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Unified Response: did I follow my own advice?

Unified Response: did I follow my own advice?

Last week saw the culmination of over a year of planning for Europe’s ‘largest ever emergency exercise‘.

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Coordinated by London Fire Brigade, the exercise simulated the collapse of a building in central London punching into an underlying tube tunnel as an underground train was passing.  Check out the @LDN_prepared Storify below for a collection of tweets from participants as the exercise progressed.

 

Since 2014 my involvement, as workstream lead for the Command Post element of the exercise was to make sure that participating organisations achieved their own objectives as well as the overarching objectives of the whole exercise. This meant that, in addition to emergency response and rescue, the scenario included strategic consideration of

  • disruption to transport services, utilities and the environment
  • distribution of casualties and fatalities across and outside of London
  • requests for national and international support and
  • considering the information and long term support provided the public, businesses and to individuals and communities affected.

Did I follow my own advice?

I’ve blogged previously about how, if not managed appropriately, the value of exercises can be limited. If I wanted Unified Response to be different, I needed to follow my own advice, which boiled down to six key points

  1. Use locations you would use in reality
  2. Make it no notice as far as possible
  3. Draw participants from what’s available on the day
  4. Don’t let the scenario win out over objectives
  5. Speaking of objectives – have lots of specific ones rather than sweeping generalities
  6. Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate.

During the four days of the exercise many lessons were learned dynamically. Undoubtedly there will be lots more learning to come out through the debrief processes. It’s not the intention of this post to debrief the exercise, but to revisit the points from my earlier blog. Did I follow my own advice? In hindsight, have I got any additional thoughts on getting the best return on investment from exercises?

Objectives and Scenario Fidelity

Developing SMART style objectives rather than “to exercise our major incident response”  became my own personal crusade for a while at the start of the planning process. In the long-run this made developing the scenario easier and we were able to tie all injects (nearly 2000) to objectives, which will support ongoing evaluation.

From the outset my starting point was to develop the highest level of fidelity as possible. Over the past year I found myself continually asking “but what would happen in reality?” or “If this incident took place today what would actually happen?”

It’s easy when planning something on this scale to let creativity get the better of you. However it’s a fine balance and it wasn’t always possible to simulate reality without a consequential effect on the ability to meet exercise objectives.

For instance, one objective related to the activation and integration of international specialist rescue teams, but the scenario also included a ruptured water main and sewer which provided grounds for participation for a wide range of organisations. In reality, the presence of these hazards would have impacted on the ability to implement the technical rescue (as responder safety has to be a consideration) however in the exercise, water and sewage were notional.

Where there were simultaneously elements of live and notional play, there were challenges in how well they meshed together. Further to this, many organisations chose to use real-world conditions alongside exercise scenario. In addition to the incident at Waterloo, real-life traffic accidents and train delays all added to the complexity and realism. This is the first time that I’ve seen, first-hand, this attempted in an exercise. The closest I’ve seen are Emergo exercises which use real hospital bed states and staffing to determine capacity challenges for mass casualty management. Limited to one organisation it’s difficult enough to cross-check the impact of the scenario on the real world, but with so many participants this became very complex.

Locations, Dates and Times

This wasn’t always possible due to operational conditions or extent of participation, but by and large venues used were those which would be used in reality. This means that anything learned relating to the operation of those facilities is valuable and can be actioned. Not all of the learning is technical in nature. Softer, skills-based aspects (for instance, teleconference etiquette) is something which can develop with repeated practice. Familiarity with processes, technology and each other in non-incident conditions will improve crisis response.

In order to make sure that decisions taken at a strategic level were appropriate it was necessary to warn senior representatives of the exercise dates. However, I strongly resisted demands to schedule meetings in advance. Establishing the ‘battle rhythm‘ is a key incident management skill. If we’d pre-planned meetings the learning opportunity would be reduced.

I also made sure, by having a relatively small but empowered planning group, that the integrity of the exercise was preserved. Nobody involved in exercise play, not even my own management, knew the full extent of the scenario. This meant unanticipated questions seeking assurance that the exercise would be sufficiently challenging. Such assurance was provided by exploring parallels to past incidents and exercises with subject matter experts to develop the most comprehensive exercise I have been involved in. (We went as far as developing complete documentation for a fictitious construction company and producing staff records for fictional injured responders).

Participants and Advance Notice

As mentioned already, some representatives were essential and therefore did have prior notice. However, even when they knew the date of the exercise, they did not know anything about timings or scenario progression. There were short-notice requests and demands to be in multiple places at the same time, as there would be in reality.

