How Sky pitched the episode: Robert Carlyle stars as the UK Prime Minister, forced to scramble an emergency committee when a huge crisis strikes.
Let’s just take a minute to read that again, shall we? A whole profession (in 2014 I estimated there are at least 7000 Emergency Planners in the UK) works around the clock to ensure that emergency committees are prepared, trained and rehearsed so that should a crisis occurs people are not ‘forced to scramble‘!
Right, deep breath…*presses play*
MAYDAY!! The series opens on a plane in trouble, some tense conversations with air traffic control and then…a flashback.
The Prime Minister is a smoker?! Bad optics scene reminiscent of ‘disposable cup gate’?
Someone is asking for ‘immediate updates’ about panic buying at petrol stations. Let’s think about that for a moment; what defines ‘panic buying’? 5% greater demand than normal? 10%? 75%? Is there a government minister telling people to fill up Jerry cans? Does the retail fuel sector have the information system to provide this analysis in real-time?
In reality, obtaining this level of information from anything other than media reports would be incredibly difficult. And then it would be patchy based on media coverage.
Oh. My. Goodness. They have spelt COBR correctly! Any preconceptions I had about this show are dismissed.
COBR (or Cabinet Office Briefing Room) is the “dedicated crisis management facilities…activated in the event of an emergency requiring support and coordination at the national strategic level’. It does not have funky recessed lighting (but does have wallpaper that your nan would be proud of)!
In the event of activation in real life, the media 99.99999%* of the time refer to it as it’s phonetic pronunciation, COBRA. It’s a source of serious eye-roll from emergency managers, me included. We should get out more!
Gosh. 8 minutes in they are “informing all Gold Commanders” (and for dramatic tension it’s not clear what they are being informed of). Exciting stuff, but in reality:
- the introduction of JESIP, the Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles, should have phased out the Gold/Silver/Bronze terminology from 2013.
- forgive the semantics for a moment, but what do they really mean? Who are Gold Commanders? If we work on the premise that all emergency responder organisations have a strategic lead you’d be looking at thousands of people to be alerted. What alerting system would they use for that?
- I expect what they actually mean is alerting all Police services, which would be done by the Home Office via the National Police Coordination Centre or other national coordination structure, rather than by the Cabinet Office.
I have questions about whether that JESIP rebrand was worth the effort. Gold/Silver/Bronze has a nice familiarity to it. You get to use these emojis 🥇🥈🥉. A picture paints a thousand words, right? Personally I find it easier to conceptualise gold/silver/bronze than the more anodyne terms to which they relate, strategic/tactical/operational.
“We’ve gone to significant threat” and we haven’t had the title sequence yet! I feel like they want people to think it’s terrorism, but I think we’re going to be surprised!
Oh, shall we take a look at the titles?
I think that’s a map of the UK, with the circle over the Liverpool area, could that be significant? It reminds me of those pictures from space of lights at night…
I reckon this is definitely a sign of things to come.
We have confirmation; we’re concerned about a ‘Solar Threat’. My interest is piqued. Although I think the language that would actually be used would refer to a ‘space weather event‘ but that sounds less gripping! Are we in Carrington Event territory? Oh, they actually mentioned it!! Not gonna lie, I feel a bit smug that I predicted that! Can I get a job advising the script on these kind of programmes?!
The debate they are having about the risks is one (actually, more likely 20) that I have actually participated in. They’ve held a seminar and (with any luck) had some nice sandwiches. Meteorologists had one view, industry had another. Non-specialists in either field just felt bamboozled. My Anytown methodology was an attempt to help non-experts understand complex interdependencies.
Uh oh, you guys, a high-speed plasma eruption is heading towards earth. I sense things are about to get bad!
Sidenote: This Home Secretary is, unfortunately, very well written. *eye roll emoiji*
I like the amount of precedent being provided by the people around the COBR table. We’ve had Carrington, a downed French flight, Ash cloud…this is the availability heuristic in action; a quick ‘this looks scary, but remember we’ve dealt with something similar before, you got this’. Also a very helpful way of shortcutting lots of information.
