Critical incidents (terrorist attacks, serious crime investigations, disasters) are extreme environments characterised by time pressure, risk, and uncertainty, posing threat to life, health, and the economy. The past decade has seen an increase in terrorist attacks, conflict, and natural disasters, and these incidents are predicted to continue rising in line with environmental and climate change.
In contrast, resources available for law enforcement, emergency services, and other public services have continued to decrease, placing these agencies under pressure to do more with less. It is crucial for these agencies to have suitable evidence bases to draw on to inform the allocation of finite resources and to determine how these resources can be best used in practice to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from critical incidents.
Professor Laurence Alison, Dr Sara Waring, and Dr Michael Humann have been working in partnership with law enforcement, defence, emergency, and security services in the UK and internationally for more than 20 years. They take a unique field-based approach, studying human processes in critical incidents to identify what works in practice within the extreme environments these agencies operate. Interviewing and decision-making form two offshoots of this body of work.
They analysed the largest sample of police interviews with terrorist suspects in the world to identify what interviewing strategies increase access to evidentially useful information and life-saving intelligence to prevent attacks and inform emergency response decisions to mitigate their impact. Their findings show the importance of rapport-based interviewing methods for securing suspect engagement and life-saving intelligence.
Three decades of public inquiries have repeatedly identified problems with decision-making in critical incidents. Their work has focused on identifying what these decision problems are and the underlying causes. Their findings show that key problems include failures to make decisions fast enough or at all (delay and inertia), resulting in delayed actions that impact public safety. They also developed robust methods for measuring the underlying causes of delay and inertia in situ within the extreme environments that emergency responders work in and identify strategies for overcoming these difficulties.
Research by Alison, Waring and Human has significantly impacted service delivery across law enforcement, defence, emergency, and security services in the UK, Europe, and USA in relation to critical incident management. Their reach spans several diverse areas, including terrorism, criminal investigations, public order and disaster response. It has led to new interview, decision support and evaluation tools, educational practices, training and guidelines, resulting in prevention of harm though improved access to life saving intelligence and critical incident preparedness.
For example, their work on interviewing was used to develop the Observation of Rapport-Based Interview Techniques (ORBIT) tool, a novel rapport-based framework that helps interviewers to understand, monitor and improve their adaptive rapport-based interviewing practices and minimise maladaptive interviewing practices. ORBIT is the pinnacle of the UK National police counter terrorism interview training programme and has been used since 2013 to train the elite UK police interviewers responsible for dealing with the highest levels of terrorist threat. ORBIT is also central to the USA national High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group training, with specialist FBI, CIA, and DoD agents responsible for investigating terrorist threats being trained in ORBIT. It has been used directly in several live cases to assist in the prevention, mitigation of risk and securing of public safety.
In addition, their findings on decision making have been used to inform professional development, including:
i) educational practices to increase experiential scenario-based learning
ii) training to improve use of goal-oriented strategies to overcome decision delay and inertia
iii) exercise scenarios to increase combined service exposure
iv) evaluation tools to monitor performance, which have been implemented across various law enforcement and emergency services in the UK and internationally.
In addition, their work has informed national fire and rescue service command guidance, providing the underpinning evidence that shapes the national fire decision model and understanding of goal-oriented strategies for addressing delay and inertia contained within National Operational Guidance. It has also informed CEPOL’s (European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training) Pan-European Football Security Training Programme, delivered to over 270 specialist officers responsible for leading football crowd management across Europe in Prague (2014), Paris (EURO 2016), Sofia (2017), Lyon (2018) and Vienna (2020). They have also developed multi-agency experiential scenarios and standardised evaluation tools that have improved emergency responders’ abilities to test and assess their policies, procedures, and behaviours in response to high-threat incidents to strengthen emergency preparedness.
We are privileged to work with and see first-hand the vital work that law enforcement, emergency, defence, and security services do to keep the public safe in very challenging environments. It is a source of pride that our research in psychology at the University of Liverpool has and continues to make a unique and substantial contribution to supporting these agencies with preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from critical incidents.Dr Sara Waring
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