Crisis Management in Hindsight: Cognition, Communication, Coordination, and Control


Louise K. Comfort is a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches public policy analysis, information policy, organizational theory, and policy design and implementation. Her principal research interests are decision making under conditions of uncertainty. She has been the principal investigator on the Interactive, Intelligent, Spatial Information System Project since 1994.


This article argues that cognition is central to performance in emergency management. Cognition is defined as the capacity to recognize the degree of emerging risk to which a community is exposed and to act on that information. Using the case of Hurricane Katrina to illustrate the collapse of the standard model of emergency management without a clear focus on the role of cognition, the author reframes the concept of intergovernmental crisis management as a complex, adaptive system. That is, the system needs to adjust and adapt its performance to fit the demands of an ever-changing physical, engineered, and social environment. The terms of cognition, communication, coordination, and control are redefined in ways that fit the reality of practice in extreme events. A reframed intergovernmental crisis management system may be conceived as a dynamic interorganizational system that is characterized by four primary decision points: (1) detection of risk, (2) recognition and interpretation of risk for the immediate context, (3) communication of risk to multiple organizations in a wider region, and (4) self-organization and mobilization of a collective, community response system to reduce risk and respond to danger.