In the summer of 2018 I received the wonderful news from our national scientific funding agency NWO (the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) that my Veni grant was awarded. This allows me the opportunity to fulfil my research ambitions in the coming four years. The Veni grant programme is part of NWO’s Talent Scheme. NWO seeks to provide opportunities for scientific creativity and unrestrained science. By encouraging innovative research, new lines of research arise that sometimes lead to surprising and even groundbreaking results. Therefore, NWO provides funds for curiosity driven research and talented scientists.

Veni is aimed at excellent researchers who have recently obtained their doctorate. Researchers in the Talent Scheme are free to submit their own subject for funding. NWO selects researchers based on the quality of the researcher, the innovative character of the research, the expected scientific impact of the research proposal and the possibilities for knowledge use. In this year’s round a total of 1,115 researchers submitted an admissible research proposal for funding. 154 of these have now been granted. That comes down to an award rate of 14%.

The Veni project is also an important impulse for our Crisis Research Center at Leiden University. In that spirit they devoted a press release to communicate the news to our academic and professional community.

When duty calls: confronting fragmentation in crisis management

In the Veni project, I will focus on how frontline commanders can deal with the problem of fragmentation during crisis response operations. Fragmentation –the breakdown of collaborative action and sensemaking– is one of the toughest and least understood organisational problems in crisis management. Currently, the focus in crisis management lies on preventing fragmentation by investing in incident command structures, procedures, and systems. However, as I claim in my Veni proposal, fragmentation cannot be prevented during a crisis. So the solution does not lie in prevention, but in mitigation. How can crisis managers deal with fragmentation and what command tactics are effective?

I will answer these questions in three consecutive research projects by combining different methodological approaches. First, I will study the command tactics used in the counter-terrorism operations in London, Manchester, and Brussels. I will interview involved commanders, and study incident after-action reports. Second, I will observe Dutch crisis management operations of the police and fire department in real-time to study why and when commanders adapt their command tactics. Third, I will perform virtual reality experiments with help of the Police Academy and the Fire Academy to test what command tactics are effective in which situation.

The research findings from these projects will be directly applied into the training curricula of the Police Academy and the Fire Academy. To support this valorization process, the Police Academy and Fire Academy have collectively supported the project with €100.000. As such, this Veni project has a large potential to improve the crisis management capacity of the Dutch Emergency Management services.

Reviewer’s comments

A crucial part of the Veni procedure is the blind review process by experts, in my case, in the field of crisis management. They inform the grant committee that will make the eventual decision. I received two very positive reviews that definitely helped to convince the committee. While I do not know who the reviewers are (as the procedure is blind), I would like to thank them for their effort and support for my project.

The problem of fragmentation cuts to the heart of crisis management. Jeroen rightly notes that are many perspectives on this question. Unfortunately, these perspectives are rarely supported by empirical research (more by normative assumptions). Not surprisingly, the perspectives often clash. Jeroen proposes to rise above this debate, by empirically investigating effects of fragmentation (in terms of effectiveness) and the role crisis leaders can play to manage fragmentation. This is for sure both original and challenging. If he pulls it off, we will have a much more solid and empirically theoretical framework for the study of crisis management. This would be a great accomplishment (and a signature accomplishment for such a young scholar). The problem deserves to be studied.

This proposal is innovative in many ways. The interdisciplinary approach to crisis management, the focus on fragmentation, the link to resilience, the collaboration with crisis management practitioners, and the use of experiments (including virtual reality) give this project a truly innovative (and quite exciting) character. Jeroen tries to envision how breakthroughs can be achieved. Theoretically, the formulation of an empirically informed and validated framework would be such a breakthrough.

The applicant has demonstrated academic excellence by his awarded PhD thesis and by publications in international peer reviewed journals indicating that he has an outstanding talent for academic research. The proposed research has an originality and innovativeness that has a high potential for great academic impacts. The proposed methodology is very promising. The potential for knowledge utilization to practitioners is very good enhanced by close involvement and collaboration with practitioners in the project. Particularly, organizations in the field of crisis management and societal security might benefit from the research. The potential for implementation and transferring the findings to the world of practice is good due to a detailed plan for knowledge utilization.

Project abstract

Europe’s emergency services are increasingly confronted with sudden-onset crises, as headlines continue to remind us of terrorist attacks, extreme fires, and flash floods. Responding to sudden-onset crises typically generates fragmentation, as the crisis is characterized by an instant and rapidly escalating threat to the core functions of a society. Fragmentation –the breakdown of collaborative action and sensemaking– is one of the toughest and least understood organizational problems in crisis management.

For scientists and emergency services fragmentation is still an unresolved problem in crisis management, because research findings about the effects of fragmentation are inconsistent. Whereas the majority of studies in crisis management point to the negative effects of miscommunication and disruption, studies of organizational resilience claim fragmentation enhances flexibility and adaptation. To innovate the field of crisis management research, I build theory that connects these divergent perspectives. Based on a unique framework for managing fragmentation I will designate how crisis managers can adapt by switching between different command tactics to manage fragmentation in different stages of a crisis. Hereby, I systematically connect debates on resilience and crisis management by pinpointing the conditions in which fragmentation can be functional or dysfunctional.

I use a mixed-methods design across three consecutive sub-projects to validate the framework. First, I will reconstruct the different command tactics used in Europe’scounter-terrorism operations. Second, I will observe how Dutch frontline commanders switch between tactics in different types of sudden-onset crises. Third, I will use quasi- experiments in a controlled training setting to test which command tactics are functional or dysfunctional for managing fragmentation. During the project, I will closely collaborate with the Police Academy and Fire Academy to embed my state-of-the-art research findings into their curriculum. Therefore, this research has a unique potential to improve the way crisis managers deal with fragmentation in crisis situations.