How Sky pitched the episode: Robert Carlyle stars as the UK Prime Minister, forced to scramble an emergency committee when a huge crisis strikes.
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:
Note to Police colleagues: please don’t plan on using a hospital as a SCC…#COBRA
— Alex Thompson (@AmbuAlex) January 17, 2020
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!