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Decoding the Professional Language of Emergency Management

Decoding the Professional Language of Emergency Management

Reading Time: 5 minutes


A week ago my team organised an event which walked participants through an extreme heat scenario. It had taken around 6 months of planning and become known to us as Exercise Helios.

At the very start of the process a new colleague with little previous experience of the UK emergency management structures asked a very sensible question…

“why do we give scenario events like this names?”

I had to admit that I wasn’t really sure. I suspect that it has to do with the origins of the profession having military and uniformed service roots, but I can’t say with certainty that there aren’t other reasons.

Despite their initial opposition to a name, over time my colleague started to called it ‘Exercise Helios’. In the final weeks before the event, I started to notice senior staff in the organisation enquiring about ‘Operation Helios’, a term which was reflected in the media coverage. Those two aspects got me thinking about the theme for this post – the terms that we use, how we use them, and how other people might interpret that – the role of professional language. In reflecting on the language of emergency management I also wonder whether language might actually be the purest essence of resilience?

Side note: please can somebody commission a semantic review of the civil protection lexcion?!

What’s in a name?

As in other fields, the landscape of emergency management is a thicket of technical terminology. We’re as guilty as the next field in developing our own professional language and applying it inconsistently.

The world of emergency management is full of terminology that serves that purpose. In a UK context for instance, there are various terms which refer to a multi agency meeting; it could be a Strategic Coordinating Group, a Recovery Coordinating Group, a Mass Fatality Coordination Group or many other things. In this case, the use of jargon which might not be explicitly understood outside a fairly narrow profession is helpful. It clearly expresses what is being referred to and avoids the misunderstanding of a more vague description.

In those cases, training is really important because it socialises and reinforces the meaning that those terms have, and ensures a shared approach and understanding. Many years ago I completed a MIMMS course and over the course of 3 days had used and explained ‘METHANE‘ so many times that it was almost unconscious.

Clear and effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful emergency response. In a 2013 review of persistent lessons identified from emergencies, Dr Kevin Pollock found that of 32 events reviewed, ineffective communications was a key contributing factor in the common causes of failure.

Precision is important and the ability to convey critical information clearly and concisely to multiple stakeholders is paramount. Yet the ever increasing labyrinth of jargon, acronyms and terminology can bamboozle, and that’s before considering other types of communication.

A colleague recently shared an article about a recent military exercise, which is liberal in it’s use of abbreviations. I’m not suggesting that everything has to be written for a general public audience, nor that you can’t make some assumptions about what your audience knows. But one sentence in the article reads ‘As SMEs in CQB, K Coy was invited to act as the assaulting force for the serials’ which requires a reasonably high level of domain knowledge to parse.

Ever evolving language of Emergency Management

Where both parties understand each other, professional language serves as a shortcut, but what about where there isn’t an agreed understanding of a term?

Who is a victim? Where is a community? Who are stakeholders? What does it mean to have recovered? These are hotly debated matters with many intersecting interpretations. How we understand language varies based on geography, the cultural norms and our own experiences.

General understanding of the term ‘casualty’ might be a person who has sustained an injury. But in the maritime sector a vessel in distress can also be known as a casualty. Knowing that is really important to avoid searching for a missing person who is actually a boat!

Things become more challenging for new entrants to the field, or where we are trying to work with other sectors who don’t have the same shared language. It can be alienating in both directions to listen to people saying things you don’t understand.

There is a possibility that the use of jargon, unexplained acronyms and convoluted speech is some kind of power play. I don’t think most people intentionally set out to make things hard to understand, but we have to be aware of the possibility of power dynamics.

I wrote recently that ‘emergency planning is dead‘. Perhaps one of the reasons that we need to think differently about emergency management is that how we speak about emergency management has got us to this point. To engage wider we need to adjust the language we use to make it more inclusive, accessible and relatable. It’s partly why I’m not a huge fan of grab bag initiatives, the language of which seems tone deaf to the pressures many people face on a daily basis.

We should also check and confirm understanding. I’ve been on internal courses which espouse the importance of active listening. The trainer will tell you that ‘nodding indicates that you are engaged and attentive’. But to the person doing the communicating, that nod signals agreement or comprehension to the speaker. I remember one occasion in a meeting with an eloquent Government colleague who kept referring to people as ‘recalcitrant’. I nodded along in absolute agreement but googling the definition on my phone under the table! (Recalcitrant: having an obstinately uncooperative attitude towards authority, which incidentally has turned out to be one of my favourite words!).

The best advice that I have been given relating to this this came from a member of a community group. They challenged me after a meeting and said “just be real”. It’s feedback which I took to heart and have tried to reflect on since, making my own communication style more accessible and trying to cut through some of the opacity that language can create.

Language: the purest form of resilience

Language provides access to information, employment, and education. Language builds cohesion and increases access to social and economic resources. Language helps individuals and communities understand and help each other. And language helps us tell stories and share experiences.

Those are all aspects of ‘resilience’ and in the course of writing this I feel like I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon something I hadn’t realised before; that language might be the purest form of resilience.

Your favourite jargon?

I invite you to share your favourite emergency management term? A phrase that in any other context would be hard to understand correctly, or perhaps just one that entertains you.

In itself, the professional language of emergency management isn’t good or bad. It has it’s uses and limitations. We shouldn’t remove jargon, but we should think just as critically about how we communicate as what we communicate.


The image at the top of this post is taken from ‘Words Are All We Have’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who’s works often referenced the resilience and defiance of individuals.

Ramen Resolution – Ramen Miyako Gion (Kyoto)

Ramen Resolution – Ramen Miyako Gion (Kyoto)

Reading Time: 2 minutes


This is the third of five ramen blogs from my recent adventures in Japan and this time coming at you from Kyoto.

Kyoto is one of Japan’s oldest cities, chosen in 794 as the seat of the emperor, where they ruled from for eleven centuries until 1869. The Gion district originated to provide entertainment for travellers and visitors and became the most well-known geisha (or the local term geiko) district in all of Japan.

However, centuries of history and the refined elegance of the geisha are spared from Ramen Miyako. This place is lively, edgy and loud and I loved it!

This restaurant was the selection of a friend, who had found it online after the original place that we wanted to visit was closed. Sometimes those by-the-seat-of-your-pants choices can be terrible, but sometimes they really come up with the goods.

We arrived separately and as I was running slightly late the starters had already been ordered for me by the time I arrived. Something is thrilling about a blind date with an appetiser no knowing what might arrive. I was delighted when a feast of edamame, chicken karaage, pork gyoza and fried rice was placed on the table. Each table also had a seemingly bottomless kettle of sweetened cold tea.

Three of us chose the standout item on the menu, the chasu pork belly, which looked almost barbequed and had a rich roasted flavour. You can’t quite make it out from the photo, but there were small globules of fat floating in the broth. That could put me off, but they melted instantly in your mouth and added wonderful smoothness. The fourth bowl was a spicy veggie ramen (to which a side of pork was added!). If I had one note, it would be that there could have been a whole egg and that they had been perhaps a little too generous with the fistful of spring onion on top of the bowl.

In the rush to get to the restaurant we hadn’t realised that it was cash only, so luckily one of our group was able to cover it for everyone. If you find yourself wandering around Gion, then take a wander into Ramen Miyako, and if you get to the bottom of why there are loads of post-it notes on the walls let me know!

Ramen Resolution – Tori Soba Zagin Honten (Osaka)

Ramen Resolution – Tori Soba Zagin Honten (Osaka)

Reading Time: 3 minutes


I’ve made this resolution before, and haven’t always delivered on it, but again in 2024, I want to get back into posting blogs more regularly. So I guess I can make a start with the next #RamenResolution instalment!

For anyone who hasn’t been following along, a resolution that I made in 2016 was to eat more noodles, and I’ve been blogging about all of the places I’ve tried ever since. I gave up issuing ratings to the places a little while ago because food, like music, is so subjective and just because I like it doesn’t mean that you automatically will (but it’s ramen, so really what is there to dislike?!).

Some people have called Tori Soba Zagin Honten “ramen heaven’ and they were not overstating things. This is up there with some of the best noodles that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying.

Many of the recommendations for places that I ate in Jpan came from Tiktok, but this particular recommendation for Tori Soba Zagin Honten in Osaka was from a friend, who described it as a “must-visit” location.

It was a little off the beaten path in a business district so took a little while to find the unassuming restaurant; in hindsight, we could probably have planned the day better to end up nearer the location instead of making a special trip from our accommodation around 30 minutes away. However, I think it meant we found at least one additional Eki Stamp (cute ink stamps at most train stations and tourist locations that collectors can add to books to chart their travels).

I’m not usually a massive fan of soba noodles in the UK, I find them a bit sour. So whilst I trusted the recommendation, I also was managing my expectations a little.