Arguably these issues could have been avoided through advance notice, but then we would have been generating a false environment and actual learning about how to resolve those problems would not have been identified.

The ability to prioritise and dynamically allocate resources is another crisis management skill, one which many of the participants in the exercise had the opportunity to practise.

What else did I learn? 

I think my own personal learning relates more to the role of exercise control during an exercise of this scale.Having a good team with all the necessary expert knowledge and most importantly a problem-solving approach is absolutely essential.

If there was one aspect that I would look to improve next time, it would be to ensure communication between players and facilitators. So my seventh rule for exercise planning, would be to consider structures for exercise control earlier in the planning phase.

Synchronising an exercise with 30 different locations, 85 organisations and over 4000 participants was always going to be a challenge. Over the course of the exercise I spent more than 106 hours in Exercise Control, managing command post activity, resolving issues, creating simulated material and ensuring ‘my activity’ kept in step with all other exercise activity. The responsiveness of my Exercise Control team to roll with decisions made in exercise play was crucial, but this could have been made easier with a more complete picture of the response.

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There were some challenges along the way, but I thoroughly enjoyed Exercise Unified Response. Whilst I hope we never have to do it for real, the learning that will be taken from it will improve emergency responses in London and further afield. As my own reflections solidify I’m sure there will be more posts on Unified Response, but if you do have questions please get in touch.

Rethinking Recovery

Rethinking Recovery

It’s cliche, but recovery starts at the moment that something bad happens. If you fall down and break your leg, nobody says “oh, just wait a bit before getting medical attention”; you get the help that you need when you most need it.

recoveryIn a disaster, there is almost unanimous agreement that recovery starts as soon as the incident happens. I fundamentally agree with this, and in a broad sense even response activities can be classified as ‘recovery’ interventions of some sort. However, in the typically process-dominated world of emergency management (in the UK at least) this mantra that recovery starts at the outset of the incident is, in my opinion, both misinterpreted and over simplified.

Let’s revisit the broken leg scenario – yes you get help, but you don’t skip straight to physiotherapy…you need time to heal first.

As I’ve been working on the planning for Exercise Unified Response I’ve been frustrated by comments from colleagues insisting that because we have this mantra, that there should be recovery meetings from the outset. On one hand I agree with the philosophy, but on the other hand in practical terms surely you need to understand what it is you’re recovering from before you try to attempt recovery?

In my experience it’s rare that the precise impact of an incident is understood from the outset. Indeed, the likelihood of cascading failures and secondary incidents means that in some circumstances the initial incident isn’t even the biggest concern from a recovery point of view.

Provided that response actions are effective and appreciative of longer-term prognosis, I think you can afford to take a breath before formally implementing structures contained within your long-term recovery plan. In the emergency phase lots of decisions need to be taken in sub-optimal conditions. It’s surely doing a disservice to the objective of long-term recovery to take decisions which have wide reaching implications without a more well developed understanding?

I’m not advocating ‘not doing recovery’, if anything it’s one of the most important aspects. I’m just saying do we need to rush into recovery at the same speed as emergency response, or should it be more considered? Would it help to view everything that happens after the incident as ‘recovery’, but that recovery needn’t rely on the activation of a specific plan?  That sometimes the rigidity of the structures that have been developed can be a constraint?

There you have it, my first blog in ages, and I’m posing what I expect is a fairly controversial question! I’d be interested in your views about the practicality of when recovery can actually start!

Interoperability: out with the old

Interoperability: out with the old

This is the first in a series of blogs (three I think) in which I’m trying to organise my thoughts on Interoperability ahead of being a panel member at the 3rd UK Resilience Conference. That means it runs the risk of being a little bit word-vomity…sorry.

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1862.

That’s how I feel about interoperability. Whilst current ways of working have done us well we’ve reached a tipping point where a new paradigm is required to meet present challenges.

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A combination of reduced public sector resource, increasing demand and rising public expectation for services means the “we’ve always done it like this” attitude doesn’t hold water. I’m not a believer in change for the sake of change, but we do need to accept that not enough has been done to learn from the past.

At the Global Resilience Summit this week John Arthur used a mobius strip to illustrate a point about continual development, refinement and evolution in resilience. The same metaphor was used by Abcouwer and Parson in their Adaptive Resilience Cycle model.

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We’ve been stuck too long in the status quo corner. Luckily there have been relatively few crises (especially in the UK). However, where disasters have happened systems have lurched forwards from their equilibrium state to new conditions. Post Katrina America is a good example – for all it’s flaws, the reforms have generally been positive, as this PBS clip explains.


