Understanding the Emergency Services from an Organizational Systems Perspective

Understanding the Emergency Services from an Organizational Systems Perspective

Researchers should begin to analyze the emergency services as a collective system or sector, rather than disparate entities.

The emergency service sector is a complex organizational system that has evolved drastically over the past two centuries (see a network map of the UK emergency service landscape here). Most pre-industrial societies relied on informal, unreliable and disjointed arrangements for maintaining public order, fighting fires and providing rapid medical aid. The great cities of the industrial revolution spurred the more systematic and formal provision of emergency services. With rampant crime, widespread disease and large and frequent fires, urban communities established professional organizations tasked with providing more effective services. The origins of these respective services have largely influenced their evolution, and the way that they are organized to this day.

Contemporary organizational structures of emergency services are highly contextual, reflecting the historical, legal and political evolution of the societies in which they are embedded. Some countries maintain multiple municipal police, fire and ambulance services, with slightly different arrangements for less urbanized areas. Other countries have regional departments, with a different police, fire and ambulance service for every region, state or territory (e.g. Australia, Germany), often aligning with the unitary or federalist systems they serve. As many police, fire and ambulance services developed locally, for the purposes of serving particular cities and towns, it is still common for countries to have many separate departments for each respective locality at either the regional or municipal level. With the growth and agglomeration of cities, a trend has been toward national consolidation of various forces (e.g. Scottish Police Service and Fire Service, Dutch Police). Moreover, while most localities have emergency services that are publically provided, many exist among complex assemblages of public-private partnerships. There are other notable differences between the structure of each respective emergency service organization across countries, which often influence the ways that they work together at the national, regional and local levels.

In the face of budget cuts and overall calls for a more efficient and effective public service, many governments are looking at streamlining emergency service provision through various initiatives. Common examples include shared incident command structures and protocols, co-location, joint-training, joint-procurement, shared back-office functions, co-response and complete organizational consolidation. As we move further into the 21st century, the emergency services must evolve to meet the unique demands of the age. Some notable demands include drastic austerity measures and public sector reform, mass urbanization and urban agglomeration, an increasingly interconnected risk landscape, environmental degradation, rapidly developing ICT, and rising public expectations, among others.

Many of these challenges will require more than just closer cooperation between the services; they will require drastic organizational change. This, in turn, will require a deep understanding of the entire sectoral system and how and why it has evolved over time. Understanding the past will help explain current organizational cultures, norms, values and structures, as perceived both by the organizations themselves, and also by the general public. Understanding other municipal, regional and national arrangements will allow for a more open dialogue in the sector, and facilitate the sharing of notable practices, governance structures and technologies. In order for this to happen however, researchers should begin to analyze the organizations as a collective system or sector, rather than disparate entities.

Figure below: The emergency services landscape in the UK. An interactive version is available too.