There was a short queue when we arrived, but we placed our order using the vending machine (see previous post for details) and took a seat on the small bench outside. After less than 10 minutes we were ushered inside perhaps one of the most serene restaurants I’ve set foot inside, it was like taking a breath. It was virtually silent, with most diners eating alone, and hushed conversations in the open kitchen.

There is only one variety of ramen on offer, chicken paitan, so menu selection was easy (although they do lots of other non-ramen dishes). We added the beef sushi and the chicken karaage.

Already creamy chicken soup is blended with a hand mixer which aerates it, making it smoother, and lighter in colour and leaving a frothy head. As well as fairly common additions of soft-boiled egg, beansprouts and onions there is a giant slice of pork and a thicker slice of chicken, and the whole bowl is loaded with fried burdock root which adds a crunch (at least if you eat it quickly before it soaks up the broth).

I really like seeing ramen prepared before your eyes – watching the precision and ritual that Japanese chefs take in adding all of the elements and ensuring it’s presented properly is captivating. Because the restaurant was so quiet it felt like even more of my focus was on watching the ceremony.

The chicken was wonderful – with salt and pepper added to taste. The beef sushi was incredibly good, although I hadn’t quite mastered the swish and flick to wrap the extra-long slice of beef around the rice in the way other customers did.

And then the main event. Ramen heaven. The broth was sublime, the blender adding air bubbles like a nitro-infused cocktail or a Guinness before it has settled, which made it taste lighter but still with the collagen stickiness that makes ramen incredible. The burdock root was earthy and added a nice texture, and the egg was cooked to perfection.

Please, if you are in Osaka, visit Tori Soba Zagin Honten. If ratings were still a thing this would be a 10 out of 10! You will absolutely not regret it. And the best part is the price, a bowl of some of the best ramen I’ve tasted cost the equivalent of £7.

Ramen Resolution – Oreryu Shio Ramen (Shibuya)

Ramen Resolution – Oreryu Shio Ramen (Shibuya)

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Planning a trip in 2023 means spending a lot of time on TikTok looking at the suggestions and recommendations from other travellers. Ahead of my trip to Japan in October, my algorithm was about 80% Japan travel tips and I had amassed a long list of places that I wanted to check out, mostly interesting food places in the main cities I’d be visiting; Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Another tip from TikTok was rather than having everything planned out in fine detail, to create a Google Map of the pinned locations of cool places, so you can see which locations are nearby and go with the flow a little more.

@miss_veraa I honestly think this is the most practical way to plan a trip #travelplanning #howtoplanatrip #traveltips ♬ Yacht Club – MusicBox

Here’s my map of places that I thought looked interesting, green icons are the ones which we visited over 16 days, and blue dots are places that I sadly didn’t get the opportunity to check out this time.

One of the places that I had no hesitation adding to the map was Oreryu Shio Ramen, purely to try the garlic butter cheese ramen. I’ll say that again: garlic butter cheese ramen. It’s a chain store, but each location seems to offer something slightly different, so we decided to go to what was described as the ‘main store’ in Shibuya, just a 10-minute walk from the famous intersection. Here’s the video that whetted my appetite for this.

@tinainmelb still not over this garlic butter cheese ramen 😭🍜 #oreryushioramen #ramen #japan #japantravel #japanfood #japanramen #tokyo #tokyoeats #tokyofood #shinjuku ♬ I Got It – thuy

Lots of things are different in Japan, and that includes how you order at a lot of restaurants. Oreryu Shio Ramen is one of probably hundreds of restaurants in Toko where instead of ordering at the table, you order at a vending machine. It took a moment to figure out the sequence of steps – insert money, make your selection, collect the ticket and then hand tickets to the server – requesting any customisations at that stage. We were warned that the garlic butter ramen was spicy, and when places warn you something is spicy it’s usually a good idea to listen, but we decided to go ahead anyway.

Our order consisted of two garlic cheese butter ramen with chicken karaage topping (bottom, below), shrimp wonton ramen (top right) and pork ramen (top left), and four of us shared a plate of shiso gyoza (not pictured because they disappeared too quickly!), everything washed down with an orange soda.

The food arrived quickly, far quicker than it has ever arrived in the UK. The Japanese people know that ramen is not a food to be lingered over, they’re in and out before the broth has had time to cool.

The chicken karaage was top-notch. Seasoned incredibly well and somehow still crispy despite being half submerged in the broth. The garlic butter was a great addition, thickening the broth and adding a lovely smooth texture. If I’m honest, I’m not sure what the cheese added, as it was quite mild and I couldn’t really taste it in the mix of other flavours. There were lots of pots of interesting-looking things on the table to add and customise the food, but I wasn’t feeling brave enough to try those on day one of the trip! It turns out that the spiciness was more a pungency from the intense garlic than a chilli type of heat.

Overall, I really liked the vibe of the restaurant and a particular highlight was when I somehow managed to spill water over two friends. In terms of the food, it was very well priced but I did feel that something was missing from the ramen – the noodles were the right hardness for me (firm) and the broth was flavourful, but after a while, everything just tasted of garlic (which I suppose being two days off Halloween was appropriate!).

If you’re in Shibuya and looking for a solid 7 out of 10 mean, then Oreryu Shio Ramen is worth adding to your map!

Ramen Resolution – Gyuro Ramen

Ramen Resolution – Gyuro Ramen

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Perhaps better known on these shores for deep-dish pizza pies, Chicago served up some really excellent ramen.

After a failed attempt a couple of years ago, I eventually made it to Chicago! With only a few days in town I had a list of things that I wanted to check out, and I can confirm that windy city ramen was firmly on that list!

A good thing about having a close friend in town is being able to rely on their tried and trusted recommendations, so it was on Melissa’s advice that we headed to Gyuro Ramen in the West Loop district of the city.

Some ramen joints go for the minimalist zen vibe. Pale woods, uncluttered surfaces and whisper-volume instrumental music. Gyuro Ramen is NOT one of those places.

Interior of a resturant

Think the neon lights of Akihabara or the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku’s Omoide Yokocho and you’re someway to the Gyuro Ramen ambience.  On the wall, an oversized cartoon of Godzilla tucks into a bowl of noodles and paper lanterns dangle overhead. A cartoon of Godzilla eating noodles

This was also my first time (as far as I can remember) trying beef broth. It’s very common to see pork and chicken-based broths, and it’s not uncommon to see seafood- or vegetable-based soup. But I’ve not had beef-based ramen before so whilst there were also duck and seaweed-flavoured ramen it was a no-brainer, I needed to try the beef!

There is a long list of appetiser options. If I’d planned properly I’d have arrived hungrier so that I could try more than one, but as it was we shared a portion of Wagyu truffle wontons which were phenomenal.

Wagyu wontons

There were a couple of different options for ramen and lots of customisations available, including different levels of spice and additional broth flavours. I’d like to have tried the creamy mushroom addition! However, I was in the mood to keep things a bit more simple, so went for the signature gyukotsu (translation: beef bone) ramen with extra fishcake slices because the vibrancy of the pink swirl brings me joy. Melissa ordered classic shoyu ramen with added corn. Each bowl came in at around $18, which feels on par with London ramen prices, but much more expensive than ramen in Japan.

Both bowls arrived very quickly and were served with soft-boiled eggs, thin noodles, green onion and bamboo shoots, as well as our additional toppings.

two bowls of ramen noodles

The gyukotso broth was smooth and creamy, bamboo shoots still retained some of their crunch and the charred edges of the thick slice of beef added a BBQ flavour. Melissa’s clear beef broth was lovely, and decidedly more healthy tasting.

Attentive service is great, but did feel a little rushed out of the restaurant – our bowls were cleared the instant that our chopsticks hit the table. I wouldn’t have minded that if there was a queue of customers, but it was early on a Monday evening and there were plenty of spare seats.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the ramen and would definitely return mostly to try more of the appetisers and would be tempted to splash out on the premium gyukotsu ramen for a whopping $30 to see if it’s worth the price.

Check out Gyuro Ramen on Instagram.

Remembering the Unthinkable: Thoughtful Approaches to Disaster Memorialisation

Remembering the Unthinkable: Thoughtful Approaches to Disaster Memorialisation

Reading Time: 27 minutes


On a holiday to Boston, Massachusetts in 2018 I made a beeline for Puopolo Park. The aim of this excursion was to see the plaque commemorating the Great Molasses Flood of 15 Jan 1919.

A commemorative green plaque to the Boston Molasses Flood

On another trip, I walked for about an hour to the Chicago History Museum. This time it was to locate a lump of fused metal. This is all that remains from a hardware store, one of the thousands of buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of Chicago which killed 300 people and left 90,000 homeless in 1871.

