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Book Review – The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Book Review – The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Reading Time: 2 minutes

 

Hot on the heels of my last book review here comes another!

The Disaster Tourist by Korean autjor Yun Ko-eun tells the story of Yona, who’s worked for Seoul-based travel company Jungle for 10 years, offering package holidays to destinations in disaster zones.

The Disaster Tourist: Wish You Weren't Here book cover by Yub Ko-eun

When she tries to quit after a #MeToo incident, her boss tries to buy her silence with a free trip to Mui, a remote Vietnamese island home to one of the company’s least popular disaster tours. In return, all she needs to provide is a full report on how to improve the itinerary.

To begin with, all seems okay. She joins 5 other people on the trip and has a bit of an adventure out to see some volcanoes. But things start hotting up when she becomes trapped on the island and begins to figure out what is happening around her – a tale of surreal conspiracy and powerful corporate entities plotting to stage a plausible disaster.

First published in Korean in 2013 but translated into English in 2020 by Lizzie Buehler sometimes it feels like the characters are a bit thin; we hear nothing of Yona’s life outside of work and her love story comes across as just lukewarm. Of course, as an emergency manager, I also naturally took issue at the use of ‘natural disaster’ throughout (see here for why natural disasters don’t exist).

There were also sections of the book, later in the story, which I found myself reflecting on in ways other readers perhaps wouldn’t. As emergency managers we develop similar stories for training exercises, and the faceless/nameless identities of the characters in those exercises seemed all too familiar whilst reading this.

It’s a short book at just 180 or so pages. I read it to a background of TV news showing Hurricane Ida making landfall in Louisianna, which seemed especially resonant. As Yona herself contemplates “disaster lays dormant in every corner, like depression. You never knew when it might spring into terrible action”.

The Disaster Tourist is thought-provoking throughout (especially as an emergency manager) but I suspect it takes on a slightly different relevance for everyone now contemplating post-pandemic travel.

And finally, it’s unlikely that other readers would draw a similar parallels, but this section seemed prophetic having been written in 2013…

Section of text extracted from The Disaster Tourist

Book Review: The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Book Review: The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

This is the first book review I’ve written since being in secondary school, which…well, was a while ago, so go easy on me. I was inspired by a tweet a few weeks ago…

There has been some chatter both online and offline recently about the ‘visibility of emergency management’. Professor David Alexander’s article last summer asked “where are the emergency planners?“. The Emergency Management Growth Initiative has been seeking to bring greater awareness. And there have been recent challenges to the narrative that ‘plans didn’t exist’ for the UK response to the COVID pandemic. 

Generally, there’s a view from within, that that emergency management needs to be more mainstream, especially in the minds of political leaders. 

Over the last 9 years I’ve also tried to use this blog as a way to bring greater visibility to emergency management issues; most directly in an early post about breaking out of the bunker, which is simultaneously the natural habitat of the Emergency Manager but can also be what holds us back as a profession.

It was with great excitement that I ordered Michael Lewis’ book The Premonition, about a group of like-minded (and like-frustrated!) individuals who know that something serious needs to be done about pandemic planning. The book tells how a small group initiated and then performed repeated course corrections to US pandemic planning in the face of indifferent, layered, and fragmented bureaucracies. Speaking about the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009 one of the cast notes “there was no one driving the bus” and that despite pockets of good work across the country, the formal bodies people looked to for leadership (the Centre for Disease Control gets an especially scathing review) were deeply dysfunctional.

The book repeatedly asks the question “What happens when the people in charge of managing the risks have no interest in them?”. Pretty much every time it circles back to passionate people fighting to be heard and finally breaking through (often to be un- or under-appreciated).

Like Love Actually, there are several intertwined stories at play. Initially, each of the main characters (they’re actually real people) are doing their own wonderful things in splendid isolation, solving local problems using local means. But characters are brought together through chance meetings, introductions or happenstance, and realise their collective power.

One observation is that for a Public Health Officer in the States, there is no defined career path. I’ve heard similar representations about Emergency Management. This is thought to represent a problem because it means such a diversity of approaches and backgrounds and therefore a lack of a common approach. However, I would argue that this allows multiple perspectives to be more easily readily and more organically, but agree that some standardisation could be beneficial.

Like in an emergency, rapid response is vital to control and reduce the impact of disease outbreaks. The response to outbreaks and emergencies often needs to be instinctive, Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ rather than the more considered ‘System 2’. As one of the protagonists remarks about a Hepatitis C outbreak “if we had waited for enough evidence to be published in journals then we would have already lost,” and similarly, later in the book talking about wildfire response, someone remarks “you cannot wait for the smoke to clear – once you can see things clearly it’s already too late.”

