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COBRA: Episode 1

COBRA: Episode 1

How Sky pitched the episode: Robert Carlyle stars as the UK Prime Minister, forced to scramble an emergency committee when a huge crisis strikes. 

Ooof.

Let’s just take a minute to read that again, shall we? A whole profession (I estimated in 2014 that there are at least 7000 Emergency Planners in the UK) works around the clock to ensure that emergency committees are prepared, trained and rehearsed so that should a crisis occurs people are not ‘forced to scramble‘!

Right, deep breath…

MAYDAY!! The series opens on a plane in trouble, some tense conversations with air traffic control and then…a flashback.

The Prime Minister is a smoker?! Bad optics scene reminiscent of ‘disposable cup gate’?

Someone is asking for ‘immediate updates’ about panic buying at petrol stations. Let’s think about that for a moment; what conditioners ‘panic buying’? 5% greater demand than normal? 10%? 75%? Is there a government minister telling people to fill up Jerry cans? Does the retail fuel sector have the information system to provide this analysis in real-time?

In reality, obtaining this level of information from anything other than media reports would be incredibly difficult. And then it would be patchy based on media coverage.

Oh. My. Goodness. They have spelt COBR correctly! Any preconceptions I had about this show are dismissed.

COBR (or Cabinet Office Briefing Room) is the “dedicated crisis management facilities…activated in the event of an emergency requiring support and coordination at the national strategic level’. It does not have funky recessed lighting (but does have wallpaper that your nan would be proud of)!

In the event of activation in real life, the media 99.99999%* of the time refer to it as it’s phonetic pronunciation, COBRA. It’s a source of serious eye-roll from emergency managers, me included. We should get out more!

Gosh. 8 minutes in they are “informing all Gold Commanders” (and for dramatic tension it’s not clear what they are being informed of). Exciting stuff, but in reality:

  • the introduction of JESIP, the Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles, should have phased out the Gold/Silver/Bronze terminology from 2013.
  • forgive the semantics for a moment, but what do they really mean? Who are Gold Commanders? If we work on the premise that all emergency responder organisations have a strategic lead you’d be looking at thousands of people to be alerted. What alerting system would they use for that?
  • I expect what they actually mean is alerting all Police services, which would be done by the Home Office via the National Police Coordination Centre or other national coordination structure, rather than by the Cabinet Office.

I have questions about whether that JESIP rebrand was worth the effort. Gold/Silver/Bronze has a nice familiarity to it. You can use these emojis 🥇🥈🥉. A picture paints a thousand words, right? Personally I find it easier to conceptualise gold/silver/bronze than the more anodyne terms to which they relate, strategic/tactical/operational.

“We’ve gone to significant threat” and we haven’t had the title sequence yet! I feel like they want people to think it’s terrorism, but I think we’re going to be surprised!

Oh, shall we take a look at the titles?

I think that’s a map of the UK, with the circle over the Liverpool area, could that be significant? It reminds me of those pictures from space of lights at night…

I reckon this is definitely a sign of things to come.

We have confirmation; we’re concerned about a ‘Solar Threat’. My interest is piqued. Although I think the language that would be used would refer to a ‘space weather event‘ but that sounds less gripping! Are we in Carrington Event territory? Oh, they actually mentioned it!! Not gonna lie, I feel a bit smug that I predicted that! Can I get a job advising the script on these kind of programmes?!

The debate they are having about the risks is one (actually, more likely 20) that I have actually participated in. They’ve held a seminar and (with any luck) had some nice sandwiches. Meteorologists had one view, industry had another. Non-specialists in either field just felt bamboozled. My Anytown methodology was an attempt to help non-experts understand complex interdependencies.

Uh oh, you guys, a high-speed plasma eruption is heading towards earth. I sense things are about to get bad!

Sidenote: This Home Secretary is, unfortunately, very well written. *eye roll emoiji*

I like the amount of precedent being provided by the people around the COBR table. We’ve had Carrington, a downed French flight, Ash cloud…this is the availability heuristic in action; a quick ‘this looks scary, but remember we’ve dealt with something similar before, you got this’. Also a very helpful way of shortcutting lots of information.