A 7 ton lump of fused metal which is the remains of a Chicago hardware store after the great fire

To be honest, this is entirely typical behaviour for me. Whether on holiday or closer to home, other people will be searching out the best bars or restaurants nearby, I’ll have a considerably darker Google tab open.

Like scars on a body, memories of disaster all around us. From roadside flowers at the site of a fatal road traffic collision to the geometrical purity of the Cenotaph, from scholarships in somebody’s memory to works of art in galleries. Memorialisation takes multiple forms.

In this long-form post (don’t worry, there are a lot of pictures, but I seriously urge you to get a cuppa before you go further) I wanted to explore some aspects of disaster memorialisation. My specific interest in this comes from my advisory position supporting the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission.

This is an emotive, complex and wide-ranging activity. The objectives of stakeholders can be divergent and they change over time. It’s not possible to do justice here to the vast amounts of excellent research relating to the memorialisation of traumatic events (I’ve tried to link to as much as I can!). Little of that learning has permeated into the emergency management domain.

In my experience, the ‘command and control’ management structures familiar in the response phase are ineffective for the inclusive, messy and creative approaches in memorialisation. It’s important that Emergency Managers give this appropriate consideration as a part of recovery planning. I hope this post helps to broaden the conversation and build a deeper appreciation for the role of collective memory.

Importance of Disaster Memorials

Memorials (by which I mean physical or digital things), commemorations (by which I mean ceremonies and practices), and anniversaries (by which I mean events which coincide with significant dates) are terms which relate to how societies remember and honour victims, survivors and other people impacted by disasters or catastrophic events. These definitions are mine. I have no doubt they could be debated and developed, but for simplicity here I’ll collectively refer to memorialisation.

Disaster memorialisation is important because it serves as a reminder of past tragedies. It allows society to reflect on the cost of disaster, pay respects to those affected, and support future generations to remember the lessons learned (DeNoon, 2011). If done well, memorialisation may also have a therapeutic role in the healing of communities impacted by disasters by offering spaces for grief, remembrance, and collective support. Studies have demonstrated the capacity of memorials to support community recovery by reestablishing feelings of control, social solidarity and empowerment (Eyre, 2007 and Eyre, 1999).

Physical Memorials – Monuments, Sculptures, Architecture


Spontaneous shrines are becoming an expected public response. Flowers and candles (increasingly LED candles) are common, but any small items could possibly be left as tributes. Responding agencies should never judge the ‘worth’ of these items. Generally, shrines will emerge near an empty vertical surface and there will be accompanying messages of remembrance (and other emotions including fear, anger and blame).

The shrine space can often be viewed as sacred. For many people, placing a memento or writing a message at a shrine may be equivalent to lighting a candle in church. People will remember exactly where they laid their item, and what else was around it at the time.

The content of a shrine or the tone of messages can’t be ‘policed’ as it’s not the right or role of the responding organisations to dictate how people should feel. However, there may be a need for sensitive pragmatism, perhaps to remove expletive language if the location has high footfall from young people.

Members of the community who leave items will likely have concerns about the security of items left at a shrine. Responders should facilitate (but not necessarily lead) the care of the spontaneous memorial area. Communicating about any necessary changes is also critical, as unannounced changes could be distressing. Admittedly larger than most items placed at a shrine, one artist sued a New York church when their 9/11 artwork was moved without warning.

Paper and cut flowers are common but they are inherently temporary. Some people will attempt to protect against the elements by laminating paper, using permanent markers or using more durable materials.  These materials will become soggy, windblown, and tattered. It is therefore worth considering what sensitive approaches there could be to protecting and preserving ephemeral materials.

These shrines often feature as powerful backdrops for TV reports as well as in print, digital and social media (Grider, 2015). There will, of course, be a wider public interest in the incident, but there should be a balance struck between conveying the scale of the tragedy and not intruding on the privacy and dignity of those most deeply impacted.

Plan for the unexpected!

After the death of Her Majesty The Queen in 2022 mourners were asked by the Royal Parks to stop bringing marmalade sandwiches. This didn’t feature in any of the planning and was a spontaneous reaction, fuelled by social media, referencing one of her most recent TV appearances. There is a need to understand the mood and culture to predict and prepare for how people may respond.

Documenting and Removing the ephemeral

Shrines may persist for some time and will change during that period, but are ultimately temporary. It’s my recommendation that emergency managers and those involved in supporting ongoing recovery plan for periodic high-resolution photography. This is a minimally complicated method of documenting the items and messages which have been left. It may be necessary to store some items for safekeeping, which could have potential storage costs and will require an inventory setting out the details of what is stored where, as it could be some time before decisions are made and staffing changes could impact organisational memory.

After the 2018 van attack in Toronto, Canada, the authorities were quick to announce that the shrine at Olive Park would remain for 30 days and then a to-be-determined process would guide the way. By the time of the fifth anniversary in 2023, plans were still being finalised and apart from a modest plaque there are few visible signs of one of Canada’s worst mass murders. The authorities say this is to “take direction from the victims’ families…being purposeful and allowing sufficient time…to heal before making plans for a permanent memorial.”

This inclusive approach is much more empathetic than the situations where decisions have about spontaneous shrines without a similar level of engagement. However, each incident will be different and it may not be possible to be so clear at the outset.

The ship Sewol sank off the coast of southwestern Korea in 2014, claiming 304 lives, mostly high school students. For some time after the disaster ten “Memory Classrooms” inside Danwon High School were preserved as they were before the disaster, with clocks stopped at 4:16 in reference to the time the ship sank. In response to a controversial plan to clear out these classrooms parents and family members occupied the school grounds in protest.

For the fifth anniversary, the government announced a temporary wooden structure would be built as a memorial altar and a place to learn about the disaster ahead of a permanent memorial in the form of a National Maritime Safety Centre. Bereaved family members expressed their disappointment with the unilateral decision-making and limited consideration for other suggestions.

As of 2022, the centre dedicated to the disaster remains unfinished. The site remains cordoned off, and construction of the envisioned memorial has slowed due to conflict over funding between the central and local governments. As time passes, public attitudes are also shifting; some local residents have expressed that they don’t want the place to be associated with sadness anymore. At present, the official memorial is a small space in a council building where families have been able to hang photographs of their relatives. 

Ruins and Retained Materials

On the evening of 14 November 1940, 500 Luftwaffe bombers targeted the industrial city of Coventry, England. Over the course of twelve hours, 568 people were killed. As well as destroying over 4,000 Coventry Cathedral, dating from the 14th century, was left a shell with only its tower and spire standing.

The decision to rebuild was taken quickly the following morning. It wasn’t until 1951 that a design for a new cathedral was commissioned. Of the 219 entries received the chosen design of Basil Spence & Partners aimed to preserve the ruined shell as an integral part of the overall design. Work began in 1956 and the structure was completed in 1962.

Like other memorials, the journey from design, construction and opening was long and bumpy. The UK Government agreed only to fund the rebuilding of a ‘plain replacement’ and substantial donations from Canada, Sweden and Germany were required and the design also had to be modified to find savings. The final cost was double the initial estimate and there were disagreements between local stakeholders and the Government. Purcell (2020) provides an in-depth account of these challenges.

Prior to the War the medieval stained glass had been removed and stored for safety, and it was possible to reuse some of that conserved material in the glazing of the new cathedral.

Much like Coventry, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church or Gedächtniskirche is another example of incorporating the ruins of a damaged building into a new construction. This church, as with those in Hiroshima, Dresden and Volgograd features a ‘Coventry cross of nails‘ from the burnt roof timbers from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, the government of Ishinomaki, Japan, decided to preserve the ruins of Okawa Elementary School, 4 kilometres inland from the coast. This faced some opposition, however, some survivors have acknowledged the duality of emotions that the presence of the building brings. The memorial, which opened on its tenth anniversary in the spring of 2021, also serves as a disaster management training facility for teachers.

Gardens of Remembrance

Aberfan is a small mining village in south Wales, where heavy rain in 1966 caused a coal slag heap to collapse. The resulting landslide engulfed a primary school, killing 144 people, most of them children.

I was honoured to visit both of the small memorials to the Aberfan disaster in 2021; a memorial garden and a separate area of the local cemetery. Most signs of the former mining activity have disappeared and at first, the design of the garden may appear to be abstract, but paths and flower beds have been laid to follow the floor plan of the destroyed school, with parts of the original wall retained. This is a helpful example that ‘retention’ doesn’t just have to be physical, it can include the dimensions and positions of previous features.

In a secluded enclave near Ladbroke Grove station is a memorial garden opened in 1990 at the London Lighthouse HIV/AIDS Centre. With the growth of effective HIV treatment, the centre closed in 2015 and the site was re-occupied by the Museum of Brands. At the back of the museum remains the memorial garden, where many people who died at the centre had their ashes scattered.