Active vs passive choice seems to be another recurring theme throughout The Premonition, reminiscent of the Trolley Problem:

In particular, there is a chapter that considers a response to potential health issues following a Californian mudslide and one of the stars of the book is described as “She processes information quickly and spits out a decision fast, that makes people nervous. You don’t find people like that in government.”

Considering the profession, or at least the decision-makers background, there is an observation that the Homeland Security Council was “staffed by military types who spent their days considering attacks from hostile foreigners, not the flu” and that this had the effect of cognitive narrowing, choosing to not see the things which were unfamiliar. 

One of the characters talks about how they wanted to try to get the President, then George W Bush, to pay attention to the widespread impact that a serious pandemic could have across all society, not just healthcare. I was particularly amused that rather than formal submissions and briefings, actually what got the President interested was providing him with an annotated history book.

An intensivist doctor talking about touch clinical decisions remarks that “I felt like my best when shit hits the fan. I focus like a laser when everything is going to shit” and someone else mentions “You are going to make mistakes. The sin is making the same mistake twice and best is to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

The Premonition isn’t a popular science review of pandemic interventions and response strategies. Although, if there is a Hollywood adaptation (like Lewis’ Moneyball) then there would be parts for Selena Gomez to reprise her role in explaining dense public health theories and concepts. There’s an extended section which compares 1918 influenza pandemic interventions in Philadelphia and St Louis and supporting evidence which indicates “cities that intervened immediately experienced less disease and death” and further that cities which “caved to pressure from businesses to relax social distancing then experienced a more severe second wave.” 

Lewis also presents research that concludes that you “couldn’t design a better system for transmitting disease than the school system,” which got me thinking about perceptions, and why there is a persistent view that closing schools is a bad idea? Surely it’s only a bad idea if it is done badly?

The book notes how we are notoriously bad at understanding statistics and complex dynamics. Exponential growth is hard for us to visualise beyond the first few steps. Lewis provides an example of folding a piece of paper 50 times being able to reach a distance of 70 million miles. It just doesn’t seem right.

What comes through most clearly is that more often than not this doesn’t come down to expertise or evidence. Success often is the result of people who work around the system. Individuals with passion projects that compensate for the failings and deficiencies of their organisations.

My own passion project has been to try and better surface and understand interdependencies between different systems. It’s easy to become a specialist in your own field, but to see how that connects and relates to other areas is less common. My Anytown project started off as a way to try and convey the ‘whole society’ impact of various scenarios. The Premonition covers some of this in a short section that identifies the pressures on the production of nasal swabs which are only manufactured in three locations worldwide and are in extreme demand during a pandemic.

However, Lewis also makes the observation that decisions can no longer be made purely on the basis of technical evidence and draws the book to a conclusion noting that “greater attention needs to be paid to how decisions might appear to a cynical public.”

There are some wild claims throughout, such as “The US invented pandemic planning in 2005”, which I’m not sure would stand up to much scrutiny. And I’m sure that trying to tell a history of COVID whilst we are all still living through COVID means there is more to be uncovered. But overall, The Premonition is an easy to read yet insightful book which casts light on, more often than not, the failings of government-level risk management and the commitment and passion of public health and emergency management professionals, noting that some are “so committed it’s more of a mission than a job.” 

 

Next on my reading list: Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick

Reflecting on a pandemic year

Reflecting on a pandemic year

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

I’ve been feeling a bit reflective recently, so thought I’d jot down the things that sprang to me as ‘learning points’ over the past year.

There will be more. The order isn’t significant. There’s a blend of work and personal. But just getting this list down has helped me organise my thoughts a bit.

