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“What’s the problem?”—Toward a framework for collective problem representation in emergency response management

Tove Frykmer, PhD candidate


Responding to today’s often transboundary emergencies, frequently characterized by unclear root causes and indistinct responsibilities as well as multiple actors, will require that responding actors come together to meet societal needs and solve problems arising in relation to those needs. In collective problem solving, representing the problem is crucial, especially in emergency situations, where problems are changing and interacting with each other and are difficult to define. There is however a lack of problem representation research in general and in emergency situations specifically. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to emergency response management (ERM) research by investigating this previously unexplored part in two ways. First, a conceptual framework for investigating collective problem representation in ERM is introduced. The framework provides a complementary perspective on how to evaluate the handling of emergencies, at a level of detail that is currently lacking in many ERM evaluations. Second, the framework is used to investigate the process of achieving a collective problem representation in ERM, to provide insights into what facilitates or impedes this process. Based on 21 interviews with ERM professionals, hierarchical structures, relationships, and legislation and regulations are identified as key factors that impact the formation of a collective problem representation. Possible implications, when this process fails, are a risk of suboptimal emergency management and an increased risk of solving the wrong problem right due to misaligned response goals or a lack of comprehensive overview. Also, the risk of a potential mismatch between stipulated and actual collaboration is identified.


problem representation, problem formulation, problem definition, collective, emergency response management

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