Whether memorials incorporate ruins or not, a majority tend to be located at or close to the site of the incident, or in some location which is symbolically connected.

At 8.10 am on 14 October 1913, an underground explosion at a colliery in Senghenydd, Wales, killed 439 men and boys and another man subsequently died during the response. It is the worst mining disaster in British history and the third-worst in world history. To commemorate the centenary of the disaster the Welsh National Mining Memorial was unveiled in 2013 on the old colliery site, remembering the victims of that incident and more than 150 other mining disasters in Wales.

The memorial takes the form of a statue of a rescue worker helping an injured miner at the centre of a walled garden. Tiles lining the approaching ‘paths of memory’ were made at a series of community and school workshops and are inscribed with details of each mining disaster in Wales. Part of the unveiling included the sounding of the original Universal Colliery alarm, exactly as happened 100 years earlier, to alert villagers. Official floral tributes were laid by the First Minister of Wales and other politicians and dignitaries. The National Union of Mineworkers were in attendance but played no formal role.

Perhaps one of the most peaceful memorials that I have visited is the Hillsborough Park Memorial Garden which provides a place for contemplation for those remembering those affected by the incident at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989. The garden features a specially commissioned bright red rose called “Liverpool Remembers”.

The memorial for the Omagh bombing, where 31 people were killed by the explosion of a car bomb in 1998 connects two different locations. Sunlight falling on 31 elevated mirrors is reflected and used to illuminate a glass obelisk at the constrained site where the car exploded.

Place Naming

Determining street names is an administrative yet deeply political act. For an in-depth exploration of the process and politics behind what might otherwise be considered mundane, I recommend reading Dierdre Mask’s The Address Book.

For a time there was a proposal to rename Latimer Road Underground Station in recognition of the Grenfell tragedy, this had political backing but attracted opposition because of concerns about “encouraging ‘ghoulish’ tourists to the area”.

In Santiago, Chile, displaced people from a landslide in 1993 were relocated to a newly constructed neighbourhood developed by the housing authorities. This development provided housing for seven hundred families and was called ‘3 de Mayo’ (3 May) referencing the date of the incident. Residents criticised the lack of participation resulting in a feeling that “they didn’t need help from the state to remember the disaster by pointing to them when it happened”.

Commemorative Events, Digital Archives and Online Remembrance

National Days

Like commemorative monuments, the observance of national days has a role in the transfer of collective memory about a disaster. Two examples include:

  • 1 Sept – Disaster Prevention Day, observed in Japan to coincide with the date of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.
  • 14 Dec – Chornobyl Liquidators Day, observed in Ukraine to remember the military and civil personnel who responded to the nuclear disaster in 1986.

National days often contain formal elements and official protocol including wreath-laying, political speeches and commemorative rituals, but over time can incorporate elements of entertainment too.

Marschall (2013) suggests, in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, that the observance of national days has “largely failed as containers and transmitters of memory”. The recommendation is made that these days only work in conjunction with other forms of memorialisation, notably “monuments and emotionally loaded spaces”.

Moments of Silence

Commemorative silence has its roots in the early 20th century when a silence was held to mark the death of King Edward VII in 1910, and in 1912 to mark the sinking of the Titanic.

Sir Percy Fitzpatrick suggested that commemorating the loss of life in the First World War needed to respect the national mood, which as well as grief for those lives lost saw many people in hardship and with industry crippled. On November 7, 1919, King George V proclaimed:

That at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. All locomotion should cease so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.

The 2-minute silence on Remembrance Sunday has continued ever since. Moments of silence for disaster may also coincide with candlelight vigils.

In 1996 a 2-minute national silence was held for the 16 children and 1 teacher who were killed at Dunblane, Scotland. Following the terrorist bombing of trains in Madrid, Spain, in March 2004, was Europe’s first 3-minute silence. There have been a small number of other longer-duration silences since, which have drawn criticism from military veterans about a perception of diminishing war deaths.

There are increasing occasions where applause is used as an alternative to silence (Foster and Woodthorpe, 2012 and Winterman, 2007), typically associated with the death of an individual and stemming from an impromptu crowd reaction rather than something premeditated.

Technology-enabled memorials: Virtual and Augmented Reality 

Memorialisation can, perhaps surprisingly, be a place for innovation too.

When designing the granite fountain for the memorial to Princess Diana the architects, engineers and stonemasons used the latest computer-controlled machines to carve and sculpt the granite.

Launched in 2005, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank sets out to collect, preserve, and present the stories and digital records of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The collection, which continues to grow, currently contains more than 23,000 items ranging from oral histories, photographs, stories and community art. In browsing the archive for this post I was struck by Francesco DeSantis’s hundreds of portraits and the handwritten annotations of each subject which record “autobiographical slivers intersecting upon a major transformative event”.

On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed in a terrorist attack and hate crime at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Planning and community consultation by the onePULSE Foundation for a National Pulse Memorial & Museum and pedestrian pathway known as the ‘Survivors Walk’ continue but have hit a hurdle in terms of land ownership. In the meantime, a virtual memorial has been made available using 3d imaging technology to provide anybody with access to the ‘ribbon wall’ of tributes and to sign a digital book of condolence.

Similar virtual experiences are available for the location where Flight 93 crashed in September 2001 and there were some early suggestions that virtual reality could assist in the design process for the Grenfell memorial (sadly, I’m not aware that this has progressed beyond an idea).

Literature, Poetry and Performance

Disasters can be memorialised in written, recorded and performed works. There are far too many examples to note fully here but a handful of examples include:


Disaster anniversaries are often characterised by impacted people coming together, public officials making declarative statements and the media reconstructing the disaster experience in the context of current understanding (Forrest, 1993). Anniversaries are also one of the periods (along with birthdays, holidays, resolution of court cases and publications of reports about the disaster) when the memory of the disaster and associated loss may trigger an emotional response requiring professional support. Practical support is likely to be available in the short term but requires ongoing consideration many years later.

Anniversary events are likely to involve a mix of remembrance and outrage that questions relating to the deaths remain unanswered (Eyre, 1998) or that progress is too slow. Anniversaries are therefore a time of heightened complex emotions and require empathy and compassion.

The video below provides an overview of the range of activities marking the tenth anniversary of the Lac Magantic derailment in Quebec, Canada.

I have first-hand experience with the anxiety that some communities can experience about what it is appropriate to call a significant milestone, such as the passing of a year since a tragedy. Whether it’s a commemoration, anniversary, remembrance, memorialisation or something different altogether, the most important advice is to listen to the impacted communities on what they feel comfortable with and to try to meet as many wishes as possible.

(As a slight aside, the formal word for a commemorative event taking place on a monthly basis is ‘mensiversary’ but despite my attempts, I haven’t been able to get anybody to refer to events with that term!).

Personal Stories, Letters and Tributes

I had the privilege of meeting Charlene Lam from Curating Grief at the London Design Festival in 2022. Whilst not talking explicitly about disaster, we discussed the ability that everyday objects have to become memorials once somebody had died, and she told me the sentimentality behind why she chose to keep airline tableware following a family bereavement.

Much of what we know about the Great Fire of London we owe to the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Likewise, on March 28, 1944, the Dutch government-in-exile appealed to citizens to hold on to diaries and letters to chronicle life under German occupation. From this, Anne Frank created one of the most powerful memorials of the Holocaust.

The worker bee, the previously rather neglected symbol of Manchester, became prominent after the attack in 2017. Just days after the attack Guardian journalist Tony Naylor described the bee as “the perfect unifying symbol: secular, non-tribal, peaceful, community-focused but ultimately not to be messed with”.

As well as appearing in lots of street art, it is estimated that within 6 weeks of the attack around 10,000 people had been tattooed with bees (Perraudin, 2017) in commemoration and creating feelings of membership and togetherness. Perhaps less known is that Manchester City Council submitted trademark applications for six different bee designs in the two weeks following the bombing and were criticised for ‘memejacking’ (Merrill and Lindgren, 2021).

Stakeholders and their Perspectives

Involvement of Survivors and Affected Communities

Orthodox approaches concentrate power in the hands of ‘experts’ and can sideline the people most impacted. Contemporary memorials generally make attempts to involve communities from the outset. This can take various forms including formal Commission structures or less formal working groups that include direct representation from bereaved families, survivors and local people.

I had the privilege to visit the Manchester Together archive which conserves, preserves and documents the extraordinary outpouring of public grief and solidarity following the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in 2017. They have taken a rather unorthodox approach that if members of bereaved or survivor families visit the archive and want to take something of the 10,000 objects away, they are welcome to do that. This moves the collection away from being managed and regulated like a museum to more facilitated and participatory archive.