  1. Homeschooling is different to emergency education at home.
  2. Being at home during an emergency and trying to work is not the same as working from home.
  3. Clapping nurses was nice for two weeks, then became performative.
  4. Chickpeas basically go with anything.
  5. So do potato waffles.
  6. Frozen cherries are better than ice in a gin.
  7. There is a lot to be said about the curious snacks in the Polish shop.
  8. Going to the cinema was more fun than I realised.
  9. That couple of weeks without any cars on the roads was glorious.
  10. The vanity around haircuts was surprising.
  11. “Chis” stands for covert human intelligence source.
  12. I miss live music more than I thought. Live-streamed music events were a tonic. Stream DISCO
  13. My feet forgot what shoes were for a while. I was glad of the garden during that stage.
  14. Cat colleagues make the best colleagues (see pic)
  15. Related: when an outdoor cat becomes an indoor cat you realise just how many furballs they cough up.
  16. There’s no way skinny jeans will ever be happening again. I’m ok with it.
  17. Despite clearing out loads of junk, I still have a lot of junk.
  18. I didn’t get the banana bread obsession. Still don’t.
  19. I am a lark and an owl. I am not a [whatever is most active in the afternoons].
  20. I want to be drunk in a field with friends again. That is very important to me.
  21. I miss spontaneity.
  22. You can walk almost anywhere if it doesn’t matter what time you arrive. And if you have the right shoes on.
  23. Binge-watching is really the only skill I have honed. But I am world-class at it.
  24. Nobody really understands what R is.
  25. There is a clear need for good graphic design in emergency response.
  26. That pandemic planning we had done has been immeasurably important, even if the government decided at the first juncture to chuck the plan in the bin.
  27. Doomscrolling is real. I had to learn on several occasions to just put my phone down.
  28. There’s joy in simple pleasures. I’ve now got a favourite local tree.
  29. We need to be better at learning ‘as we go’ rather than debriefing at the end. We need to be better at debriefing at the end too.
  30. People can come up with very creative quiz rounds when required.
  31. Local communities are great in a crisis, but turf wars with neighbours intensify.
  32. I despise voicemail but love a WhatsApp voice note.
  33. The thought of social interaction makes me a bit anxious.
  34. Time is elastic. I have no idea what day of the week it is. Blursday?
  35. Figuring out that I have an onion intolerance was useful and unexpected.
  36. I think I might be a hugger.
  37. I can waste a lot of time watching people doing stupid shit on TikTok.
  38. Lots of people have adapted to crisis quite well, but there are pockets that have struggled. We should focus future planning efforts on helping those who need help most.
  39. Being able to talk about work stuff in a non-worky way is important. The sideline chats in the kitchen, the after-work drinks. They are valuable.
  40. There is global overuse of the word unprecedented.
  41. Bad emergency management decisions have been made which could have been avoided if an entire profession hadn’t been gaslit. No doubt other professions will feel similarly.
Whitehall’s White Elephant?

Whitehall’s White Elephant?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

On 16 March, the UK Government released The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Amongst other things (like the adoption of ‘Homeland Security’ language and assertions of a ‘whole society approach and a ‘reservist cadre’) the report confirms £9.3 million of investment to “bolster our national resilience with a new Situation Centre at the heart of government, improving our use of data and our ability to anticipate and respond to future crises.”

Lovely stuff.

A bit further into the document, at page 106, it describes the purpose of the Situation Centre is to “provide live data, analysis and insights to decision-makers on what is happening in the UK and around the world, strengthening our ability to identify, understand and respond to national security issues and crises.”

On the surface, this sounds good but it also has the potential to feed an illusion of control, control that may not actually exist. It could also become a facility which tries to be all things for all people and which becomes difficult and expensive to maintain.

Information is helpful (mostly)

One of the defining qualities of an emergency is that there is an initial information vacuum. I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that accurate information might not be available for some time. However, that cannot be a barrier to making decisions.

Attempts to speed up the availability of information can be useful in supporting decision making with evidence.

However, access to granular information could also result in COBR micro-managing rather than maintaining a strategic focus.

A Police Commander that I worked with described a similar situation with policing. With increased access to CCTV comes the temptation to ‘police by CCTV’, however, CCTV images alone do not give complete situational awareness.

I’m sure that it would be fascinating to collect the data and see what it shows. I attempted this myself several years ago (mostly as a proof of concept/experiment). Heavily inspired by Oliver O’Brien at UCL, I pulled together relevant data from existing feeds and presented this in a single dashboard. This went on to be the forerunner of a proprietary system that London still uses, but after 5 years without any maintenance, lots of the links in my own prototype are now broken. A relic still exists if you’re interested.

If I was able to knock this dashboard up relatively quickly with zero experience, I would be shocked (although not altogether surprised) if the bulk of the investment is going on this data tool.

Information can be misleading

The more data you have access to the larger your cohort of analysts and data scientists need to be.

But analysis can introduce bias into how information is presented and interpreted by others.

Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales podcast touched on this recently in the episode Florence Nightingale and Her Geeks Declare War on Death. Harford described how Nightingale introduced data analysis to show decision-makers that deaths due to poor sanitation could be averted. However, in doing so she also showed that graphs can be persuasive whether or not they depict reality.

Similarly, after taking a module in my undergraduate degree called How to Lie With Maps with Professor Robert Mayhew I still find myself looking for clues that I’m being misled.

