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Blogging in 2017

Blogging in 2017

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One of the things I find most interesting about the Timehop app on my phone is how much my style of posting (especially to Facebook) has changed over 10 years. The melodrama is embarrassing and entertaining in equal measure. It’s interesting to see how what I was prompted to post about has changed. (Notice how I have deliberately stayed away from labelling this change as growth!)

this isn’t me, obvs

The last blog post I wrote was waaaay back in August. I was thinking about the reasons for this, and it’s a combination of two things

  1. Too many boxsets to catch up with on Netflix – seriously, if you haven’t seen Designated Survivor you are missing out! It’s prefect kick-back-and-relax telly for emergency managers!
  2. A feeling that I was loosing, or at the very least, confusing my own voice with my work one. As the lead for “external relations and digital” for London Resilience, I started to find it difficult to have enough to say that was notably different from what I was already saying at work.

I had some pretty strong views back in the day. You may remember such blog posts as “Exercises are pointless” and “CBRN is elitist“. Since then (maybe because I’d already vented?) I started to find I didn’t feel as passionately about things anymore. For a while I felt I was becoming disinterested, but realised it was more about feeling I didn’t have anything new to add to the conversation.

In 2017, I want to re-establish my voice and blog. This might sound grandiose, even pompous, but I’ve found blogging helps me solidify proto-ideas. The process of writing something down means wider reading, consulting different sources, opening myself up to new ideas and discussing with colleagues.

I guess the other aspect is that the nature of being online has changed too. Is a blog the best medium? Should I, in fact, be using Medium? What’s the relationship to other platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn? These are all things I’ll no-doubt continue to unravel throughout the year. As with Timehop, I hope that one day I’ll be able to look back through my blog and see how my thoughts have evolved and what they have been shaped by.

So what is likely to follow in 2017? I think it would be unwise to commit to a regular schedule of blogging, I don’t want to be a slave to the blog. However, expect posts about the things that interest me, that frustrate me, that could be better. I’ll try not to moan too much, it’s all intended to be constructive and to help me (and perhaps others) improve what we do.

Best wished for 2017, and remember, if you want to get in touch hit me up @mtthwhgn on Twitter – I’ve love to have a conversation not just air my own thoughts.

Rio 2016 – lessons and reflections on resilience

Rio 2016 – lessons and reflections on resilience

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The Olympics is a bit like an alien invasion. The organising committee speak their own language and expect things to happen in ways which might be unfamiliar to locals. Even the London 2012 Olympic mascots looked a bit other-worldly.

With a touch of nostalgia, I thought I’d take a look back at the emergency planning considerations four years ago, and how things have changed just days from the start of Rio 2016.

I joined London Resilience with about 18 months to go. Planning and preparation for the Games was already at an advanced stage but there was still lots to do. I spent much of that year providing assurances to the Mayor, LOCOG (the Olympic Organising Committee) and Government that organisations in London were ready.

From the massacre in Munich in 1972, bombings in Spain just ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Games to the Atlanta bombing in 1996; the history of the Games is punctuated with incidents. In London, the bombings following the Host City announcement in July 2005 provided a sombre backdrop and framed much of the subsequent planning.

News from Brazil this week of problems with the accommodation for athletes, sadly, doesn’t surprise me. I visited the Olympic Park many times, and can distinctly remember the unfinished 1970’s spanish holiday resort vibe that I got from our own athlete’s facilities, even quite late in the process. In contrast, I also remember being in awe of the late Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre!

Many of the risks we had planned for didn’t occur (for example, the importation of African Horse Sickness or an unconventional attack on a crowded place). Going through the planning process made sure all responders knew their roles and how members of the public would be supported. As well as planning together, a whole series of exercises helped confirm the validity of arrangements in place.

It wasn’t just the emergency arrangements which were practised; I was fortunate enough to attend one of the dress rehearsal events for Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. This is an experience that I will never forget! (As an aside, I’d also really recommend the Imagine: documentary on the Opening Ceremony!)


For 61 days I managed a control room where partners worked 24/7 so that in the unlikely event of an emergency, structures were in place to respond. We were involved in the response to 154 incidents and the ability to react early meant the majority were small-scale and did not escalate. Thankfully there were a number of incidents which I didn’t have to get involved with…and which we hadn’t anticipated!

boris-zipwire (1)

One of the big challenges which sticks with me from 2012 was what was referred to as ‘The Last Mile’, and ensuring shared understanding of responsibilities in the gap between public transport hubs and sporting venues.

Hosting the Olympics carries similar challenges regardless of Host City. Bringing in tens of thousands of athletes, many more spectators and officials (who will likely be unfamiliar with local arrangements), and putting the city front-and-centre in the eyes of the media pose challenges.

The Games this summer in Rio occur in a world which has faced recent attacks in public spaces (a sadly extensive list) and one which continues to experience internationally significant outbreaks of disease like Ebola and Zika.

Whilst there are undoubtedly opportunities to share learning and experiences between Host Cities, there are also so many differences in how the cities are administered, the impact the Games has as well as the potential for change in the four years between events (live streaming video will put far more pressure on telecoms networks in Rio for example).

Like an alien abduction, hosting the games is something you can only really understand once you’ve experienced it (or so I’m told!)!

Best of luck to colleagues in Brazil – I’ll be watching!


Earlier versions of this blog (with less ET references!) appeared in the City Hall Blog and the July Edition of London Calling, the newsletter of the London Branch of the Emergency Planning Society.  

Unified Response: did I follow my own advice?

Unified Response: did I follow my own advice?

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Last week saw the culmination of over a year of planning for Europe’s ‘largest ever emergency exercise‘.


