The Grenfell tragedy clearly demonstrates the importance of preparing for emergencies and developing the capability to respond quickly and effectively.
This applies to all emergency services and organisations, which includes local authorities, with key responsibilities for individuals affected.
This is a legal requirement under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. This act and associated regulations set out duties for organisations who have civil protection roles at the local level. They are deemed by law as ‘Category 1 Responders’, which includes local authorities.
The round of cutbacks on council emergency planning units has seen once-strong cadres decimated but that does not discharge councils of their legal duties.
Under the act and its guidance, councils must:
- Assess the risk of emergencies to inform their contingency planning
- Put in place emergency plans
- Put in place business continuity management arrangements
- Put in place and maintain arrangements to warn, inform and advise the public in the event of an emergency
- Share information with key partners
- Cooperate with specified others
- Provide advice and assistance to businesses and voluntary organisations about business continuity management – this duty is reserved for councils only.
The law requires emergency plans to include arrangements to provide training for staff and to carry out exercises. Councils must know their role, be competent to carry out tasks, have access to resources and facilities, and have confidence that their partners from other organisations are prepared.
The council response to an emergency includes providing humanitarian support for those affected and keeping the public informed of what is happening in accordance.
The humanitarian support expectations are well documented in guidance, and the National Occupational Standards for Civil Contingencies. The most recent government guidance is contained in Human Aspects in Emergency Management, guidance on supporting individuals affected by emergencies, published by the Cabinet Office in October 2016.
It describes the type of emergency centres that should be established, including a humanitarian assistance centre, which is a ‘one-stop-shop’ established during the first 72 hours of an emergency to cater for the medium and longer-term needs of individuals affected by the emergency. Usually, directors of adult social services would be expected to play a key role in the social care aspects.
Emergency planning is concerned more with consequences than the causes of emergencies. It is not easy, but proper planning, training and exercising will go some way to reducing the initial chaos and uncertainty that will be inevitable. The challenge for the authorities is to get a grip from the start and gradually take control. This requires sound leadership.
Emergency plans are normally drawn up to provide a framework for an emergency response. These plans are often generic, but must be flexible and scalable to meet a range of situations. Those who are expected to respond to an emergency must know what to do before disaster strikes. It is too late when an emergency occurs to reach for the plan and thumb through it.
Knowing your role and being competent to respond is vital. This includes taking part in exercises so that you can appreciate how difficult it will be when the real incident happens. Between 29 February and 3 March 2016, a large and complex live exercise was held in the UK, called Exercise Unified Response, organised by the London Fire Brigade on behalf of the London Resilience Partnership, and co-funded by the EU. One of the exercise strands was to test the London Humanitarian Assistance Plan. A survivor reception centre, rest centre and humanitarian assistance centre were set up and tested (I was a lead evaluator for elements of the humanitarian centre and the London boroughs’ joint emergency control centre).
The arrangements for humanitarian support were satisfactory in parts, but there were significant areas for improvement. Key findings included a lack of leadership, uncertainty about responsibilities, lack of familiarity about procedures and a lack of information for the public. There were 10 recommendations made for improving the response in London. The public inquiry into Grenfell may well find a correlation between the issues raised at this exercise and the response to the fire.
The public inquiry into Grenfell is likely to consider some of the issues highlighted, but there are actions councils should take now:
- Conducting a review into existing emergency planning and response arrangements to test compliance with statutory duties
- Assessing whether adequate resources are allocated to emergency preparedness
- Review risk assessment arrangements to test their adequacy and completeness – for example, the London Risk Register issued in February 2017 by the London Resilience Partnership did not include a fire in a high-rise building
- Check arrangements for humanitarian support
- Ensure arrangements for exercising and training for emergencies are in place
- Reviewing and strengthening arrangements for ‘warning and informing’ the public.
Tony Thompson, chair, Emergency Planning Society