Unless there are some seriously competent and equipped analysts to support the Situation Centre (staffing of the centre isn’t mentioned in the report) then there is every possibility that incorrect conclusions will be drawn. And in times of national emergency, the consequences of that could be catastrophic.

My 3 hopes for the Whitehall Situation Centre

Towards the top of my wish list for a situation centre would be:

  1. Be Interoperable – the situation centre should be able to ‘talk”, in data terms, to other relevant centres. Collect the data once, use it many times. I suspect this will be built in for defence and security information, but there will be less interest in information gathered at the local level through Strategic Coordinating Groups. The report released last week covers a lot of ground – Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and therefore interoperability across the range of responders would be helpful too.
  2. Be Open – the report makes it clear that significant shifts in policy are needed to fulfil the objectives.  This includes a ‘whole of society’ approach and therefore I think if members of the public are being asked to do stuff, they should be able to operate with a similar information picture. There will be situations that don’t allow for full transparency of information, but the default should be openness.
  3. Be Bold – I suspect the £9.3m will be quickly eaten up by consultants, and what we’ll end up with are some projectors and smartboards. Instead, the facility should look to use cutting edge technologies and innovations and be future proof. They won’t want to spend this type of money regularly, so it needs to anticipate what the trends and technologies are going to be over the next 10 years and be an early adopter.
81 things an emergency manager should know

81 things an emergency manager should know

Reading Time: 3 minutes  Each week since the start of lockdown the Emergency Planning Society has been hosting ‘Resilience Huddles’ on Zoom. An opportunity for members to come together to decompress during these unusual times but also to share ideas and learn from each other. In the most recent of these events I was (and I cannot stress this enough) enraged when somebody suggested Emergency Management isn’t a profession. Take a look at this image. Can you guess the professions? Which one is the emergency manager? Sure, unlike ‘doctor’ or ‘engineer’ the title Emergency Manager is less well-defined. But a profession, to me, is the application of specialist knowledge and skills in the interest of others. I see colleagues around me doing that every day. A profession should not be reduced to being identifiable in clip art. To suggest we are not a profession implies we are unprofessional. That makes me angry because I work with unquestionably professional people. Our days are spent building relationships, translating between professional backgrounds, navigating organisational cultures, and referencing broad bodies of research and learning. We are ‘specialist generalists’. Inspired by a list of 250 things an architect should know from a recent 99 Percent Invisible podcast, I’ve had a stab at 81 things (in no order of priority) that I think an emergency manager should to know:
  1. The capacity of wetlands to attenuate flood waters.
  2. How to guard a house from floods.
  3. How to correctly describe wind directions.
  4. The difference between radius and diameter.
  5. Henry Quarantelli.
  6. How to use the photocopier.
  7. Germ theory.
  8. How to give directions.
  9. Why Chernobyl was like that.
  10. And why Hurricane Katrina was like that.
  11. And why 9/11 was like that.
  12. And why Grenfell was like that.
  13. The NATO phonetic alphabet.
  14. A bit about genealogy and taxonomy.
  15. Wren’s rebuilding after the Great Fire of London.
  16. The history of the fire brigade.
  17. The history of the police service.
  18. Where to get good late night food near where you work.
  19. What makes you happy.
  20. Recognising burnout in yourself and others.
  21. Geography.
  22. Some geology.
  23. A bit of chemistry and physics.
  24. Capability Brown.
  25. Burial practices in a wide range of cultures.
  26. Serious doesn’t have to equal boring.
  27. What to refuse to do, even for the money.
  28. Three good lunch spots within walking distance.
  29. The proper proportions of your favourite cocktail.
  30. How to listen.
  31. How to behave with junior members of staff.
  32. How to manage upwards.
  33. Seismic magnitude scales.
  34. Wind speed scales.
  35. Air quality indicators.
  36. A bit about imperialism.
  37. The wages of construction workers and nurses.
  38. How to get lost.
  39. How to (politely) tell somebody to get lost.
  40. The meaninglessness of borders.
  41. Normal accident theory.
  42. How maps lie.
  43. A bit about IT disaster recovery.
  44. What went wrong with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
  45. John Hersey’s Hiroshima article.
  46. Tuckman’s stages of team development. 
  47. What your boss thinks they wants.
  48. What your boss actually wants.
  49. What your boss needs.
  50. The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
  51. The rate at which the seas are rising.
  52. How children experience disaster.
  53. How disability affects disaster experience.
  54. Why women and girls experience disaster differently.
  55. How to quickly synthesise and draw meaning from multiple sources.
  56. How to corroborate information.
  57. Who you can turn to for help.
  58. How to respect what has come before.
  59. How to give a METHANE message.
  60. Kubler-Ross stage of grief model.
  61. The difference between complicated and complex.
  62. How to create an Ishikawa diagram.
  63. A bit about crowd dynamics.
  64. Which respected disaster researchers resonate with you and why.
  65. How to think critically about the status quo.
  66. How to perform CPR.
  67. Advanced google search techniques.
  68. Local emergency management and adjacent legislation.
  69. The seven principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.
  70. The difference between the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks.
  71. The link between John Snow and modern epidemiology.
  72. Lord Justice Clarke’s four principles for disaster victim identification.
  73. How failures of imagination have had consequences.
  74. How to foster reciprocity.
  75. How to challenge disaster myths and Hollywood disaster tropes.
  76. Gestalt theory.
  77. Kahneman’s decision making heuristics.
  78. Swiss cheese model of safety.
  79. ‘No ELBOW’ contemporaneous record keeping.
  80. How to use conditional formatting in Excel.
  81. Murphy’s Law.
Undoubtedly this list is incomplete. It’s what I came up with over an hour or so and fueled by a considerable amount of rage. Maybe I’ll come back to later. If you’ve got thoughts on what else should be on the list send suggestions on Twitter @mtthwhgn.
Pandemic Anytown