A memorial which is currently in construction and due to be unveiled on 11 October 2023 remembers the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 which killed 146 garment workers. The participatory approach used here invited members of the community to share their personal stories in connection with the fire, which impacted recent Jewish and Italian immigrant communities, and to collectively create a 300-foot-long ribbon, formed from individual donated pieces of fabric. The patterns and textures produced from this will be etched into the steel of the permanent memorial into which the names of the deceased will be cut and the stories archived at the Kheel Center at Cornell University, a specialist historical collection of United Stated workplace and labour relations.

Government and Local Authorities: Balancing Commemoration and Practical Considerations

The UK National Covid Memorial Wall is comprised of hundreds of thousands of hand-drawn red hearts, each representing a life lost during the pandemic. In some ways, the use of red hearts echoes the use of poppies for commemorating war dead. It stands opposite the Houses of Parliament to continually remind those in power of politicians’ accountability.

Politics also has a role in determining the form and location of a memorial.

The designs and proposals for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre continue to face an uphill struggle between architects, the government, and planning authorities. In 2022 planning approval was quashed by the High Court on the basis of contravening the London County Council (Improvements) Act of 1900 which requires the chosen location at Victoria Tower Gardens to be maintained as a public garden. The current solution appears to require the enactment of new legislation, the Holocaust Memorial Bill, specifically for this memorial.

Memorialisation is not a neutral activity, it selects certain aspects and excludes others, and exists in the context of historical processes of injustice and marginalisation of certain social groups (Fuentealba, 2021).

Architects and Artists: The Role of Creativity in Memorial Design

The 2019 exhibition Making Memory at the Design Museum centred on the work of British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adeje.

The first room of this exhibition arranged photographs of memorials across the world and themed into various categories.

  • Ancient (Stonehenge, the pyramids)
  • Arch (the Arc de Triomphe, Thiepval memorial)
  • Obelisk (the Cenotaph, Nelson’s Column)
  • Spatial (Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, Yugoslavia’s spomeniks).

Memorials can, of course, take multiple and different forms but I’ve found it a helpful classification.

The work of architects in rebuilding after a disaster was considered at the 2016 RIBA exhibition Creation from Catastrophe and as with Adaje the emphasis was on humility and true collaboration with affected communities.

The Clearing is the name of the memorial to the 20 children and 6 teachers killed in a school shooting at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in October 2022. In their research, chosen designers Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo found “traditional monuments – stone objects in a civic space – are really not doing justice to the complexity of trauma, of memory, of emotion…after experiencing an event like this. Their design of a London plane tree on a small island within a lightly swirling water focuses more on the landscape and is intentionally designed to look different on each visit as “a conceit for the individual experience of grief itself”.

Taking a similar form, the Glade of Light memorial to the Manchester Arena Attack was designed to be a living memorial, a tranquil garden space for remembrance reimagining a “previously under-utilised area of the City“.

A circular halo of white stone, referencing the eternal, floats above an ever-changing abundance of native plants. Inlaid into the stone are bronze hearts beneath which are memory capsules which contain meaningful mementoes left by families of the bereaved.

Artists as well as architects and landscape designers can bring a significant contribution to the development of memorialisation.

Nathan Wyburn created the sculpture “21.10.1966 144 9.13 am” using concrete and steel the work features 144 clocks each stopped at 9:13 in reference to the date and time of the Aberfan disaster, and the number of people who were killed when a colliery tip collapsed on the village. This piece is on permanent display at the Welsh Coal Mining Experience, a tourist attraction around 11 miles from the site of the tragedy.


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Another example of the powerful contribution of artists could include the ‘Fallen Leaves’ installation by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The floor of the gallery space is covered with 10,000 flat iron disks, pressed and cut into crude face shapes with contorted eye, nose and mouth features as though they might be screaming. The only way to pass through the space is to walk over the faces. I visited some years ago and still remember the reverberating sound of the metal-on-metal sound which perhaps recalls forced labour or trains arriving at a concentration camp.

Artist Lorrie Veassy started making and hanging ceramic tributes on a rusty chain-link fence opposite a hospital that many people were taken to. Other local potters and artists joined in and before long the Tiles for America Memorial was established; to date, more than 2,500 tiles have been produced.

Similarly in North Kensington, ceramics has been a key memorialisation material, including installations of ceramic hearts in little loved spaces, coordinated by artist Paprika Williams as well many mosaics installed near the base of the damaged tower and around the local community as well as a range of mosaics throughout the area.


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Speaking about the seeming impossibility of meeting the range of different stakeholder requirements in Omagh, O’Toole (2007) provides a reminder that ‘the impossible is what art does best” and that we may “need public art to do what politics struggles to achieve”.

Public Perception, Controversies and Timelines

The memorial to the Sampoong Department Store collapse of June 1995, in which 502 people died and 937 were injured, was moved from its original location to a park at Yangjae Citizen’s Forest, due to “backlash” from residents of apartments near the incident site.

Based on the advice of Hiroshi Harada, an atomic bomb survivor and the former director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that “memories will eventually fade away generation by generation,” the Miyagi prefectural government has committed to wait until at least 2031 before letting future generations determine whether the shell of a government building, formerly its disaster management centre, should be retained permanently.

Ethical and Social Considerations

Cultural Sensitivity: Ensuring Diversity of Victims’ Backgrounds Are Heard

I acknowledge that this post is overwhelmingly Western. It is the product of seeing memorialisation through my own lens. Whilst I’ve tried to pick a range of different memorials to illustrate the different nature they can take, that selection process means things have been excluded.

Grieving behaviour in the UK remains largely informed by the Victorian ideal of solemnity (Howarth, 2007), but this is not true of other cultures. It’s vitally important to consider how other cultures acknowledge loss and make collective memory.

The ways in which different cultures interpret and experience memorials can also be different and should be considered during their development. The memorial to the 202 people killed in the Bali nightclub bombings of 2002 has been the subject of a specific study looking at the ways in which people use the memorial space differs depending on their own culture.

Closer to home, the UK memorial to the Bali bombings occupies a prominent space outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and features 202 dives engraved into a granite sphere. There is little information available about the process of selecting this location but the involvement of the UK Bali Bombing Victims Group seems to have been a major consideration.

Some people may feel (and indeed, be) marginalised or excluded from the memorialisation process on grounds such as religion, geographical distance, inability to attend due to disaster-related injury or simply due to practicalities of logistics (Eyre, 1999). Additionally, dynamics within and between representative groups may reinforce a sense of a hierarchy of grief.

Efforts should be made to engage with all communities to ensure all voices are heard. This requires involving communities in decision-making, which can be challenging for organisations and structures which have limited experience in that way of working.

Avoiding Exploitation and Commercialisation of Tragedies

The September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City has attracted considerable controversy for having a gift shop. The shop sells merchandise like t-shirts, umbrellas and phone cases emblazoned with images of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Proceeds from the shop and museum admission fee go towards the maintenance of the memorial, which did not initially receive any government funding for ongoing maintenance.

After a USA-shaped cheese platter attracted additional negative reaction a decision was made that relatives of victims who sit on the memorial board would conduct a ‘smell test’ to approve future items for sale, which continues despite a federal funding grant for the memorial now being available.

The 9/11 museum is not the only memorial which has a gift shop, they are also present at the Oklahoma Memorial, Pearl Harbour and the Washington DC Holocaust Memorial.

Charging for entry to a disaster memorial isn’t a uniquely American idea. The Monument commemorates the Great Fire of London which destroyed most of the city in September 1666. For the price of £6 visitors can climb the 311 spiral steps inside the column and take in the view from the observation deck at the top and on their way back down are rewarded with a certificate. So maybe there is something about the passage of time, and that commercialisation feels less distasteful the longer ago the incident was.

Etiquette at memorial sites is another consideration. This is best exemplified by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

According to its designer, Peter Eisenman, the “enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that an attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate” so an abstract form of 2,711 large concrete blocks was chosen, avoiding all symbolism and encouraging visitors to create their own interpretation. This is an interesting example because memorials typically present a dominant narrative and exclude remembering differently (Legg, 2007), which this memorial rejects.

This absence of symbolism however may be linked to the phenomenon where a proportion of the 10,000 daily visitors take selfies or jump between the slabs and have been shamed for inappropriate conduct. This phenomenon inspired a project YOLOCAUST by German-Isreili artist Shahak Shapira.

Balancing Grief and Hope: Conveying the Message of Resilience

Perhaps the disaster memorial which has had the most profound impact on me was my visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In particular, I was moved to tears by the confronting and visceral remains of ruined buildings.