Whilst the crisis may not have taken expected forms (i.e. emergencies or disasters) the financial pressures to deliver more for less means provides the imperative to explore innovative approaches to old problems.

Interoperability shouldn’t be difficult. There are some great examples coming out through JESIP that go to show that if you have the commitment to work together it’s do-able. The joint doctrine is just one step towards embedding interoperability. New combinations and better understanding has been initiated, but let’s not stop there. We need to continue to push the boundaries, challenge the orthodox and innovate. It can be scary, but we’ve proven that ‘the way we’ve always done it’ just isn’t sustainable.

30 Days 30 Ways – Day 5

30 Days 30 Ways – Day 5

Today’s challenges are going to take a bit of creativity given that I’m currently not at home, bear with me if I’ve taken a flexible approach to the rules!

UK Challenge 5 – Smoke Alarms Save Lives 

Two of my housemates routinely send panicky messages to our WhatsApp group about hair straighteners which may have been left on. Fortunately they never have been to date, but I completely understand why fire risk in private rented accommodation is above average!

We’ve all accidentally set of a smoke alarm. It’s annoying and means some frantic fanning, but they are super simple life-saving devices which we take for granted. Being away from home means I’m unable to test my smoke alarm (I’ll do it when I get home I promise).

Instead, I’ll confirm to you that I have made myself aware of the fire evacuation route in my hotel, and have a mini ‘grab bag’ in case I need to bolt in the middle of the night. Unfortunately that’s the best I can do until I get home!

USA Challenge 5 – Gift A Kit 

Create a small starters kit for a family member or friend and share with them the importance of being personally prepared.

I’ve explained my aversion to off the shelf grab bags already in 30 Days 30 Ways 2015…but maybe there is mileage in developing light-hearted personalised survival kits…

  • For the friend that gets epic hangovers – here’s some remedies
  • For the friend that’s always late – here’s an alarm clock
  • For the colleague who is into orienteering – here’s a survival blanket and a compass

It’s something that I probably need to give some more thought to, but I see a range of personalised survival kits as christmas presents presents…or at least as Pintrest boards!

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 4

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 4

I’m currently in Spain, so will be trying to inject a bit of Iberian flavour to the next couple of blogs. Here’s my responses to today’s challenges.

UK Challenge 4 – Who you gonna call?

The instructions or the fourth 30Days 30 Ways UK task state:

  1. Make sure that children and young people you know their address so that they can tell the emergency services.
  2. As a bonus, @NorthantsFCR who will be tweeting about real calls – your challenge is to identify those you feel are not a genuine emergency

999 headline

999 is a system that I have grown up with. I’m probably closer to it than many people having worked in and with the emergency services over the last ten years. I also have personal experience of being on both ends of a 999 conversation, and it can be extremely stressful. In Spain, and all of Europe (including the UK), 112 is the single number for the emergency services.

It’s not just children that need to know their address. Landline phones are decreasing in popularity, but it used to be my top tip to keep a post-it note near your home phone with your address.  Now my tip is to make sure that your house number can be clearly seen from the street.

I’ve watched the @NorthantsFCR tweets with interest today, sharing a flavour of the types of calls they receive, many of which could be reported via other channels, like non-emergency number 101.

USA Challenge 4 – #Hashtag

We want you to share what#Hashtags are used in your area and why they could be valuable to you to follow.

I’m gonna be honest now. I don’t know of any ‘routine’ hashtags for use in emergencies in London.

I know there are hashtag standards developed by the UN, which offers some good guidance, but I’m actually not that keen on the idea. Something about it just doesn’t ring true with me. By it’s nature twitter is ephemeral and develops through how it’s community use it (see below). It’s not just the idea of pre-scripted hashtags in an emergency that irks me, I also despise when a TV programme flashes up the hashtag they want you to use. For me it’s a an approach to social media which doesn’t respect it’s inherent messiness.

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I think it’s more important that emergency responders have the ability to identify and adopt user-generated hashtags rather than assert their own. That takes more advanced monitoring processes and confidence to not have 100% ‘control’ of the message.

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 3

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 3

And I was like, I mean, this is exhausting, blogging every day!

Thankfully, NorthantsEPTeam and CRESA have done all the hard work and I don’t have to actually think about coming up with ideas, just ordering my thoughts into something vaguely logical! Blogging professionally must be really difficult!

UK Challenge 3 – Risk of Flooding? 

Take That - The FloodToday’s challenge requires me to

  1. Check to see if your home is at risk from flooding by going to the NCC Floodtoolkit website.
  2. As a bonus, have a look around the website and let us know what parts you like the best.