“Pizza or curry” Now that is a familiar and important emergency response question! (Never trust anyone who orders anchovies on pizza).

Emergencies are strange beasts. They will happen, but predicting the detail is impossible. Therefore it’s about simultaneously operating comfortably and appropriately in an information vacuum and finding ways to rapidly gather reliable information. So far I think the programme is doing a good job of reflecting the balance that has to be found between ‘we need more information’ and ‘take some action’.

We’ve cut to a Police Station. As is standard practice, the local Police are taking the lead. This is known as ‘primacy’, but doesn’t give them any power to compel other organisations to do/not do what they think is required. Decisions are made through consensus.

The Police have proposed hosting ‘Gold Command’ at a hospital. (we’ve already talked about ‘gold’ and I’ll come back to ‘command’ later!). In my experience this is pure fiction; there is no way the police would not host on their own premises unless it was the end of the world…and even then!

Colleagues on Twitter also had things to say about this suggestion:

I assume this is a Police internal coordination meeting…it’s not clear. It’s nice that they are listing objectives, but if it’s a police meeting they seem a bit odd:

  • Maintaining healthcare
  • Ensuring protection for the vulnerable
  • Safeguarding key sites and fuel supplies
  • Maintaining law and order

A copy of the Civil Emergencies Guidelines is referenced and a blick-and-miss it shot shows this…

 I wonder why they’re using that if they’re all Police? Police and Crime Commissioners, do they count as Councillors? There is, of course, a real document which looks pretty similar, available from the Local Government Association

Clamouring to ask the Police lead lots of questions isn’t something I’ve particularly witnessed. The Police are not experts in space weather or the effects that it could have, so they would be unlikely to do anything other and bounce questions to other people. In a situation like the one presented here getting expert information is especially difficult. The Met Office lead in terms of prediction and monitoring, but have no status under the Civil Contingencies Act and have to provide a service to all of. them and their consistent organisations.

Meanwhile back in London, they are talking about convening Local Resilience Forums. Now that’s just lasy script editing it is widely acknowledged that the LRF is a planning not a response body.

“I want secure videolink to all Gold Commanders” – easy, not a problem at all, we all use the same technology and have never had occasions where the technology let us down.

Souls onboard sounds like really dramatic language. But it’s accurate, and that’s important when time is tight. There’s a requirement in emergency management to understand each other’s language. There are some advantages in referring to ‘souls’ including:

  • It’s an umbrella term for passengers and crew
  • young children without a booked seat wouldn’t be counted as passengers
  • dead bodies are transported by air

The ‘souls’ phrase has its origin in the maritime sector, but earlier roots in the church who’s clergymen were educated and therefore able to ensure an accurate count of people onboard a ship.

Sidenote: Misogyny in government, lovely.

The plane that we met at the very start of the episode is back, we have caught up to real-time. Air Traffic Control are in communication with the plane. But, a big but, COBR identifying alternative landing sites? Absurd.

A senior Police Officer has just witnessed a jumbo jet crash landing on a motorway. I think it took him longer than it should have to report it, he did declare a major incident but didn’t provide a METHANE message, which would have assisted the arriving emergency services to know what to prepare for.

“We’re the ones who have to make decisions whilst others talk about them in pubs”

This personal/professional tension feels like something new. Work/Life balance and wellbeing are key priorities for most public sector organisations

Strategic COMMAND Centre?

Why are the Police giving a detailed breakdown of casualties?

As scenes go this isn’t too bad. Very clear access and egress. Lots of space to set up facilities.

2 impacts – voltage instability and burn out damage.

A tannoy announcement in a hospital is new to me.

Coastal areas have taken a massive hit – that’s in line with my understanding of how this would happen.

I struggle to believe that France and Spain would be experiencing total blackout. they’ve got lots of very rural communities who I would expect would have an ability to run for a short time on generator power.