On 6 August 1945, at 8:15 a.m the nuclear weapon “Little Boy” was dropped from an American plane, directly killing at least 70,000 people (rising to 90,000–140,000 by the end of 1945 as a result of injuries and radiation exposure) and destroying or damaging 75% of the city’s buildings. The bomb exploded almost directly overhead the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the heat consuming the entire building. The ruins of the building including its walls and the wire framework of the dome survived and have been preserved as a symbol of the need for abolition of nuclear weapons. The A-bomb Dome, as it has become known, was registered in 1996 on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

How memorialisation is evolving: learning from the past, informing the future

In themselves, memorials are unlikely to reduce the impact of future disasters, but they can help facilitate conversations or new ways of thinking about prevention, preparedness, and response. 

The processes connected to memorialisation are also in continual flux. The huge volume of flowers placed in commemoration of Princess Diana’s death and the children who play in the fountain dedicated to her mark different ways of commemoration and memorialisation. We could be seeing some signs of a trend towards rejecting Victorian solemnity and customs that point toward public restraint in death.

These more ‘vernacular memorials’, that is, memorials which are in the language of the impacted community rather than the state, seem to be increasingly common.

COVID Memorialisation

A few memorials exist to plagues of past centuries, including the Pestsäule or ‘Plague Columns” in Vienna (pictured), Baden and Klagenfurt, Austria, the Immaculata in Košice, Slovakia, and if you know where to look, the 1854 cholera outbreak in London.
There are very few memorials to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. There is a small stone bench in a cemetery in Vermont and in 2019 the New Zealand Government installed a zinc plaque at an existing war memorial in Wellington.
It’s interesting to consider questions of if, when, how and where the memorialisation of the Coronavirus pandemic will happen.
Ofri noted in 2022 in The Lancet:
Official memorials may take years to materialise and can entail contentious wrangling among stakeholders. But once erected, they assume the role of a defining locus of mourning.
Memorials that have emerged so far have typically been very human in scale. In a similar grassroots approach as the painted hearts in London (above), Argentines have been piling up small stones with names of those who died in Buenos Aries, and Italians in Bergamo have been planting trees.
There are a range of online activities, which include
Memorialisation is a crowded space, there was criticism for co-opting the red ribbon after the BBC aired an insensitive segment on World AIDS Day encouraging people to remember COVID victims by tying a red ribbon around a tree.
A larger scale but still very personal memorial includes the 200,000 white flags planted on the National Mall in Washington DC. This directly echoes the inaugural display of the AIDS quilt on the same lawn in 1987.

There have been some more ambitious ideas about COVID memorialisation, including architectural firm Gómez Platero’s design for a sleek metallic disk off the coast of Uraguay as the Global Memorial to the Pandemic.

Ensuring Long-Term Preservation and Care

The Paddington Rail Disaster occurred on 5 October 1999. Two years after the incident a 10ft tall memorial sculpted by Richard Healy (who also designed the memorial for the 1988 Clapham rail crash) was unveiled overlooking the scene of the crash. Less than six months after being unveiled the BBC reported that the site was “being used as a rubbish dump by fly-tippers” and protective railing were added. As can be seen in the image below, the memorial was in need of some care ahead of its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Memorials require upkeep, maintenance and repair. Somebody has to cut the grass, there will be bins to be emptied and lights to be switched on. There is a compromise required between artistic intent and practical considerations.

These aspects can, if not properly considered, result in significant ongoing operational costs. For example, the Diana Memorial Fountain has required new sealant and water jet fittings for the fountain, intensive cleaning, replacement of footpaths, as well as stewards and gardening. 


Emphasising the Importance of Memorialisation

Memorialisation is incredibly sensitive but also inherently political, perhaps even being a form of government communication (Nicholls, 2006). There are questions to be asked about what we choose to memorialise, and what doesn’t get that recognition. Following media coverage about a proposed tapestry to be developed as part of the UK COVID Inquiry, there are signs of a “troubling trend where artistic memorialisation efforts are presented and pitted as emotional rather than political” (Purnell, 2023).

You probably don’t know about the fire at Denmark Place. It took 32 years for a small plaque to be unveiled “because the 37 people killed didn’t matter”. There is no reference on the developer’s website for ‘Princess Park Manor’ to its previous history as the Colney Hatch Asylum, let alone the 52 lives lost there in a fire in 1903; the worst peacetime fire in London until the Grenfell fire in 2017. An ongoing campaign from relatives of those impacted by the Battersea Funfair Disaster seeks to ensure a permanent marker to the 1972 incident where 5 children died. These are just a handful of incidents in London alone which weren’t deemed significant enough to warrant a memorial. Families and relatives of those impacted are now coming forwards to ensure there is a physical reminder, but as emergency managers, we should ask ourselves questions about who has access and power in the decisions about which incidents are memorialised, how and when. this supports the idea that recovery from disaster has a very long tail.

Memorials often quite literally “concretize” a dominant interpretation of a disaster and could constrain other interpretations. Therefore those charged with supporting memorialisation should allow for a variety and change in narratives to be present. However, this can be a source of contestation between different stakeholders so needs delicate and empathetic approaches.

Research into memorials after the Great East Japan Earthquake has recommended that it is better the pursue several ways of memorialising “rather than a single stone” (Boret and Shibayama, 2018). Whilst it can be administratively convenient to have a single memorial, a strategy which embraces multiplicity is likely to be key in meeting the diverse needs of affected people. Memorials that resist processes of transformation risk losing their significance in the future. Young (2010) notes that they “should not enshrine any particular interpretation of the past but prompt visitors to engage”.

As the Remember Me project found, memorials to disasters and other traumatic events are an escalating phenomenon and combine personal, public, spontaneous, planned, formal and informal elements. This is something that emergency managers should be aware of and consider the best approaches to engage with multiple projects simultaneously.

Shaping Collective Memory and Resilience

Public memory cannot be supplied by the elite and comes from genuine public demand. The practice of remembering is one of the ways communities decide what is important.

Maybe the role of memorialisation is also partly about helping us to forget. Visit any park or square in any town or city in any country around the world and you’ll likely find statues, plaques, dedicated benches and commemorative fountains. But do we really engage with the purpose of each: to keep their subject from falling into memory?

How long should a memorial last? In my experience the most common answer is ‘forever’, but eventually everything returns to the ground. So perhaps the purpose of a memorial or monument is partly to help ease that transition too. As Bishai (2000) stated, “We must remember in order to know who we are, and forget in order to become what we may be.”

Emergency managers won’t usually be involved in the detailed discussions of what for, a specific memorial might take. They will likely have already moved on to be considering the next calamity. I think there is, however, a role for emergency managers who are responsible for mapping out what recovery from any disaster might look like to engage with the process and challenges of memorialisation. The approach required for this sensitive activity is not the same as the ones which invariably get written into plans.


Note: I’ve found it hard writing this post, which tries to capture the range of ways that people memorialise, without seeming to trivialise the pain associated with each of the examples selected. In making those selections, I’m aware I have excluded many other incidents and their memorials. I hope that through considering memorialisation, experienced emergency managers can support future disaster-impacted communities to memorialise better than they often have been. 

81 more things emergency managers should know

81 more things emergency managers should know

Reading Time: 5 minutes


The debate about professionalisation of emergency management continues , including this through-provoking blog by Jeff Donaldson.

I recently described emergency management as a ‘proto-profession’; it entertains ambitions of professionalisation and expends (a lot) of energy in the development of professional standards and there are bodies which govern entry to the club. However, a significant proportion of the debate feel that without an agreed corpus of knowledge it can’t truly be a profession and that there should be greater role for the bodies in determining entry (whilst not wanting to risk being excluded themselves).

The argument typically follows that medicine and law have self-regulated education, training, and standards, underpinned by collective knowledge and ethical principles. My perspective is that there whilst there needs to be agreement on some core knowledge, both medicine and law which are held as shining beacons are professions which seek to change and learn. Their knowledge isn’t fixed and has evolved considerably over time (I’m looking at you trepanning the skull!).

In my view it’s better to do something and make some progress than it is to debate over the finer detail at the detriment to the field and it’s people. We are entering a new dawn for emergency management and should be approaching it head-on.

So what is the body of knowledge for emergency management?

Several years ago (in a rage-fuelled post) I attempted to set out my thoughts on what I would include.

The original list of 81 things and emergency manager should know was all mine. I knew then that it was incomplete. The beauty of emergency management is that everybody brings something to the table (as I said similarly in this recent post for National Careers Week).

Therefore I’ve revisited and supplemented the original list with the wonderful and brilliant suggestions of friends and colleagues, some of whom I know well, and others I’ve yet to met but who felt compelled enough to add their thoughts to the list as it has been shared online.

