- The capacity of wetlands to attenuate flood waters.
- How to guard a house from floods.
- How to correctly describe wind directions.
- The difference between radius and diameter.
- Henry Quarantelli.
- How to use the photocopier.
- Germ theory.
- How to give directions.
- Why Chernobyl was like that.
- And why Hurricane Katrina was like that.
- And why 9/11 was like that.
- And why Grenfell was like that.
- The NATO phonetic alphabet.
- A bit about genealogy and taxonomy.
- Wren’s rebuilding after the Great Fire of London.
- The history of the fire brigade.
- The history of the police service.
- Where to get good late night food near where you work.
- What makes you happy.
- Recognising burnout in yourself and others.
- Some geology.
- A bit of chemistry and physics.
- Capability Brown.
- Burial practices in a wide range of cultures.
- Serious doesn’t have to equal boring.
- What to refuse to do, even for the money.
- Three good lunch spots within walking distance.
- The proper proportions of your favourite cocktail.
- How to listen.
- How to behave with junior members of staff.
- How to manage upwards.
- Seismic magnitude scales.
- Wind speed scales.
- Air quality indicators.
- A bit about imperialism.
- The wages of construction workers and nurses.
- How to get lost.
- How to (politely) tell somebody to get lost.
- The meaninglessness of borders.
- Normal accident theory.
- How maps lie.
- A bit about IT disaster recovery.
- What went wrong with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
- John Hersey’s Hiroshima article.
- Tuckman’s stages of team development.
- What your boss thinks they wants.
- What your boss actually wants.
- What your boss needs.
- The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
- The rate at which the seas are rising.
- How children experience disaster.
- How disability affects disaster experience.
- Why women and girls experience disaster differently.
- How to quickly synthesise and draw meaning from multiple sources.
- How to corroborate information.
- Who you can turn to for help.
- How to respect what has come before.
- How to give a METHANE message.
- Kubler-Ross stage of grief model.
- The difference between complicated and complex.
- How to create an Ishikawa diagram.
- A bit about crowd dynamics.
- Which respected disaster researchers resonate with you and why.
- How to think critically about the status quo.
- How to perform CPR.
- Advanced google search techniques.
- Local emergency management and adjacent legislation.
- The seven principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.
- The difference between the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks.
- The link between John Snow and modern epidemiology.
- Lord Justice Clarke’s four principles for disaster victim identification.
- How failures of imagination have had consequences.
- How to foster reciprocity.
- How to challenge disaster myths and Hollywood disaster tropes.
- Gestalt theory.
- Kahneman’s decision making heuristics.
- Swiss cheese model of safety.
- ‘No ELBOW’ contemporaneous record keeping.
- How to use conditional formatting in Excel.
- Murphy’s Law.
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.
Reading Time: 2 minutesJust what the world needs, another blog about COVID-19, except it’s not!
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
- Wash Your Hands
- Stay Home. Stay Safe
- Follow Official Advice
- Support Local Business
- WASH 👏 YOUR 👏 DAMN 👏 HANDS!
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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‘Exciting’ wasn’t a word I associated with ramen noodles, until Thursday that is…
There’s something about the Covent Garden branch of Kanada-Ya that feels really authentic. I’ve been there a handful of times now and the food has never disappointed.
It’s definitely up there with my favourite noodle places in London. Whenever someone needs to be inducted into the club, it’s my first choice. Paul indicated he might need a fork, so reader, I was already nervous about how the evening might turn out.
It was a rainy Thursday in London’s glittering west end. I was, naturally, running late. I would like to blame the Hammersmith and City line, I really would. But I can only really blame myself for allowing 20 mins for a 35 min journey!
Damp and disheveled I met Paul at The Angel, a pub literally next door. Now, Sam Smith pubs have a No Phones rule. They’re not shy about it, and it seriously rubs me up the wrong way. But, it meant I had put my phone into my bag so as not to be distracted.
As we left the pub I transferred my phone to my jacket pocket.
We sat down in Kanada-Ya. It’s communal tables which lends to the authenticity. We ordered and got back to chatting.
Our food arrived. I’d chosen the Chasu-Men ramen, because I always see other people having it and get jealous of the amount of meat. Paul chose the brothless ramen (basically noodle salad). We split chicken karrage and pork gyoza.
As with earlier visits, the broth was TO DIE FOR. Like a rookie though, I had forgotten to add an egg. Note to self: pay attention when ordering! The karrage was slightly on the salty side but incredibly crispy. The gyoza were a tad disappointing, tasting a bit like the oil they had been fried in had been there for ‘a while’.
We got up to leave and I scoured around in the floor for my bag. It had gone. But another bag was there, so I, in an unusually optimistic moment, presumed it was a case of mistaken bag retrieval by our earlier table-mates. The staff noticed our dilemma though, and were quick on the case to check out the toilets and advise that no, this was more than likely a theft.