The Civil Contingencies Act has got a mention – although it’s not clear what exactly the Prime Minister is asking the Queen to authorise. In my mind, since 2010 there has been doubt about how Part 2 of the Act would be implemented because of the removal of Regional Civil Contingencies Committee.

“Worse than our most pessimistic forecast” it’s exactly because of things like this that the use of Reasonable Worst Case Scenario seems too arbitrary.

The episode ends with the light going off across central London. I’ve only seen this once before, on a much more limited scale in 2015 following an electrical incident. Here’s a comparison…

And so episode 1 ends. It was pretty far off from what I was expecting actually. The scenario is an interesting one, but I wonder how many viewers will be interested as in terms of dramatic device, not having a ‘bad guy’ makes it a harder story to tell.

* this is not an actual statistic!

COBRA: a multi-part blog-along

COBRA: a multi-part blog-along

My career in emergency management started 15 years ago. The London bombings had happened the previous year and one of (many) themes in the profession at the time was about ‘citizen journalism‘. People, actual real-life 3-dimensional members of the public, had taken pictures on their Nokia 3210’s and sent them to the BBC newsroom. It was a paradigm shift in how the media could report breaking news.

Flash forward to today and I found myself stressing this evening because I was late for a live tweet-along to a new series on Sky, COBRA. How times change, eh?!

Described as a “must-see thriller set at the heart of government during a major national crisis” this show is entirely up my street.

A selection of my incredible colleagues gave a great running commentary on Twitter. So I was thinking about how I could differentiate take. So…strap in for a multi-part series of long-form blogs of each episode. I haven’t started watching yet, but I’m aiming to summarise my views, as somebody working in the emergency management profession, on how fiction and reality compare.

I want to hear your thoughts too! Let me know if you agree/disagree with me @mtthwhgn.

Oh, and just a reminder for those at the back: let’s all remember that it’s an entertainment show, we expect (and encourage) a degree of artistic licence!

The Wave (2015) – an emergency planners review

The Wave (2015) – an emergency planners review

Inspired partly by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech at the 2020 Golden Globes I decided to watch The Wave, a 2005 Norweigian film based on the Tajfjord rockslide in April 1934, which resulted in a 40m tsunami killing 40 people.

Before I even had to contend with subtitles, the first challenge was finding a way to watch it. At the time of writing, it’s not available via Netflix UK or Amazon Prime Video, but I tracked it down and watched on YouTube.

Like lots of disaster movies, and many real-life disasters, the warning signs were there from the outset.

The context is clear. It will happen again, but scientists don’t know when.

Well reader, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler that I confidently predict something decidedly bad will happen in the next 90 minutes.

Cut to the present day.

Kristian is working his last day as a geologist, relocating his family to take a job with the dark side of the oil industry. Groundwater sensors embedded across the mountain indicate something is amiss but it’s dismissed by his colleagues. It takes time for Kristian to convince his colleagues that ‘something is up’, he abandons his children and they set off to find their hotel manager mother. A good rule of thumb based on most disaster movies and all horror movies that I’ve seen: do not split up.

Anyway, by the time the data is telling a compelling enough story, the geologists have slightly 10 minutes to save the town. Even in a town of just 250 people, arranging evacuation in 10 minutes is a tall order.There are signs that the situation has been planned for. The alarm is (eventually) sounded, people take to their cars, pausing to pack personal possessions. There aren’t many routes out of the town, but it’s all relatively well ordered.

Bucking the Hollywood trend, the film shows no scenes of looting. This supports a growing evidence base that people affected by disaster are typically pro-social. I found this really refreshing.

After the tsunami arrives focus shifts to Kristian’s attempt to find his family. He’s reunited with his daughter fairly quickly, but he has to mount a one-man rescue mission to find his wife and son. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic tension in the latter part of the film, but suffice to say that one scene, in particular, is reminiscent of Titanic.

Overall I really enjoyed The Wave. There were still some great action sequences but it was a different, slightly calmer take on disaster.