Pandemic Anytown

Reading Time: 3 minutesRemember that song you learnt at school… “the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone“? Well, that song tells us to think of the body as a system of interconnected and interdependent components which work together to form a whole. Make a change somewhere and the repercussions of that will be felt elsewhere.

Other metaphors are available: The butterfly effect. The domino effect.

For a whole host of reasons though, we often focus more on components over systems; and it’s important we do that.

It’s important that when we plug something into an electrical socket or turn on a tap that what we are expecting comes out.

But we should ask ourselves why that is important. It’s important because, owing to our highly connected modern society, when a component fails the cascading impacts of that can be felt far and wide. It’s not just inconvenient, it can sometimes have direct safety implications.

When an earthquake struck northern Italy in 2013, the NHS in the UK had a supply issue with dialysis tubing.

We’re seeing similar right now with the COVID pandemic. It’s not just the impact of people who contract the disease, but the far-ranging impacts and knock-on effects of social distancing and isolation, reduced international travel and changing perceptions of risk.

I started the ANYTOWN project in 2013 as an attempt to better understand and describe how a partial or total failure of a network can impact on other connected networks. In some circumstances, this can lead to a much larger range of impacts than just the initiating incident.

Previous blog posts about ANYTOWN cover a bit more of the background of the project. But I’ve been attempting to apply the same model to describe what we are seeing (and may see in the coming months) with COVID.

There is very little ‘real science’ to this. Previous Anytown work was informed by extensive focus group research. However, as this is a highly dynamic situation this is primarily my musings. I shared it on LinkedIn over the last week and I’m indebted to those who have made suggestions and offered feedback.

This is is a work in progress. It is biased towards my own experiences as a middle-class white man in his thirties in London. I appreciate that other people’s experience of COVID will be different. I want to reflect that in future versions, but at the moment it is a limitation that I have noted.

Here’s version 1.2 for you to explore…

Starting in the centre is the initiating incident, in this case, the pandemic virus. Although there may be some specifics to COVID I suspect many of the cascading consequences would be relatively similar across different global pandemic threats.

The next ring out from the centre describes the ‘first-order’ impacts that are/have been observed across a range of different sectors. So some of the first impacts that would be anticipated (and have played out with COVID) are the introduction of social distancing measures, reduced public transport use and increased handwashing.

Second and third-order impacts for each sector are then captured as you move further from the centre. The diagram deliberately doesn’t indicate timescales; I intended this to help understand sequence, not timing.

This is a bit of a thought experiment to see if the model would work having previously been geared towards ‘hard infrastructure’ systems failure. I think it does, but it needs some development. I’m incredibly grateful to those who have made suggestions (I haven’t checked that it’s ok to specifically credit them so acknowledgements to feature in a future version!) or have commented that they have found it useful.

It’s not the answer to the problem. Not by any means.

But hopefully, it’s a useful tool to help us all to think about how our increasing interconnectedness. Normally this is super helpful, but it can sometimes work against us. At a time when there’s lots of uncertainty about lots of things, perhaps this offers a bit of a glimpse into the future to help us be prepared.

COVID-19: an experiment in peer support

COVID-19: an experiment in peer support

Reading Time: 2 minutesJust what the world needs, another blog about COVID-19, except it’s not!


PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT 


There are, by my very rough calculations, something like 7000 Emergency Managers in the UK. Or at least, there were until earlier this week.

Now I think it’s probably something like 40 million!

Supermarket shelves might be empty, but communities are overflowing with people who want to look out for each other. It’s really quite wonderful to see.

But those 7000 people are still there.

They’re working long days (and nights).

They’re supporting people who routinely respond to challenging situations (and people who have never done this before).

They’re being asked for lots of information and answers (and they are not being told lots of information or having their questions answered).

In addition to that, they are people. If we openly admit it or not, these are worrying times. We’ve got families and homes and lives; thinking about the potential impacts of COVID-19 now, and in the future, makes us anxious too.

All of our employing organisations offer support. Support is available through friends and family. Support is available through professional societies. But I get the sense that something else is required.

This week a community of Emergency Managers on Twitter™ have been sharing of official messages, but we’ve also been reacting on a personal basis too. I’ve seen lots of good humour, and mutual support. I’ve seen (and issued my own) cries for help. That culminated yesterday in a discussion about finding a way to ‘get together’ and chat.

So, as an experiment, a few of us have grasped the last roll of toilet paper by the horns (look, it’s a crisis, leave my mixed metaphors alone) and decided to experiment with having virtual work drinks. Like everyone else, we’re going to use Zoom, as it’s free and seems user friendly. Many of us haven’t used it before so I’m fully expecting a bit of a bumpy ride.

My suggested a format is ‘the best thing that has happened this week and the thing you’re most concerned about’. It’s not about sharing best practise (though that is important), it’s not about bitching (that is important too). It’s about talking through a highly unusual situation with like-minded colleagues, and an ability to decompress after what has been a very long week.

Will it work? That depends on how you measure success. My prediction is that we’ll realise it’s a great idea but needs some work! I’ll report back!

Times like these can be hard. Talk to someone and wash your hands.

 

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COBRA: Episodes 5 and 6

COBRA: Episodes 5 and 6

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

Sky pulled a bit of a fast one here, combining episodes 5 and 6 into a double bill. Although this was not the plan, I’ll also blog about them in a double bill. One of the key attributes of an emergency manager, you see, is the ability to roll with the punches!

How Sky pitched these episodes:

  • As the nation slides into anarchy, Sutherland considers extreme measures to take control.
  • Sutherland is forced to fight for his political career. Meanwhile, riots rock the nation. 

 

The episode starts with a briefing in COBRA, always a handy narrative device to bring people up to speed if they’ve forgotten where we left off. In real life, the Cabinet Office support COBR meetings through the production of a commonly recognised information picture, which is widely referred to as “The CRIP”.  This process saves going around the table to get an update from each person as it’s already been collated.

The long and short of it is that the public is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress being seen to restore power to Northumberland, resulting in blockades around London to force the hand of the Government.

One theme that has come through strongly for the entire series is the ‘us v them’ between the ordinary members of the public and the privileged government. There doesn’t seem to have been any strength of feeling towards anyone other than the politicians, which I think would have been more realistic. “How has this been allowed to happen?” is a common question following an emergency. However, rarely is the answer simple and it’s usual that there are multiple intersecting criteria. Politics may be one of those but it’s not directly the sole cause.

Remember that sub-plot about the drug-pushing daughter of the Prime Minister? Well, things appear to have gone badly for all concerned, but…what I did find interesting is that the Press Office keeps a diary which is being used to establish the facts. In many ways, that’s not too different from keeping a record of decisions during an emergency. In the UK this record is referred to as a log. This is then used as a verb, logging, to describe the process of capturing information in a chronological record.

Oh gosh. The leader of the protest group has been hit by a car in a scene much like this…

With a sniff of conspiracy theory about the hit and run, negotiations with the lorry drivers supporting the blockades have broken down and reports of looting (which I’ve mentioned before is mostly a disaster myth) and rioting ( a term which they Government were very careful to avoid using in 2011, anecdotally because this would have given rise to different compensation arrangements under the Riot Damages Act of 1886!).

Sidenote: It’s always exciting watching TV shows set in London and trying to spot locations. The secret meeting place for the Russians is Marsham Court on Marsham Street. I walk past it regularly but will be more on the lookout now!

The decision has been made to break the blockade using force, and the PM has authorised the military use of firearms against civilians.

Ah yes, and they’ve shot a journalist. Not good optics to be honest. That’s probably not going to look great on his Wikipedia page.

Ok, who cares, let’s move straight on to the final episode and get this thing done.

The first 20 minutes is all politics and backstabbing and double-crossing and nepotism. Once you’re past that it’s straight into the delivery of a massive electrical transformer to Northumberland.

