The recent terrible events in Manchester and London have prompted me to ask whether we need to refine our responses to such incidents.
For years we have prepared for civil emergencies, but invariably these were foreseeable. The presence of certain sorts of industry, such as a chemical plant, meant we had to anticipate and prepare in case something went wrong. Coastal authorities like mine need to prepare in case of a flood. We know there is a threat from animal disease or severe weather events; usually there is a warning, however short, and these events build up over time. Of course there are always the unforeseeable incidents, such as the Shoreham air crash, but we prepare for those too. We are used to establishing what is known as our ‘battle rhythm’ as we then manage our response.
But these recent events have indicated to me that the nature of our emergency response is changing. Our response now needs to be more agile and flexible; there is a wider range of threats. Given our reductions in resources, maybe mutual aid should be one of the first things we consider, rather than an option for later, when we have exhausted our own staff and resources. We know effective communications is absolutely critical, but have we adapted to the challenges of social media sufficiently? Is there a danger that our communities will perceive others as the trusted source of information if we don’t step up our response?
A key area that needs to be addressed is the blurring of organisational boundaries and responsibilities. Partly because of limited resources, but also because of growing and more complex skill sets, the response is even more of a team effort, with those involved simply doing what is required.
A specific area where we must blur those boundaries is between the response and the recovery phase. Traditionally the recovery phase would start once the response phase is complete, in a rigid, sequential manner. My recent experiences within East Suffolk, both with exercises and live events, have shown that we must overlap these, and begin to prepare for recovery whilst the response is still underway. That will ensure it is seamless, and that we do the best for our communities.
In conclusion, let me stress that this is all a personal view, and I am open to challenge and persuasion that I may have this wrong. However, I remain convinced that, like everything else we do, we must learn from recent events about how we deal with emergencies and evolve and develop accordingly.
Stephen Baker, chief executive, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs and Solace spokesperson for civil resilience and emergency planning