Not to be deterred, the evening continued but it left me feeling slightly like ramen noodles that have been cooked too long. Limp and disappointing.
Thankfully I’d got my phone, wallet and keys, so it could have been a lot more of an issue.
However, other than a reminder to never not be paying attention, the noodles remained up to their high standard, and this experience doesn’t change Kanada-Ya’s place near the top of my list.
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.
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…
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
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…
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.
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).
— Dave Parker (@radarparker) January 23, 2020
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
Reading Time: 7 minutes
How Sky pitched this episode: Sutherland and the Team work around the clock as the blackout throws the nation into crisis.
TL;DR recap of Episode 1: a geomagnetic storm threatens to wipe out technology (there’s a great episode of BBC’s In Our Time looking at the science of space weather). The last episode ended with the power starting to go off in London…
Is everybody ready for episode 2? Let’s do this!
POP QUIZ – What is wrong with this opening scene?
No! A Local Resilience Forum does not respond to emergencies. It’s simple.
Do you remember the acronym I mentioned in the first blog, METHANE? It’s a memory device to help emergency services give clear structured information about a dynamic situation back to their control rooms. That enables them to mobilise additional resources and responses.
It stands for:
- Major Incident – declared?
- Exact Location
- Type of Incident
- Access and egress (translation: egress is the opposite of access)
- Number of casualties
- Emergency responders required
Here’s a quick video on how it’s supposed to work:
As you can see, it’s not really designed for assessing national-scale incidents, but just for fun, let’s see how it works for the information we’re bombarded at the start of this episode and what we know so far…
- M – Yes, a Major Incident was declared in relation to the plane crash and we know that the Prime Minister has ‘activated’ COBR, the cross-Whitehall emergency coordination structure
- E – 4 locations are mentioned as being particularly badly affected by the power cuts, north Wales, east Scotland, Cornwall and Northumberland. We also told that major cities including London are affected (but later they state major conurbations are less affected). And of course, we’ve got that plane crash in the north-east.
- T – I find this bit tricky. It’s a geomagnetic storm, but at this stage I think there would still be a fair amount of confusion. How different incident types are labelled depends on how they are reported. We’ve heard about a vehicle collision, but would that immediately be connected with the space weather, I doubt it.
- H – We don’t have much to go on here, but the loss of power and, consequently, interruption to telecommunications is a definite factor in shaping the subsequent response.
- A – No specific information, but one of the news reports mentioned the government ‘limiting freedom of movement’ (we’ll come back to this I expect!)
- N – So far, we’re only aware of 2 people who have been killed.
- E – I’ve never really, properly understood this line of the acronym. Let’s ignore it for now.
What d’ya know, that actually worked out better than I was expecting it to! Right, so we’re all now have a common operating picture, let’s proceed.
The COBR team seem to have access to some specific data showing the affected areas. At 3 hours into the crisis, I’d say that’s probably optimistic. Information typically starts off quite general and gets refined as details emerge.
Oh dear. 4 badly hit areas. 3 spare transformers. Resource problems. Yes, that’s fairly typical. Tough decisions have to be made with limited information to determine the best use of assets. (You could think of this as identifying the ‘least worst’ option – clunky language, but essentially the idea that in some cases there are negative outcomes whatever the option. Also known as wicked problems).
Our nice Police friend is concerned about the ability of the hospital to keep running to care for the injured place passengers. Fortunately, the nice people in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room have arranged for a helicopter to bring them some blood and medical supplies.
In reality, if there was a problem, the line of communication would be between the NHS and Department for Health and Social Care. If appropriate (and after they had figured out their policy position and own media lines) they would relay that to COBR.
Overlooking that for a moment, we’re going to take a deeper look at the blood issue 💉 (although nobody has actually mentioned there are shortages).
The hospital is required to maintain it’s own stocks of blood (and blood products) and their own contingency plan. It’s likely there would be mutual aid (i.e. sharing) arrangements with other local hospitals and they would have support from NHS Blood and Transplant. It’s therefore unlikely that this would be the first issue that they would need national support with.
Is an Emergency Department waiting area is the best place for the police to be on the phone to COBR? I think not! Also, given the reported issues with mobile masts, how are these telephones working?
Anyway, let’s not get distracted; we shall press on…
“Tired People make bad decisions” Yes. This. Getting people to rest, or sometimes even to take time to eat, during a response can be a significant challenge.
The Chief Constable has turned up at an immigration removal centre where staffing resources are 30% down.
A slight detour…
Is it weird that a plane crash and an immigration centre were the subjects of a recent episode of Silent Witness?
Like METHANE, Step123+ is a device used by the Ambulance service to consider their response to potentially hazardous substance incidents. It basically says
- if there is one casualty then use normal precautions,
- if there are two casualties then there could be something going on, use caution
- if there are three or more then something is amiss
I find myself using Step123+ in everyday life. Like…when two TV shows show both use a plane crash and immigration centre as a plot point….my mind instantly thinks, “is that the beginnings of a pattern?”
