Blue Line


March 17, 2016  By Brian Arsenault

Earthquakes. Extreme weather. Transportation accidents. Infrastructure failure. Each can have devastating consequences. Each requires coordinated emergency response. Depending upon the scenario, multiple agencies can be involved during response activities. These organization are often decentralized and autonomous, each specializing in its own area of expertise.

It is not uncommon for paramedics, fire-fighters, law-enforcement, nurses, doctors, transportation safety employees, and public health officials to work side by side during recovery efforts. It is also not uncommon for individuals in these professions to use different vocabularies, communication channels, protocols, and information systems during their efforts.

Despite their differences, working together in a coordinated way is essential to success.

During emergency response, coordination and critical decision making rely upon timely, appropriate, and accurate information. Most researchers agree, however, that information and knowledge sharing during emergency response activities is challenging, particularly as event complexity increases. Issues such as information overload and communication breakdown are regularly cited as critical factors impeding successful emergency response.


Sometimes a lack of information can also be problematic. Knowing how to best communicate with those from other domains is not always clear. Individuals from different backgrounds or areas of expertise have different information needs. Anticipating these needs ahead of time is critical to facilitating information sharing.

Similarly, inter-agency communication also faces challenges due to the diversity of culture, structure, and governance used throughout the participating groups. The chain-of-command structure of military and law-enforcement, for example, may not be well understood by aid organizations that use a more egalitarian structure. This can impact the effectiveness of information shared between two such organizations.

Regardless of the source, challenges impeding effective information sharing can lead to fragmentation and misunderstanding during emergency response efforts, the consequences of which can be deadly.

One often forgotten factor influencing information and knowledge sharing is trust. Though featured prominently in organizational management literature, trust is seldom discussed in that dedicated to emergency management, particularly in relation to its role as an enabler of information sharing.

Put simply, trust is one’s willingness to rely upon another under a condition of risk, that is, where there is potential gain or loss, or where there is something at stake. Research shows that trust among individuals is a determining factor for the efficiency of coordinated action within complex systems.

Trust at the individual level helps to improve organizational performance, and can ultimately influence information exchange across organizational boundaries. Trust is also thought to help manage conflict, improve negotiations, as well as facilitate knowledge and information sharing between organizations.

Homophily, or the tendency for individuals to associate and connect with others that have similar values and beliefs, is closely linked to trust and can similarly influence information sharing behaviours in complex organizations.

Further study is required to understand the influence that trust and homophily have on knowledge and information sharing, particularly between occupation-types that commonly participate in emergency response.

Are individuals more likely to trust those from the same occupation type?

Is the degree to which individuals trust each other dependent upon how often they collaborate with one another?

Are individuals more likely to share information with occupation types that trust?

Are they more likely to receive or use information shared from these occupation?

Are individuals more willing to share with those that have experience with the same emergency types?

Answering these questions will provide a basis for improving information sharing between the various groups participating in emergency response.

Developing a greater understanding of trust at the interpersonal level, specifically as influenced by organizational norms and tendencies, may help support the standardization of emergency management and communication protocols. It may also help overcome issues related to communication breakdown and those due to cultural and structural variations. Recognizing areas where trust is lacking may help identify cooperative, inter-agency training opportunities.

Understanding trust is a critical first step in understanding some of the key information sharing challenges faced during emergency response.


About the author- Brian Arsenault, is a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Brian is currently conducting a research project as part of his Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies. His research addresses issues associated with knowledge sharing across organizational and occupational boundaries. More specifically, it examines relationships between trust, homophily, and knowledge sharing amongst occupation-types that commonly respond to emergencies. In order to evaluate these relationships, Brian is surveying members of organizations that respond to any aspect of emergency or disaster response. Participants will include law-enforcement, military, search and rescue, fire fighters, paramedics, public health officials, doctors, nurses, governments, non-governmental organizations, as well as transportation agencies, public works, and utility companies. Brian would like to invite our community to participate in his online survey. Type in the string here to participate:


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