“Pizza or curry” Now that is a familiar and important emergency response question! (Also, never trust anyone who orders anchovies on pizza).
Emergencies are strange beasts. They are certain, but predicting their detail is impossible. Therefore it’s about simultaneously operating comfortably and appropriately in an information vacuum and finding ways to rapidly gather reliable information. A mixture of an art and a science. So far I think the programme is doing a good job of reflecting the balance that has to be found between ‘we need more information’ and ‘take some action’.
As is standard practice, the local Police are shown taking the lead. This is known as ‘primacy’ and happens in most situations. However, decisions are made through consensus, which requires…a multi-agency coordination structure.
Would you believe it, the police have just requested a ‘Gold Command’ to be established at a hospital (we’ve already talked about ‘gold’, I’ll come back to ‘command’ later!) In my experience this is pure fiction; there’s no way the police wouldn’t host a meeting on their territory. Unless it was the end of the world…and even then!
Colleagues on Twitter also had things to say about this suggestion. They didn’t seem too impressed; although this isn’t the partnership-working vibe I’d encourage!
Note to Police colleagues: please don’t plan on using a hospital as a SCC…#COBRA
— Alex Thompson (@AmbuAlex) January 17, 2020
I’m making an assumption that what we’re seeing is a Police internal coordination meeting, but it’s not clear. They wouldn’t have had time to alert partners and for them to assemble. It’s great that they are listing objectives, ensuring all parties are working to a common purpose, but if it’s a police meeting the objectives seem a bit odd:
- Maintaining healthcare
- Ensuring protection for the vulnerable
- Safeguarding key sites and fuel supplies
- Maintaining law and order
Adding to the mystery about what kind of meeting this is, one of the attendees is reading A Councillors Guide to Civil Emergencies. Blink and you’d miss it, but I fought with the pause button and got a screen grab…
Why would they be using this at a Police meeting? Police and Crime Commissioners, do they count as Councillors? Is that why that person is reading it?
Notice the different logo and font – I wonder if it was a TV licencing issue that meant they had to recreate a slightly different version of this LGA document?
(Also, the idea of people actually opening a plan, that’s fun! 😂)
Meanwhile back in London, they are talking about convening Local Resilience Forums. That’s just lazy script editing, surely everybody knows that the LRF is a planning, not a response body. They teach this stuff at school don’t they? (They should!)
“I want secure video link to all Gold Commanders”. Easy, not a problem at all. Everyone uses compatible technology, there is never an issue with wifi and we all know what sequence of buttons to press to get the tech to burst into life. Oh, wait, no, there are actually very few standards in the technology that organisations use which often means there are practical and user issues when trying to use the shiny video conferencing kit.
The good news is that I’ve seen this slowly changing as more organisations move to mass-market solutions rather than proprietary technology. Skype (and Microsoft Teams) has been a game-changer.
We’ve cut now to air traffic control talking to the plane that is in trouble, keen to establish how many ‘souls’ are onboard. That sounds like really dramatic language, but actually it’s super helpful. When time is tight, getting accurate info is essential. Part of that accuracy is the shared language that organisations build up. One role of an emergency manager is to be able to speak multiple organisational languages. Emergency managers are able to translate that the aviation (and maritime) sector uses ‘souls’ because:
- It’s an umbrella term for passengers and crew,
- Young children without a booked seat wouldn’t be counted as passengers,
- Dead bodies are transported by air, but wouldn’t count in the incident statistics (although they would present other challenges)
Sidenote: Misogyny in the most senior levels of government, lovely. Sadly, also accurate.
Right. Hold on a moment. Why on earth are COBR identifying alternative landing sites for the plane? Absurd. I cannot even bring myself to talk about how wrong that is.