  1. The key languages spoken in your relevant communities (and ideally a greeting and thank you in each).
  2. How to use Resilience Direct/other platforms to share documents and maps.
  3. How to provide and take information in a clear structure way (eg. METHANE or IMARCH).
  4. How to say no politely (at first) to things that aren’t your remit.
  5. A sense of humour.
  6. The best snacks to keep you going at 2am.
  7. How to ‘lower your hand’ on teams/zoom etc (see also: how to use mute/unmute).
  8. The key roles and ranks indicated in emergency service and military uniforms (tabards, rank markings, what that gold string means etc).
  9. Key acronyms, when to use them and when to avoid them.
  10. That senior management likely won’t be interested until the wheels are starting to fall off.
  11. How to think outside the box and capture the rationale for doing so.
  12. Who you can call when you don’t know who else to call. And what number to call them on.
  13. Know your local significant infrastructure and the risks presented by its failure.
  14. Limits of any delegated decision authority.
  15. Understand the direction of the wind (both literally and figuratively).
  16. Water (and blame) flows downhill.
  17. The sticky bun that nobody else has eaten will come back to haunt you 2 hours later.
  18. You are not an island.
  19. Requirements of the COMAH and Pipeline Safety Regulations.
  20. Turner’s Disaster Incubation Theory.
  21. Who the FEMA Administrator is.
  22. How to make use of ‘screenshot’ to share information without having to wait for it to be circulated by the originator (and when not to do this too).
  23. How to turn a document in to a PDF, and how to reverse it if needed.
  24. ‘You can’t fix stupid’.
  25. Something (anything!) about bioterrorism.
  26. The importance of infant feeding in emergencies.
  27. The difference between personal safety and process safety.
  28. The most dangerous place is between the fire service and the catering van.
  29. A brief history of civil protection and the formative events in it’s evolution.
  30. How to recognise signs of trauma (and vicarious trauma) in yourself and others.
  31. At least 4 different routes to your place of work, using different means of transport.
  32. That COBR doesn’t have an A.
  33. Key response operation names and what they mean.
  34. 1917-1920 flu epidemic.
  35. Basics of crowd psychology.
  36. A rough idea of what different 999 service specialists/vehicles do.
  37. A rough idea of what happens behind the scenes when you call 999.
  38. Where to find the keys.
  39. Read old Inquiry/Inquest/prevention of future death reports like they’re your favourite genre.
  40. How to spot and counter a microaggression.
  41. Respect the news images, they have different access to information to you.
  42. The importance of searching out lived experiences.
  43. Vital importance of effective communication.
  44. Something about structural stability and the technical terms for standard building components.
  45. Something about asbestos.
  46. Know what you don’t know.
  47. Know that there is no accounting for politicians.
  48. Remember that saying it once is usually not enough, repeating it frequently helps.
  49. Know the history of your profession in your country (and elsewhere).
  50. Find ways to cope (or thrive) in the messiness of trans-disciplinary working.
  51. Take time to reflect, and understand your own ethics and the ethics of the organisation(s) you work with.
  52. How to be open to challenge and constructive criticism.
  53. How to defend yourself against criticism which is just mean.
  54. Decision makers won’t always follow your advice – figure out how you deal with that.
  55. There is always something you won’t know so you should always be looking to learn.
  56. What spolia is.
  57. A bit about the insurance industry.
  58. How to forward your phone.
  59. How to block your number from coming up if you have a suspicion somebody is screening your calls.
  60. A little about the ‘chain of custody’ and steps to preserve evidence if required.
  61. How to communicate when normal methods fail.
  62. Grounding techniques that work for you.
  63. Tips to keep your typing speed at a minimum of 60 words per minute.
  64. An understanding of the difference between prudent business continuity and panic buying.
  65. The maturity of language to talk about crowd incidents whilst being aware of the myth of panic.
  66. What the Sphere standards are.
  67. Signs of organisational trauma.
  68. Lencioni’s 5 disfunctions of a team.
  69. The difference between important and urgent.
  70. A little about disaster capitalism.
  71. There isn’t always a single right answer, but there can be many wrong answers.
  72. Why it’s important to read the detail of the forecast, not just reach to the ‘colour’ of the warning.
  73. The difference between a lesson identified and a lesson learnt. 
  74. How to describe what your job is succinctly at social engagements.
  75. What happened in the Carrington Event and why it’d be different now.
  76. How El Nino and La Nina have global effects.
  77. The pros and cons of lean processes and efficiency.
  78. Know when a situation needs simplicity and when it needs detail. 
  79. Enough about your stakeholders to be able to manage the politics of seating plans
  80. How to connect the projector/printer/label making machine to your computer.
  81. Parkinson’s Law of public administration.


I expect this list could continue to grow, and will be refined as people make a case for what is in/out of the corpus. I wholeheartedly encourage that – help us define what an emergency manager needs to know.

Ramen Resolution: Basebowl Ramen

Ramen Resolution: Basebowl Ramen

Reading Time: 3 minutes


After a delicious ramen experience at Sakuramen when I last visited Washington D.C. in 2018 I was excited to check out somewhere new and see what else the city had to offer.

It was only after walking a considerable distance that I found out that the place I’d had my sights set on, Kaiju Ramen, was closed. Google Maps tried its hardest to send me to Torai Sushi, but that wasn’t going to cut it! I needed that silky broth!

Venturing a little further afield, I decided to head to Basebowl Ramen (or here on Instagram). Walking in Washington DC igenerally means seeing lots of cool places, but the route from Capital Hill to Navy Yard was pretty uninspiring.

I liked the pun (this restaurant is directly opposite the Washington Nationals baseball stadium) but was ultimately a little disappointed with my experience.

The main issue that I had with Basebowl Ramen was the portion size. The bowl was physically much smaller than many others, so whilst I added some additional toppings it felt more like a snack than a meal. Fortunately, I had clocked the small bowls on arrival so I also ordered the ume karrage (plum fried chicken) and didn’t leave hungry, but don’t think it needed the sweet chilli sauce as well as the spicy mayonaise.

I’m not ignorant of the fact that these noodles are essentially designed for the mass market of spectators heading to, or leaving from, a baseball game. Ramen is actually a genius idea for that because it’s quick, filling and easy to offer customisation options. It was highly possible that the noodles could have been sat soaking up sauce for too long to retain their bite. However, these weren’t bad noodles in terms of quality, although the egg was perhaps on the hard-boiled end of jammy.

Basebowl offer a wide variety of different options, each with some kind of baseball name (Switch Hitter, Batter’s Favourite and Strike Out). I chose to keep things simple with the signature tonkotsu broth and some added corn. The pork belly, floating in a (small) pool of creamy broth, was fatty and melted in my mouth.

The service in the restaurant was friendly and my ‘server’ (that’s an American term which I’m not sure I’m entirely onboard with) was helpful and attentive. The interior of the restaurant was modern, with a central bar in prime position to watch sports on big screens. A bunch of people in one corner were enjoying a speciality happy-hour sake bomb, which I have to admit that I regret not trying.

Overall, I’d rate my experience at Basebowl Ramen a 2 out of 5. The service and atmosphere were nice, the noodles overall tasted good, but the overdone egg and the small portion size mean points are docked. That being said, it’s always worth trying out new restaurants. I don’t regret eating there, just begrudge paying normal ramen prices for 50% of the product.

Careers Week 2023: Emergency Management

Careers Week 2023: Emergency Management

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I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts for anyone who might be interested in a career in emergency management, during National Careers Week, taking place between 6-10 March.

How did I find emergency management?

When I was little I wanted to design rollercoasters.

There wasn’t much call for that in the UK, so my school work experience aged 14 was in a car factory! I realised there would be a huge requirement for engineering knowledge and recognised that my mathematics skills probably weren’t up to scratch, so it was back to the drawing board.

With wall-to-wall media coverage of the Millennium Bug, I spent a lot of time hearing about the apocalyptic events that would happen on 1 January 2000. I became interested in how to prepare and respond to those kinds of major disasters. I didn’t know it was a career option but knew it was an area of work that I wanted to be involved in. The terrorist attacks in America in 2001 were a significant and formative event for many in my generation of emergency management.

I suspect that there is a whole swathe of people, who, having lived through COVID are also considering how they might get involved to reduce the impact that these events can have on our lives.

Image of a person wearing a tabard which reads 'Emergency Manager'Emergency management has become more popular but remains a niche profession which doesn’t have much airtime. I hope this post gives a bit of a flavour of what emergency management is like as a job, as well as my tips on breaking into the field.

What do you enjoy about your job?

We generally like order and control. Disasters and emergencies are messy. Disasters are terrible events that affect many people in unimaginable ways. However, I have seen so many examples of the best in people and communities when they are going through the worst times.

I view my role through a lens of supporting and facilitating that natural human response to look after each other. A large part of being an emergency manager is about bringing some coordination to a chaotic situation. There is a lot of satisfaction which comes from being involved in making sense and supporting the management of a chaotic situation.