 

Get real about grab bags

Get real about grab bags

In the week that has seen #GrabBags trending on Twitter and a BBC news article on the same topic ranked at number 5, there has never been a better time to try to capture my own thoughts on ‘grab bags’.

Here’s one of the tweets that caused some online excitement last weekend.

I can’t get fully behind any advice that provides a checklist of ‘essentials’ to stick in a bag like this. In fact, I can rarely get behind any advice in checklist form because I think the real world is more nuanced; at best a checklist is a starting point.

I say I can’t fully get behind the idea; what I mean by that is I can see situations and locations where that advice (and, gasp, even checklists) is sensible, but they are not here in the UK.

In August I attended an Emergency Planning Society event and made a confession. I don’t have a grab bag packed in case of emergencies. 

The reasons for that are numerous and some of those reasons listed below. But, I genuinely would be interested in counter-arguments. Am I wrong about this? Tell me!

  • The stuff that I would find really useful is the stuff I use every day. So I’d either have to have two of everything or spend all my time packing and unpacking bags.
  • A lot of the stuff included in checklists is obsolete – a wind-up radio, in 2019? I’m going to get my news online. (What about if it’s a power cut you say? Well, even then it would have to be super widespread and of an extended duration, and in the very unlikely event that does happen, then really what use is a radio going to be anyway, all it’s going to tell me is that there is a major power cut and I’ll be like “yeah, thanks”.)
  • We’re not exposed to the types of risks that would require the kinds of evacuation where a grab bag would be useful. This is actually the biggie for me. We don’t have the types of risks that warrant 48-hour survivalism.
  • I reckon I’ve got a level of personal resilience that means I could look after myself in most situations. What this means, in reality, is provided I’ve got my phone and access to a charger there’s not a lot else that I need. (Yes, I know this smacks of privilege, I’ll get to that later).
  • I know I would be terrible at keeping something like that updated. I cleaned out a kitchen cupboard a few weeks ago and found a tin dating to 2009. Reader, I have moved house three times since then!

So, I don’t have a grab bag packed for emergencies. What I do have is a series of grab bags stashed around the house for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Wait…keep reading…

This isn’t about baseball bats with nails through them. It’s the name I jokingly give the places I store useful things, so that I know where to find household essentials – string, fuses, batteries, picture hooks, duck tape. They’re in a bag, biut I’ll probably never grab it.

As one of the contributors in the BBC article notes, we all prepare ‘grab bags’ every day. If you take a bag to work or the gym, you’ve got the things you need. If you’re pregnant you’ve probably thought about a hospital bag. If you regularly make long car journeys you’ve probably got some essentials in the boot. Grab bags need to be both personally and context-specific. That’s why checklists don’t work for me.

Now, let’s get back to that bit about privilege because this is definitely not an issue to overlook. In the last five years, food bank use has increased by 73%. Read that again. It has nearly doubled. People are reliant on emergency food every day, are they likely concerned about some possible ‘what if’s’?

Not everyone is able to pack a bag in the way that some advice encourages them to.

But now think about how would that make you feel? If you were a single parent reliant on food banks to feed your family. And you see this advice coming out that of by the way you should also have all this extra food just hanging around, and while you’re at it, that money you were going to spend on rent or whatever, no, no, invest in a wind-up radio that you’ll never use.

Of course, I do think that presonal preparedness is important (and often overlooked). But emergency response plans and the systems and processes that support them, should not be so inflexible they can’t cope if someone hasn’t thought to bring a copy of their home insurance when evacuated in the middle of the night because of a gas leak.

Emergency Management needs to wake up and see the real world. And then it needs to come up with solutions and advice that chime with a broad spectrum of people’s realities.

At its heart, the grab bag advice isn’t bad, it’s just ill-framed. Do people really need a bag packed by the front door?

Or is the message really saying “Hey, it might be handy if you’re able to put your hands on some things if you get chance and it’s safe to do so. Oh, but don’t worry if you can’t for any reason, we’ll be here to support you.”