We’re now back with our senior Police Officer friend (because despite there being hundreds of thousands of police officers across the country, we’re only allowed to get to know one of them). He’s just witnessed a jumbo jet crash land on a motorway. He’s about to have what we’d call ‘a bad day at the office’.
Personally, I think it took him longer than it should have to report what he’d seen. However, he was quick to declare a major incident! Another emergency manager mantra – if in doubt shout it out. We didn’t see him undertake a dynamic risk assessment or provide a METHANE message, but the episodes are only 50 minutes, so some editing is unavoidable.
“We’re the ones who have to make decisions whilst others talk about them in pubs”. I’m stealing that. It’s going on my business cards (joke, we don’t get business cards).
Strategic COMMAND Centre? What he really means is ‘coordination’. What’s the difference you ask, well let us turn to the UK Civil Protection Lexicon which defines each term as
- Command – the exercise of vested authority that is associated with a role or rank within an organisation, to give direction in order to achieve defined objectives
- Coordination – the integration of multi-agency efforts and available capabilities, which may be interdependent, in order to achieve defined objectives.
Again though, don’t forget that this is drama; we need more authoritative-sounding terminology to keep the tension. The byproduct of this through, is that it probably builds a level of public misinformation, which it can then be hard to challenge in the heat of the moment.
My geography of the northeast isn’t the best, but it also seems like some weird cross-border stuff happening here. The plane crashed on the A1 somewhere around Newton Aycliffe, but the proposal is coordinate from a different police service area in Hexham (see map below)?
It’s interesting how people see things differently.
That plane crash site… what a bloody search sectorisation nightmare. Polsa’s everywhere must be crying ugly tears right now #COBRAlivetweet
— Helen Turner (@hellturn) January 17, 2020
Conversely, I don’t think it’s too bad. Easy to pinpoint the location using a motorway marker. Clear access and egress routes. Lots of space to set up temporary facilities. Overhead lighting (for now at least!). Easy to control and limit onlookers.
The Civil Contingencies Act has got a mention. I probably check something in the detail of the Act once a week, I’d love the see the statistics for the webpage!
It is totally unclear clear what exactly the Prime Minister is “asking the Queen to authorise”.
— Helen Turner (@hellturn) January 17, 2020
In my mind, since 2010 there has been doubt about how Part 2 of the Act (Emergency Powers) would be implemented because of the removal of Regional Civil Contingencies Committee. I’m also not sure Part 2 would be used in advance of something catastrophic on a national scale. The law allows for it, but I just can’t see it.
“Worse than our most pessimistic forecast” it’s exactly because of things like this that use of Reasonable Worst Case Scenario seems too arbitrary. I’m not alone, a review of the 2009 Influenza Pandemic (remember ‘Swine Flu”) by Dame Deirdre Hine reported “unease about the reasonableness or the reasonable worst case”. Risk is a complex curve not an arbitrary point on a matrix. I have lots of views about this, now is not the time.
I see from the discussion on Twitter there was an ‘outcry’ of mourning for HL11 (the code for an old national risk assessment considering railway accidents). That risk assessment was the bane of my life for 5 years, I feel no sense of loss.
The episode ends with the lights going off across central London. I’ve seen this once before, on a much more limited scale, in 2015 following an electrical incident just off The Strand. Here’s a comparison of what was on telly and then what actually happened. Eerily similar!
And so episode 1 ends. It was pretty far off from what I was expecting, but I broadly enjoyed it.
In fairness the scenario they’ve chosen is quite good. I suspect it is going to get very dramatic very quickly
— Helen Hinds (@HindsHelen) January 17, 2020
Helen is right, there are lots of avenues to explore with the scenario in terms of impacts and recovery considerations, but as a dramatic device, I think not having a ‘bad guy’ might make this a harder story to tell.
Hopefully, I manage to make the live-tweet of the second episode and stay tuned for the next blog instalment.
* this is not an actual statistic!
** for more info about this blog-along check out my introductory post
***already ready for COBRA: Episode 2?