They’ve run into a slight issue, that it’s heavier than the bridge they need to cross will allow. The driver of the truck has refused, but helpfully there’s someone on hand from the Cabinet Office to step in as a hero. Cue tense background music, fast cuts to cracks appearing in the road, tight shots of anxious faces.

Panic over, he’s made it across! The only thing left to do now is to connect the transformer into the system, something which sounds simple, so that probably means it’s incredibly specialist.

More politics. Honestly, the tone of this series has been so inconsistent. Is it an emergency management procedural? Is it the West Wing or House of Cards? Is it an apocalyptic drama? It seems to depend from story arc to story arc.

Well what do you know, they got the lights back on, patted each other on the back and went on their merry ways.

A disappointing end to the series.

Overall Thoughts

Power has been restored. All’s well that ends well. The reality though, is that ‘recovery’ would take many months, likely years.

Increasingly I’m of the opinion that recovery doesn’t really exist. Actually, maybe it shouldn’t exist. Lessons should always be learned, processes improved, arrangements reviewed. The obsession with recovery devalues the process of learning, but that feels like a post for another time.

I have a few concluding thoughts on COBRA:

  • Good start, weak middle, bonkers end. What started as a bit of dramatic licence quickly fell away to absurd management.
  • It was great to see a series about this kind of emergency management stuff on telly. I’m always going to be interested in watching the portrayal of my industry. With that though, comes the frustration that doctors and nurses and firefighters and police must experience on a much more regular basis.
  • I’ve essentially spent the past 5 Fridays screaming “it doesn’t happen like that” at a box in my living room.
  • I’ve also enjoyed having something regular to blog about, even if the actual content of the blogs got harder to find episode on episode.

And finally, just in case you were in any doubt about the Civil Contingencies Act, the characters themselves highlighted…

COBRA: Episode 4

COBRA: Episode 4

Reading Time: 3 minutes 

How Sky pitched this episode: Sutherland’s knowledge about his daughter’s part in her friend’s death is questioned. Meanwhile, a new threat rears its head. 

I’d avoided mentioning the sub-plot about the Prime Minister’s daughter until now because I didn’t think it was going to be relevant. It looks like it’s going to be a major part of this episode so we’ll just have to roll with it. To bring us all up to speed – the daughter of the Prime Minister supplied drugs to a girl who subsequently died, Number 10 lied about the supply.

At the same time, the national blackout continues.

So far we have learnt that the Police Chief Constable can do every job that exists, simultaneously. Today he’s in charge of fuel logistics. No doubt by the end of the episode he’ll personally be drilling for fuel oil in the North Sea.

A fuel tanker hijacking and a ‘vigilante group’. That’s the most exciting opener since episode 1!

The suggestion for the Army to take over fuel supply distribution is real, taken from the Government’s guidance on responding to energy emergencies:

As part of its contingency planning, the government works with the downstream oil industry, including haulage companies, to maintain a capability within the Armed Forces to make fuel deliveries in the event of a serious disruption to normal deliveries.

I know it’s a drama, but I found it strange that it was the Home Office rather than the Defence representatives (or Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Government Department with lead responsibility (out of date list of other responsibilities available here) for energy emergency preparedness) suggesting the military as an option.

MI5 apparently have a maxim that society is three meals away from anarchy. I’m not sure how evidenced that is, but it’s fair to assume that with the consequences of the powercuts now in their third or fourth week it’s unsurprising people are now starting to take action into their own hands.

You may remember from Episode 1, there was some debate about whether a hospital was the best place to site a coordination centre. We don’t know the full story, but that decision is now coming back to bite, with the ‘vigilante’ crew storming the facility.

Sidenote: It’s reminding me of those times that a new group of survivors in The Walking Dead try their might against Rick Grimes’ group.

“You need a good night’s kip, you’re a bit tense” finally, someone is looking out for the welfare of the Gold Commander, although the last place you’d expect that to come from is the leader of the group attempting to take control!

Something I don’t think I’ve thought about before, whether a Strategic Coordination Centre (the place a multi-agency response is managed from) needs a panic-button?

The Chief of Staff’s husband has found out about multiple-night stand man. Oh dear. I smell another sub-plot.

I do like the attempt to show that these people are people. They have their own complicated lives and baggage, context which informs the decisions they make and how the respond to stress. However, it’s inconsistently done and feels a bit forced at times; maybe a slightly longer series would have given more time for the characters to breathe.