EPS Community Resilience Event – July 2019

EPS Community Resilience Event – July 2019

On Wednesday I attended an interesting Emergency Planning Society event loosely themed around community resilience.

It’s a term which means different things to different people and more often than not the starting place for discussion is about definitions. “What does Community Resilience mean?”

Boring.

We should instead, embrace that it’s a broad term, with varied interpretations depending on individual perspective and one which will change over time. Rather than getting hung up on what it is, we should focus on what we can do.

One of the things we can do is to be braver and more innovative. At the event Helen spoke about Naturvation, a European project looking at green infrastructure solutions to city challenges, the highlight was the unintended consequence of a Melbourne project which allows people to email love notes to 70,000 trees!

Three comments from speakers and attendees on Wednesday gave me the shivers. So I’m going to use this post to take each of those points in turn and explain my perspective, and then give a suggestion on approaching community resilience (or maybe just resilience) differently.

‘We are living in a riskier society’ – Lord Toby Harris

Lord Harris is the President of the Institute for Strategic Risk Management. He knows his stuff and is a fantastic advocate for the resilience profession. But I’m not convinced that the evidence is truly there that our world is getting more unsafe. More unsafe compared to what?

On one hand, I agree with Lord Harris that complexity is increasing and that the speed of global communication brings some new aspects. However, we should consider this against changes in demography and our collective risk tolerance.

World War One resulted in approximately 40 million casualties. The Black Death is estimated to have killed up to 60% of 14th century Europe. Baby Boomers and Millennials have experienced less real risk than nearly all generations that preceded them. Our risk perception, the things we choose to be concerned about, reflect our values as much as any objective knowledge of the hazard.

The world is definitely not without significant problems, but it’s important not to lose perspective and to understand where our rhetoric comes from and what underpins it.

‘We’ll all be living as individuals and everything will be delivered to us by drone’ – an event attendee

Lots of worrying scenarios were painted at the event – geopolitical instability, global food and water insecurity, weather extremes, tropical disease migration, antibiotic resistance…the list goes on.

For me, the scariest scenario was mentioned by an attendee; a Wall-E-style vision of the future,  where the death of cities results from us all living as individuals who never leave our confines because Amazon drones or 3D printing technology makes everything available at home.

I reject this fully. The world population is urbanising at pace. That’s a relatively new phenomenon too, of course, but as a species, we’ve lived for tens of thousands of years as societal groups and I can’t see us unlearning that behaviour any time soon, irrespective of what might be technologically possible.

The idea of ‘doing’ community resilience in the absence of community also left me incredibly puzzled!

“Spontaneous volunteers need to be controlled” – an event attendee

I called this comment out on Wednesday. I think it’s an outdated view, which cements the idea that you can command and control your way out of an emergency when in reality there needs to be flexibility, decentralisation and inclusivity.

The octopus has the most well developed invertebrate brain, but it doesn’t use its brain to tell each arm to change colour, that would take too long, instead individual skin cells sense changes in its environment and respond accordingly, which collectively gives a camouflage capability.

Similarly, the human immune system is based on individual white blood cells which go about our bodies looking for pathogens, finding and solving problems without intervention from our brains.

So why is it that when our society is faced with risk, that our approach is to introduce structure and control? Having some sense of leadership parameters to work within I agree are important. But you can achieve that through decentralised approaches too – provided people aren’t doing harm, what is the problem with them supporting the response and being enabled to do so?

So, where from here?

  • We need more ecologists in resilience.
  • We need more historians in resilience.
  • We need more complexity scientists in resilience.
  • We need more economists in resilience.
  • We need more ethicists in resilience.
  • We need better inclusion and intersectionality in resilience.
  • We need to empower people to innovate and solve problems collectively.

Resilience is naturally an incredibly broad field, it touches on so many other disciplines, all of which have lots of valuable contributions to make. We should aim to make it even broader, to bring more people into our discussion. What the resilience profession brings is a place to connect all of those dots.

