Why are Norwegian police so slow to respond to emergencies?

Police were already under fire for their slow response during Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 attacks. And it took them more than an hour to arrive at the scene of Monday's bus hijacking.

Cornelius Poppe/NTB Scanpix/AP
A bus sits on the side of the road after it has been hijacked in Årdal, western Norway, early Tuesday. Police are under fire for taking an hour to reach the scene, where a knife-wielding man hijacked the bus and killed the driver and two passengers.

This week's bus massacre in Norway has unleashed a debate into why the country still appears unprepared to handle serious emergencies – two years after the unprecedented terrorist attack that killed 77.

Local police in western Norway have been criticized for taking more than an hour to arrive at an express bus near Årdal that was hijacked Monday by a 30-year-old asylum seeker from South Sudan. The man, who was set to be deported the next morning, fatally stabbed all three on board.

Ronny Iden, police chief for the Sogn and Fjordane district in which the attack took place, defended the police's decision to drive an 89-kilometer (55-mile) route to the scene, rather than a 57-kilometer (35-mile) one, which police believed was closed for construction. The ambulance and fire department took the shorter route and arrived first, though emergency services have also admitted that they waited 14 minutes before alerting police.

The delayed response has prompted criticism of the Norwegian police, which suffered similar questions after taking more than an hour to arrive at the massacre on the island of Utøya in 2011. Norwegian extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 people in a shooting spree at the Labor party’s youth camp, mostly teenagers, while police struggled to reach the island. The other eight people were killed in a bombing in the capital Oslo before the camp attack.

“It’s clear that this was a long response time,” Årdal Mayor Arild Ingar Lærgried told Norwegian TV2 shortly after Monday's attack. “When the firemen and ambulance personnel are the first ones that come, it is alarming.”

The Norwegian Police Directorate has called for an investigation into the way police handled the situation, but did not criticize the officers directly for their decisions. Early reports suggested the bus had only been involved in an accident.

Still, the inquiry has sparked a debate that could lead to a set time limit for police responses. According to a police directorate report last month, police response varies from 21 minutes in heavily populated urban areas to as much as 43.5 minutes in more rural towns.

Currently, only fire fighters have certain response-time requirements for special situations, such as historical wooden houses and hospitals, says Anne Rygh-Pedersen, section leader for fire and rescue at the Directorate for Civil Protection. Ambulance services have guidelines for response, but not concrete demands.

The police directorate announced Wednesday that it would require officers to measure their response time starting next year, with the possibility of having a set limit by 2015. The times would take into account population coverage and the severity of the situation, but could not guarantee against tragedy.

“Regardless of how we organize Norwegian police and which demands we put on response time, there will always come situations where we come too late to save lives,” said Odd Reidar Humlegård, Norway's police commissioner.

The bus attacks also called into question plans to cut the number of police districts from 27 to six, part of a comprehensive reform in the wake of Breivik’s terrorist attacks. The change is meant to make districts better equipped to handle larger and more serious incidents and more effective overall. Critics worry that it could negatively affect the level of police service in rural areas.

Opposition Centre party member Liv Signe Navarsete was among several politicians that grilled the prime minister on the topic during the parliamentary session on Wednesday. And Finn Abrahamsen, a former Oslo police chief, expressed similar concerns earlier this week, telling Norwegian TV 2 that this week’s bus massacre was a “warning” to politicians against the redistricting.

The police directorate says a majority of police chiefs support the plan.

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