Rapid Response


Prince George’s County Police Department Officers in a training exercise simulating a school shooting.

by Ben Anderson

Media reports suggest the first call to emergency services was made at 12.39am. Within 90 seconds, the parking lot of the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, USA was filled with around 25 police, later increasing to approximately 250 [1]. Activated through ‘rapid response’ procedures set up in the wake of the Columbine shooting in 1999 and other more recent mass urban shootings, police at the scene apprehended a suspect sometime between 12.45 and 12.50. Meanwhile, local hospitals had been alerted to what was categorised as a ‘mass casualty event’ and subsequently initiated their ‘disaster protocols’ to bring in extra staff, marshal resources and prepare critical equipment. One of the hospitals to which some of the victims were taken – The University of Colorado Hospital – had previously undertaken monthly drills to test the protocols they activated on the 20th  of July.

After the events of September 11th 2001 and the advent of the ‘war on terror’, there has been much emphasis on how Governments respond to emergencies through some form of exceptional action. Taking its cue from Giorgio Agamben’s (1995) analysis of the constitutive role of the state of exception in democratic politics and Western culture, work has detailed how democratic life has been suspended as a ‘state of emergency’ is declared. In the US context, the prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay and the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina became paradigmatic sites; warnings of how some lives can be damaged or abandoned in emergency times. The constitutional scholar Clinton Rossiter’s chilling words from 1948 functioning as a reminder of the paradox of suspending democracy in the name of, supposedly, saving some kind of valued liberal-democratic way of life: “No sacrifice is too great for our democracy, least of all the temporary sacrifice of democracy itself” ( Agamben 2005: 9).

In the response to the Aurora shooting of July 20th 2012, a different type of action was taken to stop an event becoming a disaster: rapid response. It’s a form of action that has come to replace other ways of governing emergencies. As with the declaration of a ‘state of emergency’, the response taken to stop the event was exceptional, in the sense of being out of the ordinary. Emergency protocols were activated for what was named a ‘major incident’ or ‘mass casualty event’. What was exceptional was not the suspension of normal democratic rights but the speed of response to a situation where life and death were at stake, a situation where a disaster was emerging and timely action by responders was demanded. Yet at the same time that action had been made routine through the setting up of protocols for emergencies and through the incessant rehearsal of those protocols. Since what are categorised as ‘mass shooting events’ became a routine feature of American urban life,  Police departments throughout the US have undertaken numerous drills and exercises to rehearse how to respond to a mass shooting. Normal life in American cities is occasionally interrupted by mock mass shooting events where protocols designed to automate response are developed, validated and learned. Planned for months beforehand, Prince George’s county police department, for example, exercised their response to a mass shooting event just days after the Aurora shooting. Based on a scenario centred on a lone gunman and involving people ‘playing’ pretend victims alongside a range of ‘first responders’, a group of organisations came together to test how ‘rapid response’ protocols would function in the event of an event.

Over ten years since the advent of the war on terror it is no longer the ‘state of emergency’ that dominates modern government’s response to emergencies. Organising for rapid response now occurs across all domains of life at a time when disparate events and conditions are grouped under the category of emergency. Faced with a world in which emergencies seem to erupt anywhere and at anytime, organisations must be ever ready to respond in an emergency. In addition to broad categories of events such as ‘mass casualty events’, we find the idea of rapid response in relation to multiple emergencies; in rapid response mapping that anticipates and tracks emerging infectious disease events, such as Swine Flu; in social work teams primed for early intervention in the ordinary crises of daily life; in rapid response Urban Search and Rescue Teams set up to enter disasters zones; or in the Rapid Response Facilities set up to provide ‘rapid mobilisation funding’ to humanitarian organisations in response to a ‘rapid onset disaster’. At a time when welfare is becoming a matter of emergency relief, we also find ‘rapid response’ in relation to the provision of food or finance or shelter to those in times of personnel crisis. Scaling up, the imperative to respond rapidly is behind the range of emergency measures (Emergency Stabilisations Funds and so on) designed to inject liquidity into the global financial system in the midst of the current Financial crisis.