Community Resilience, whatever it means to people at a given time, can only happen if we embrace how complex and messy our communities are. It can be hard for public or private sector organisations to find logical, auditable and measurable ways to ‘do’ community resilience, because of the way in which productivity and effectiveness are measured.

Our communities are filled with incredible skills, knowledge and people. We need to take a more inclusive approach and distance ourselves, at least slightly, from the neoliberal patriarchal approaches which currently dominate.

If you’d like to hear more about the event, take a look at this thread from the London Branch of the EPS for a rundown of the key discussions on the day.

Ramen Resolution – Tatami

Ramen Resolution – Tatami

For lunch at a work event yesterday it was a toss-up between cheese sandwiches with curly edges, or literally anything else. So a colleague and I dashed over to Flat Iron Square in London’s glittering Southwark to grab a quick bite.

Flat Iron Square is one of those trendy ‘food hall’ type places where there are lots of different types of ‘street food’ under the same roof. Notice those air quotes – because I feel like these are just new words for things that existed before.

Tatami Ramen was one of the busiest places there, but I literally only had to wait a matter of minutes before my Pork Tonkotsu order was up on the counter for collection.

For takeout noodles they were actually pretty good – the broth was salty and creamy, and there were two sheets of nori rather than the standard one, and a handful of rocket. A bonus topping, which I didn’t see listed on the menu, was crispy onions, which gave a subtle caramel sweetness.

Also, because I’m bad at cropping photos, you also get to see my shoes and a little bit of Sophie’s leg!

The noodles themselves were a tad on the soft side, and as you can see above, the egg was a little overdone; but as a quick snack, you can’t really fault Tatami.

Also worth pointing out that whilst £8 for lunch is probably a bit on the steep side, I think that is the cheapest ramen that I’ve found in London in 3 years of ramen adventures.

I’ll definitely go back (I want to try the vegan ramen, which has a kombucha based broth because hipster!) and would definitely recommend if you’re at Flat Iron Square, or just in the general London Bridge area and need a bowl of ramen!

thank u, women in resilience

thank u, women in resilience

Emergencies affect everyone differently. Race, age, ethnicity, affluence and level of education are just some of the factors which determine your vulnerability (and resilience). Gender is also a factor, with women more likely to die than men after a large scale disaster.

But this blog isn’t about that…

This morning I watched this lecture on popular misconceptions about disaster.

Another misconception that Hollywood’s gets wrong is about women’s role to cope during disaster, as shown by this parody clip:

But this blog isn’t about that either.

This is a blog written on International Women’s Day 2019, to say “thank you” to the hundreds of women I have worked alongside. Thanks for the work they do to make people safer and for everything I have learnt from them.

I can’t thank everyone individually, but I’ve picked out those whose tutelage has had the most lasting impact…

Agnes offered me a job on the same day that I met her. Nobody would call her logical, or predictable, but her dedication and passion could not be questioned. She pushed me into doing things that I was uncomfortable doing and had faith in me when I didn’t always have it in myself.

Long after meeting her, I remember still being in awe of Sue‘s experience in emergency management. As well as her ‘battle stories’, she taught me about determination and to read between the lines. She acted as a mentor more than a manager.

Over the last two years, I’ve relied on Lucy more than she realises. She sees things through a different lens, one which I feel gives greater consideration to outcome over process. She is a demonstration that sensitive, technical and complex subjects can be approached in a compassionate, human way, but still with a sense of humour.

Fiona has a pragmatic, considered and calm approach to the most challenging circumstances, and has taught me the importance of taking even the briefest moment to reflect, consider alternatives and contingencies before a decision is made. In her words “you often have more time than you realise”.

And finally, J, whose request for us to “be real” and avoid obfuscation really resonates with me. It’s something I’m trying to bring through this blog, and how I communicate at work. And something I’m still working on!

Helen, Alison, Aggie, Kate, Lynn, Gail, Robyn, Barb, Megan, Susan…There are tons of brilliant women out there in resilience (and every field) who as well as being excellent at what they do, bring valuable and important perspectives.

Thank u.