Anyway, back to the main event…
Back to Whitehall and the COBR folks are discussing where to send 3 generators. There was a (well researched) conversation about getting supplies from Germany and recognition that as other countries are having similar issues international supply may be limited.
How would you decide who should get the generators?
- Do you send it to the area where it will benefit the most people?
- The areas that it’ll be quickest and easiest to transport to?
- Would you, as Prime Minister, also be thinking about ‘if we don’t support a devolved administration, what are the implications in the longer-term’?
The Chief of Staff has gone into a hotel. Everyone is using a real candle. There’s not a single torch. Won’t somebody think of the fire risk?! The Concierge mentions that electronic door systems are not working. Now, unless this is a super fancy hotel using the latest systems, most hotel door locks are battery operated so this is unlikely to be an issue*.
I hope all the kids have got enough juice left in their phones to take insta-worthy pictures of the Aurora!
Sky News has clearly got a generator, they’re still broadcasting. But with national blackouts and likely loss of transmission, it’s not clear how many people would be watching.
Sidenote: The writers have done a phenomenal job of writing the Home Secretary to be the most awful person in politics. I suppose they have lots of source material. 🙊
Meanwhile, over at Royal Northumberland Hospital…we’ve got a crowd control issue (as people try to charge their phones using the hospitals emergency generator power) and escalating trouble at the removal centre. A colleague on twitter pointed out this actually happened in Lancaster in 2015.
It happened in Lancaster
— Helen Hinds (@HindsHelen) January 24, 2020
You know that fire risk I mentioned earlier…well the hotel is now on fire. Without a functioning alarm system, it seems to be down to the Chief of Staff and her one night stand to alert the occupants.
I’d estimate that the fire puts around 80+ people in need of temporary accommodation. In the first instance, this would be the hotel’s responsibility, but I imagine their processes for finding available rooms is compromised, so the responsibility for emergency accommodation would fall to the local authority, compounding the issues the council will already be dealing with.
My concern has shifted to the personal safety of the Police Chief checking on the escape from the deportation centre in his uniform. I’d imagine high levels of anger and fear from the people at the centre towards the Police (although I think it’s actually UKBA responsible for the centres?). In any case, my advice to him would be to remove/cover his uniform.
Yes, as suspected, the escaping people weren’t happy. Thankfully (as he’s the only policeman outside of London) he managed to get away to continue doing other people’s jobs.
It continues to go from bad to worse in Northumbria, as high-security escapees have attacked students at the university. Quite what the motive for that would be is a bit unclear, but we’ll have to wait until episode 3 to find out!
* it turns out my initial view here might not be right, one to research further!
Post Script: Emergency Planners unite! It’s not just us that feel the COBR/COBRA debate. I present some evidence:
I’m watching episode 1 series 1
At the 7 minute mark theres a spelling error it says
— Tejal Rampersad (@PrajAccounting) January 17, 2020
What does the A stand for?
— Callipygian (@Callipygian0) January 18, 2020
Just googled it, and yes it’s just COBR. 😂
— Thomas Stones (@TommyStones1) January 17, 2020
Good, daft fun
You will have many, many questions
Example: I do not know why Scotland is policed entirely by a Chief Constable with an ageing BMW and a crowbar
Pedantic point – The committee is called COBR, not Cobra https://t.co/LrR8dU1ekI
— CJohnston (@CJohnstonNI) January 17, 2020
Cabinet Office, Briefing Room A is the official location from which the acronym derived
— Jonathan Traynor (@belfastmetal) January 17, 2020
— Andy McMahon (@Mackacan) November 28, 2019
Reading Time: 9 minutes
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?
Reading Time: 2 minutesMy career in emergency management started 15 years ago this year.
The London bombings had happened the previous year and one of (many) themes in the profession at the time was about ‘citizen journalism‘. People, actual real-life 3-dimensional members of the public, had taken pictures on their Nokia 3210’s and sent them to the BBC newsroom. It was a paradigm shift in how the media could report breaking news.
Flash forward to yesterday evening. Trains up the spout. I felt myself stressing about not being able to join a live tweet-along to a new series on Sky, COBRA. How times change, eh?!
Described as a “must-see thriller set at the heart of government during a major national crisis” this show is entirely up my street.
A selection of my incredible colleagues gave a great running commentary on Twitter.
So I was thinking about how I could take a different approach. So…strap in for a multi-part series of long-form blogs of each episode.
Like the rest of my work-related blogs, my aims are partly to demystify what the emergency management profession can sometimes over complicate, and to summarise how fiction compares to reality.
I want to hear your thoughts too! Agree/disagree with my ramblings? Let me know! @mtthwhgn.
And here’s a picture of me sat at the COBRA table…honest! 🤫
Now you’ve read the intro, get stuck into my thoughts, episode by glorious episode
Oh, and just a reminder for those at the back: let’s all remember that it’s an entertainment show, we expect (and encourage) a degree of artistic licence!