What is an emergency manager?

The good people at Prospects have a page on emergency management, which sets out that “you’ll play a role in protecting and maintaining public safety” by anticipating and planning for major incidents “in local or central government, or in a public body”.

But it is so much more than that!

During the pandemic, I wrote a list of 81 things an Emergency Manager needs to know. The breadth of things included on that list gives a flavour of the many different directions that emergency management can take you in, and in which you can come into emergency management.

Emergency management is risk management. It is health and safety. It is security. It is communication. It is about data. It is logistics. It is policy development. It is training. Depending on which sector you work in the balance between those things will be different, but fundamentally, emergency management is about people.

For a long time emergency management was the domain of retired military and firefighters. That experience still has incredible value, but there are more diverse pathways into the field than there used to be, which is brilliant, because with new people come new ideas and a more effective and inclusive response.

What does a typical day look like?

Gosh, that’s a tough one. The thing about emergencies is that they are inherently unpredictable (although some are more predictable than others). There tends to be a fair amount of variability day to day depending on what might be happening or risks that are the current concern.

A typical day also looks different depending on what organisation you work for. However, generally speaking, a typical day will involve lots of teamwork and communicating with different people both within your organisation and beyond. In my experience, there are a lot of meetings, but also frequent external site visits and equipment checks too. Obviously, there are incident response days too. Whatever plan you might have had for the day goes totally out of the window and it’s all about doing your bit to support the people impacted, and then the ongoing recovery and learning processes.

Where to seek out more advice?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is just one route to your chosen career. Or that there is a factory which spits out carbon copies of emergency managers.

The beauty of emergency management is that it touches the edges of so many other functions. This is also it’s Achilles heel – it is hard to define and codify. Where possible, try to use that to your advantage. Everyone has something valuable they can bring to emergency management, what are you bringing?

If you’re interested in working in emergency management then here are my top 5 tips on steps I would take with hindsight:

  1. Talk to people working in the field. Be prepared that many people simply won’t respond to your emails or prospective emails. But somebody will somewhere. Find emergency managers on social media (there’s a small community of us on Twitter, but probably hold off on sending lots of LinkedIn requests until you’ve met people in person). Volunteer to attend scenario training events to meet potential new colleagues. Join a professional body, like the Emergency Planning Society, as an associate or student member and attend their events (which is a bit easier now with more online events).
  2. Take advantage of work experience placements and any training. Don’t worry too much about it being in a directly relevant field. You’re not going to become an emergency manager in your two-week placement, but you can start to learn about yourself, about workplaces and about what you are looking for. Whilst there may be restrictions based on age or location, try to take advantage of the free training by bodies such as Skills for Life. Simple things like having a first aid qualification, awareness of information handling principles or data analysis skills can set you apart from others.
  3. Research what potential future employers are looking for. Think about how you can demonstrate that you are a good candidate. Entry-level emergency management roles will generally be looking for people with great organisational skills, the capability to prioritise work, project management skills and effective communication. What examples can you use to so you can do that? What things could you do to build even more skills in those areas?
  4. Talk to a careers advisor. Whether you’re still at school or college, progressing through university, unemployed or looking for a change in career direction at a later stage, careers advisors can offer support and signpost to opportunities. They probably won’t know the ins-and-outs of emergency management, but can help you make high-quality applications and help you to identify skills you may be less aware of.
  5. Learn and reflect. Employers will want to see that you have some understanding of the field, but you don’t need to memorise Wikipedia articles, you won’t be tested on that. You might choose to read about things, or watch documentaries on Netflix, or listen to podcasts. Keep an eye out for the lessons from notable disasters and what the current risks might be and why. This can be referred to as ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and it’s a skill given how broad emergency management can be.

A bonus tip – follow the National Careers Service on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn or Instagram.

Good luck!

Future Leader Scheme: End of scheme conference

Future Leader Scheme: End of scheme conference

Reading Time: 4 minutes


My time on the Civil Service Future Leader Scheme formally came to an end recently, culminating in a conference at Birmingham’s International Conference Centre. My leadership journey continues beyond the course but here’s my hot take on the conference.

It was great to be alongside many colleagues from my cohort but also enjoyable to be in a room with another 300 or so people on the same journey. The opportunities to network beyond your cohort have been surprisingly limited (or maybe I just didn’t take the opportunities that were available). So it was nice, if a little strange, to meet people for the first time at the end of the scheme.

One of the most exciting aspects was to meet up with colleagues who’ve also been documenting their progression through the scheme online.

There is so little written about the FLS that you would be forgiven for thinking it had the same first rule as Fight Club. I’ve searched for blogs and social media, but only a handful of people have shared their views. Making those connections in real life was great, and I’m looking forward to continuing to follow their adventures.

At first look, the agenda for the conference was fairly light. I was interested to hear from a couple of speakers (Lynda Rawsthorne, a Director at DfT and Emran Mian, Director General at DLUHC) but there was a lot of time for networking. Weirdly there was very little to facilitate or stimulate that, and I wonder on reflection is a more ‘unconference’ approach might have been useful.

Who do you think you are?

Lynda’s session on her leadership journey was undeniably fabulous (and I’m a fan of the subtle Spice Girls reference in the title of her presentation)! Attendees were eating out of the palm of her hand by the end of her short masterclass in authentic, story-telling approach to presenting.

She touched on many of the concepts that the course had covered, but the key standout messages for me were:

  • Get a coach/peer group to continue to support you.
  • If your employer is willing to pay for training/development then take it – even if immediate benefits don’t seem obvious.
  • Embrace being an incomplete leader – nobody is great at everything, know your limitations and strengths.
  • Push yourself to do things that feel uncomfortable. 
  • Don’t procrastinate! Life changes and there will never be the perfect time for anything. 
  • Keep your integrity. Do things you can live with. 
  • A new role offers the opportunity for a reset. 
  • Maintain boundaries. Don’t lose yourself.

Making the transition vs Integrity

Sadly, Emran was unable to attend and a panel session on making the transition to senior civil service roles took it’s place.

An objective for many people on the LFLS seems to be achieving more senior roles. Consequently, this was essentially a ‘how to play the game’ session to ace the selection process. I’m not sure that was my motivation and therefore this fell a little flat for me.

I also thought it was a strange juxtaposition with the next session on social mobility, valuing people over competence rather than background and behaviour. The two things didn’t align – in one session being told to ‘consider your personal brand’ and then to be encouraged to ‘be your whole self’.

    As you progress within an organisation consider how you can put people at ease – relationship dynamics change and people who were once comfortable with you may not be as your position changes.

  • Consider implementing a ‘no meetings between 12:00 – 14:00 in winter’ rule with your team to encourage the opportunity to go out in daylight.
  • Challenge things that are accepted as normal. Ask stupid questions.
  • Get to know the gatekeepers and use your networks – they help you to hear things more quickly, to stay ahead of the curve.

Reflections from a Local Government Leader

The final session of the year-long programme was a session billed as reflections about working with the Civil Service from outside. This had the potential to be really interesting and enlightening – brining a different perspective to the issues that have arisen during the course.

However, what transpired was an awkward session which fell short of what had been promised.

This was one of the absolute zingers, but more generally, I think a passive-aggressive question at a conference often reveals that the speaker has hit a nerve. That deserves iexamination. Our first instinct is to leap to the defensive (or the aggressive), which perhaps it’s an ideal leadership quality.

It was also a lesson about how to prepare of these sorts of events.

  • The speaker didn’t seem to be well briefed on what they should be talking about and who was in the room
  • The facilitator didn’t have ‘extraction skills’ to navigate away from choppy waters
  • The audience didn’t have rules of engagement

Many colleagues I spoke to afterwards found it uncomfortable. However, perhaps the provocation served a purpose. More than any other session during the day it got people talking, passionately, and sharing their views. There was a level of ‘trauma-bonding’ perhaps, but one of the functions of a leader is to generate discussion; so, mission accomplished, I guess.

Some final thoughts…

The final speaker definitely left an impression. As did FLS overall.

Like most things, you get out of it what you put in, but it’s challenging and has made me question things more than I expected. One of the very clear strands which come through in all modules, and the optional assignments, has been about personal reflection. FLS fo me has been part leadership development, part career coaching and a large dose of therapy.

I changed job role part way through the course and at my ‘leaving’ drinks one colleague said “it’s nice to be somewhere so noisy; it means I can’t hear my own thoughts”. In some ways, I think that about reflection. There is a time and a place, and it needs to be handled carefully and with copious self-compassion because it can quickly turn into negativity.

This isn’t the right time to reflect on the scheme as a whole, which has had bumps in the road, but I think had broadly been interesting. I’ll come back with some more considered thoughts later!