Unfortunately the data on the Flood Toolkit website is limited to the Northamptonshire area, but of like me you’re outside of that area you can use the Environment Agency map to check the same information.

I already knew that I was outside of the risk area for flooding from rivers and the sea, but it did reveal that I have a low risk of surface water flooding. That means that in any one year there is somewhere between 0.1% and 1% chance of being flooded.

My favourite part of the website is the Flood Library, specifically the case studies from businesses who have direct experience of flooding. It might not be the most flashy part of the website, but for me it’s the most important.

Although we like to think that we’re modern beings, actually we’re still hardwired very similarly to our ancestors whose main method of conveying important information was to turn it into a story. Stories both inform and engage because they activate both hemispheres of the brain, which also helps with retention.

Emergency planners aren’t always great at framing information in the language and style that people are receptive to. So for that reason I think its great that businesses have shared their stories. It gives the information immediate ‘relate-ability’.

USA Challenge 3 – throwback thursday, or #tbt 

We want you to share a link or picture of an event that moved you to take some sort of preparedness action.  Along with sharing the link/picture, tell us what action this event caused you to do and if that helped motivate others around you.

I’ve been involved professionally with a large number of incidents, but the one which I remember having a marked effect on me happened over 4 days in August in 2011 when London seemed to ‘loose it’. Public disorder sparked by a police shooting occurred spontaneously and was sustained for a number of days.

Near where I live a whole section of the High Street was damaged by rioting, and it was very unnerving having the police helicopter directly overhead for three consecutive evenings. It was strange seeing shops proactively boarding up at 2pm in advance of further looting that evening. It was worrying walking to and from the station in the dar, in what is usually a comparatively safe area.

I remember seeing the following footage live, and being concerned for the reporter, who makes some interesting comments which I’ll leave to speak for themselves.

Personally for me, the biggest challenge came towards the end of the day when I had to think about eating. Because shops were closing early I was unable to purchase food (at the time I shopped on a daily basis). This meant reliance of takeaways for several days, which was both expensive, unhealthy and also in high demand.

Since then I’ve made sure that I always have ingredients to make at least one meal. A frozen pizza here, a couple of cans of beans there…nothing which is massively expensive, and certainly not the 72 hours that some sources suggest.

Oh, and why that picture at the top? Well it’s a still from The Flood by Take That, and it seemed appropriate to a post about awareness of flood risk as one of the lyrics goes ‘although no-one understood, we were holding back the flood…’

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 2

30 Days 30 Ways: Day 2

My self-imposed task to complete the UK and USA challenges continues…

UK Challenge 2 – Talk to your children about road safety and share a road safety message on social media

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If you’ve experienced crossing a street with me you’ll know that I take road safety very seriously. Sadly my cautiousness hasn’t rubbed off on one of my friends, who has been hit by a car on four occasions (fortunately not seriously).

I know the Green Cross Code is a thing…but if I’m honest, I couldn’t tell you what it was. I posed the same question to my housemates…“Stop. Look. Listen.” they cried, putting me to shame.

Growing up I remember TV road safety promotional films with a man in a questionable green outfit, and one with some hedgehogs. Today’s TV (and YouTube) films are more graphic, depicting snapping bones, perforated lungs and craniums hitting asphalt.

Although it’s not specifically road safety and it’s from down under, the Dumb Ways To Die campaign was a viral hit, having been watched by over 110 million people. It’s actually impossible not to sing the jingle after watching the clip.

This got me to wondering, is there any evidence that ‘shock tactics’ work any better than cute animated cartoons?

USA Challenge 2 – identify who is in charge of emergency preparedness where you live, reach out to them and let them know you’re playing 30Days30Ways.

Ok, this is a super easy task – it’s me! You can find out more about me or connect with London Resilience Team for more information about emergency preparedness in London. In fulfilment of the challenge, I’ll also share a link to a useful twitter list of official emergency planning accounts in the UK.

Last year I made an estimate that there are 8,500 emergency planners across the UK. Despite restructures and budget cuts, I think I’m still comfortable that this figure is ‘about right’, meaning that on average there is one ten-thousandth of an emergency planner per person.

I’m sure there are some massive errors in my calculations (let me know how I could improve my estimate!). However, what this also highlights is another reason that we should all take responsibility for preparing for emergencies. Something my SMEM colleague Mary Jo Flynn put very succinctly earlier:

Preparedness, response and recovery is a shared responsibility #EveryonesJob #30Days30ways

A photo posted by @mjflynn001 on