The vigilante group have now been joined by trade union members of the haulage industry, preventing supplies being delivered to the affected area and putting pressure on the PM to resign. Seems counter-intuitive to me, but perhaps an interesting insight into the double-think involved with this type of negotiation?

Interesting that in this episode it’s fictional Channel 6 News being shown in COBR not Sky News like in the first episodes.

In response to the protesters, the Prime Minister described the situation as a “natural event”. That probably won’t be significant to many people, but to an emergency manager avoiding the term ‘natural disaster‘ is very welcome nuance.

The episode ends with a cliffhanger (of sorts). The leader of the ‘vigilante’ group has issued a call to action to members of the public to rise up and fight the London elite. Tune in next week to find out how that goes!

 

** for more info about this blog-along and previous episodes check out the introductory post

COBRA: Episode 3

COBRA: Episode 3

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

How Sky pitched this episode: Sutherland, Anna and Fraser head to one of the worst affected areas. But whilst the PM is away, Archie causes problems. 

The story so far:

  • A geomagnetic storm has wiped out electricity systems across wide areas of the country
  • Resource limitations and secondary consequences are compounding the issue
  • Where we left Episode 2, inmates from a secure unit had attacked students at a university
  • Fortunately COBR and a single police officer are here to save the day…

Everyone ready?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the Cheif Constable seems to be getting a lot of the jobs, now he’s interviewing a survivor of the attack at the university.

The Prime Minister is keen to get himself up to Northumberland to show his support. Emergency plans often don’t reflect this, yet it’s almost a given. It’s surprising just how much effort it takes to organise this kind of ‘VIP’ visit to avoid clangers like the minister getting stuck on the wrong side of a collapsed bridge or whatever.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record…a Local Resilience Forum is not an emergency response body

Sidenote: a significantly different take VIP visits was explored in the Aberfan episode of The Crown.

Anyway, we learn that the power has been off to some areas for around a week and travel restrictions are in place for the North East of England which has been designated a Red Zone.

Red or Hot zones are used in scenarios such as chemical incidents; quite what it means in this context is unclear at the moment.

In the event of a widespread power outage, National Grid has an obligation to be able to re-energise the electricity system. This is known as a Black Start event. The process of restoring electricity supply is complex and, as the chart below shows, it’s likely that power would be restored in a patchwork way rather to everyone at once. The Press Officer sort of mentions this, when he talks about continued ‘brown-outs’.

I find it hard to picture a situation where people in the UK are required to ‘walk miles for food and shelter’, but the point about conserving fuel for priority use seems reasonable, although I think this is a fairly poetic use of the National Emergency Plan for Fuel.

Remember the ‘Red Zone’ from a moment ago? Well, it turns out that it’s just because they’ve circled the affected areas in red (and blue and yellow) on their internal papers.

At the hospital (apparently, the only hospital affected), we see 40 tents on the parking area and hear reports of 2000 people seeking refuge there. That doesn’t feel very realistic. Yes, those people without power would need to go somewhere, but I think it would be sensible to locate that kind of facility further away to avoid potential issues (like the one we see later in this episode where an angry mob assembles).

My own view is that our preparedness in the UK is poor for setting up this kind of camp largely because of an ‘it won’t happen here’ attitude.

There’s a grim scene where a man is attacked by people who mistake him for a convicted criminal. Once again, it’s up to our friend the Cheif Constable to break up the fight (why didn’t they just turn off the ignition of the motorbike?).

There are a handful of persistent myths, one of which is that ‘disasters bring out the worst in people’. In fact, the opposite is usually true; people are usual prosocial rather than antisocial.

That sense of stoicism and togetherness that people exhibit in adversity can often be referred to as Blitz Spirit, an example of which is below.

However, this is a clunky application of a complex social phenomenon. Ultimately though, The Blitz didn’t solve existing social problems. So COBRAs depiction of racially targetted attacks does, sadly, feel realistic.

“This is a PR disaster?” Is it the job of fictional Press Officers to state the obvious? How is this helping the situation?

After seeing the man who has been injured, the PM takes it upon himself to address the baying crowd. He makes a quip about ‘people throwing things needing to have better aim’. In my experience of these types of public meetings, this type of remark is very likely to have inflamed the situation to the point of disorder.

He rounds off with “I promise you, we will turn the lights on again”. For series two (if it’s recommissioned) they need to engage American scriptwriters for these state address moments, they’re better at the poignant politician than we are.

I found this episode much harder to blog about. It was more about establishing the political tension between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary and fleshing out a couple of the Civil Servant staff, less about the response aspects. I hope that’s not the general direction of the rest of the series.

** for more info about this blog-along and previous episodes check out the introductory post