available the machine-readable data and tools produced by the research project. The richness, quality and historical importance of the source materials--as well as the data sets to be generated from them--will make them excellent candidates for further analysis.

The third goal is to develop and evaluate tools, techniques, and other materials to support training and policy making regarding improvised response to disaster. This will be accomplished through educational programs for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as practitioners, and through the involvement of an international collaborator in the policy field.

In accomplishing these goals, this project will develop, implement, and evaluate a multi-level, multi-disciplinary model of improvisation during emergency response. By synthesizing theory and analytic techniques from a wide variety of fields, this work will lead to knowledge at their intersection, thus addressing the need for cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of human response to disaster. The theoretical advances resulting from this research will be translated into implications for training and policy, and will benefit from the inclusion of an international perspective.

Finally, this work will provide guidance on how data sources such as those used here may be incorporated into the design of tools to support society in planning for, managing, and learning from human responses to disaster.

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
United States
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