What is shared across these diverse manifestations of rapid response is a shared presumption that emergency is a particular type of situation that might be brought about suddenly and unexpectedly to disrupt normal life. Normal life is temporarily suspended by an event in an emergency. Etymologically derived from the Latin emergere, our current use of the word ‘emergency’ retains the sense of something emerging unexpectedly, even if it now used to describe a particular type of situation. Outcomes are uncertain as normal life is disrupted and disordered. But outcomes are also consequential. Use of the term emergency by government or other organisations signals that something valued is being placed in danger, and that some form of action is demanded. Life is tensed at a threshold in an emergency: between a return to normality, even if it is a normal life always on the verge of emergency, and a descent into a disaster that threatens to destroy something valued.

To ensure that an emergency situation does not cross a threshold and become a disaster, an emergency must be met as it emerges. Rapid response is, then, an attempt to reduce the gap between the onset of an emergency and the beginning of action to stop the emergency, or at least mitigate its effects. It becomes a paradigm for governing emergencies once it is expected that preventative activities will fail and that events, of one type or another, will suddenly erupt from within normal life. In short, the imperative to respond rapidly is inseparable from an expectation that periodic disruptions to normality are a normal part of life in liberal democracies. What rapid response shares with the deployment of ‘emergency powers’ by Western Governments is a sense that emergencies demand urgent action without the luxury of slow processes of debate or deliberation (Scarry 2010). Often occurring alongside various early-warning systems that can scan the present for traces of emergencies as they unfold, rapid response involves setting up a potential network of organisations that exist in a constant state of readiness for events to happen. Like a hospital’s ‘disaster protocols’ stored in a nurse’s station or a Police Force’s ‘mass shooting protocols’ housed in a mobile command and control vehicle, rapid response systems are designed to snap into occurrence automatically once an event has occurred and when there is supposedly no time for thought.

If rapid response has replaced the ‘state of emergency’ as the dominant paradigm for governing emergencies, how might those of us concerned with enhancing democratic life respond to rapid response? The critique of ‘state of emergency’ legislation is now a familiar one: in an emergency Government power is extended and liberal democracies reveal their authoritarianism. Unlike ‘state of emergency’ legislation, rapid response does not usually simply involve some form of temporary ‘suspension’ of normal rights. Quite the opposite: rapid response is the automation of exceptional but constitutional action through flexible, intersecting, protocols that govern how things should be done in response. Whilst the role of ‘state of emergency’ legislation in liberal democracies has been subject to considerable scrutiny in the post 9/11 world, there has been very little if any public reflection on the protocols that facilitate response (the only exception being post disaster inquiries and reports). This needs to change. For emergencies, and the response to emergencies, are a key occasion when lives are valued or devalued and democratic life, such as it functions today, is placed in question. How, then, can the protocols through which ‘rapid response’ is organised be opened up to public negotiation and contestation in advance of an emergency? How can we go slow in a world where rapid response to emergencies seems to be demanded?

One occasion where response might be opened up to contestation are the numerous drills and exercises through which protocols are developed. The development of ‘rapid response’ has been accompanied by a constant effort to anticipate whether response will be rapid enough to meet the endless array of disruptive events that may emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. The fear is that response might be too late. Belatedness meaning that an emergency may spiral out of control. To ensure response is timely, Governments and other organisations are continually rehearsing ways in which emergencies might emerge and be brought to an end. Perhaps it is in a time ahead of actual events, as the protocols that promise to automate response are themselves in process, that we might explore how liberal democracies should respond to emergency? Perhaps by focusing on the rehearsal of response we can scrutinise how decisions to respond are made and anticipate how democratic habits and practices might be activated in emergency situations. Opening up systems of rapid response to scrutiny is necessary at a time when rapid response has become the paradigm for governing emergencies in liberal democracies.


Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scarry, E. (2010) Thinking in an Emergency. W. W Norton and Company. New York. London.


[1] Horwitz, S. (July 20, 2012) Police say Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes had 2 pistols, assault rifle, shotgun’ The Washington Post. Retrieved July 26, 2012.

About the Author:

Dr Ben Anderson is a Reader in Human Geography in the Department of Geography, Durham University, UK. Alongside a longstanding interest in the implications of recent theories of affect and emotion for the social sciences, his current research focuses on how Western liberal democratic societies plan for a range of disruptive events in a world of interdependencies and circulations. Central to this work is an emphasis on how life in the early 21st century is governed through the idea of ‘emergency’.