Coordinated by London Fire Brigade, the exercise simulated the collapse of a building in central London punching into an underlying tube tunnel as an underground train was passing.  Check out the @LDN_prepared Storify below for a collection of tweets from participants as the exercise progressed.


Since 2014 my involvement, as workstream lead for the Command Post element of the exercise was to make sure that participating organisations achieved their own objectives as well as the overarching objectives of the whole exercise. This meant that, in addition to emergency response and rescue, the scenario included strategic consideration of

  • disruption to transport services, utilities and the environment
  • distribution of casualties and fatalities across and outside of London
  • requests for national and international support and
  • considering the information and long term support provided the public, businesses and to individuals and communities affected.

Did I follow my own advice?

I’ve blogged previously about how, if not managed appropriately, the value of exercises can be limited. If I wanted Unified Response to be different, I needed to follow my own advice, which boiled down to six key points

  1. Use locations you would use in reality
  2. Make it no notice as far as possible
  3. Draw participants from what’s available on the day
  4. Don’t let the scenario win out over objectives
  5. Speaking of objectives – have lots of specific ones rather than sweeping generalities
  6. Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate.

During the four days of the exercise many lessons were learned dynamically. Undoubtedly there will be lots more learning to come out through the debrief processes. It’s not the intention of this post to debrief the exercise, but to revisit the points from my earlier blog. Did I follow my own advice? In hindsight, have I got any additional thoughts on getting the best return on investment from exercises?

Objectives and Scenario Fidelity

Developing SMART style objectives rather than “to exercise our major incident response”  became my own personal crusade for a while at the start of the planning process. In the long-run this made developing the scenario easier and we were able to tie all injects (nearly 2000) to objectives, which will support ongoing evaluation.

From the outset my starting point was to develop the highest level of fidelity as possible. Over the past year I found myself continually asking “but what would happen in reality?” or “If this incident took place today what would actually happen?”

It’s easy when planning something on this scale to let creativity get the better of you. However it’s a fine balance and it wasn’t always possible to simulate reality without a consequential effect on the ability to meet exercise objectives.

For instance, one objective related to the activation and integration of international specialist rescue teams, but the scenario also included a ruptured water main and sewer which provided grounds for participation for a wide range of organisations. In reality, the presence of these hazards would have impacted on the ability to implement the technical rescue (as responder safety has to be a consideration) however in the exercise, water and sewage were notional.

Where there were simultaneously elements of live and notional play, there were challenges in how well they meshed together. Further to this, many organisations chose to use real-world conditions alongside exercise scenario. In addition to the incident at Waterloo, real-life traffic accidents and train delays all added to the complexity and realism. This is the first time that I’ve seen, first-hand, this attempted in an exercise. The closest I’ve seen are Emergo exercises which use real hospital bed states and staffing to determine capacity challenges for mass casualty management. Limited to one organisation it’s difficult enough to cross-check the impact of the scenario on the real world, but with so many participants this became very complex.

Locations, Dates and Times

This wasn’t always possible due to operational conditions or extent of participation, but by and large venues used were those which would be used in reality. This means that anything learned relating to the operation of those facilities is valuable and can be actioned. Not all of the learning is technical in nature. Softer, skills-based aspects (for instance, teleconference etiquette) is something which can develop with repeated practice. Familiarity with processes, technology and each other in non-incident conditions will improve crisis response.

In order to make sure that decisions taken at a strategic level were appropriate it was necessary to warn senior representatives of the exercise dates. However, I strongly resisted demands to schedule meetings in advance. Establishing the ‘battle rhythm‘ is a key incident management skill. If we’d pre-planned meetings the learning opportunity would be reduced.

I also made sure, by having a relatively small but empowered planning group, that the integrity of the exercise was preserved. Nobody involved in exercise play, not even my own management, knew the full extent of the scenario. This meant unanticipated questions seeking assurance that the exercise would be sufficiently challenging. Such assurance was provided by exploring parallels to past incidents and exercises with subject matter experts to develop the most comprehensive exercise I have been involved in. (We went as far as developing complete documentation for a fictitious construction company and producing staff records for fictional injured responders).

Participants and Advance Notice

As mentioned already, some representatives were essential and therefore did have prior notice. However, even when they knew the date of the exercise, they did not know anything about timings or scenario progression. There were short-notice requests and demands to be in multiple places at the same time, as there would be in reality.

Arguably these issues could have been avoided through advance notice, but then we would have been generating a false environment and actual learning about how to resolve those problems would not have been identified.

The ability to prioritise and dynamically allocate resources is another crisis management skill, one which many of the participants in the exercise had the opportunity to practise.

What else did I learn? 

I think my own personal learning relates more to the role of exercise control during an exercise of this scale.Having a good team with all the necessary expert knowledge and most importantly a problem-solving approach is absolutely essential.

If there was one aspect that I would look to improve next time, it would be to ensure communication between players and facilitators. So my seventh rule for exercise planning, would be to consider structures for exercise control earlier in the planning phase.

Synchronising an exercise with 30 different locations, 85 organisations and over 4000 participants was always going to be a challenge. Over the course of the exercise I spent more than 106 hours in Exercise Control, managing command post activity, resolving issues, creating simulated material and ensuring ‘my activity’ kept in step with all other exercise activity. The responsiveness of my Exercise Control team to roll with decisions made in exercise play was crucial, but this could have been made easier with a more complete picture of the response.


There were some challenges along the way, but I thoroughly enjoyed Exercise Unified Response. Whilst I hope we never have to do it for real, the learning that will be taken from it will improve emergency responses in London and further afield. As my own reflections solidify I’m sure there will be more posts on Unified Response, but if you do have questions please get in touch.

Rethinking Recovery

Rethinking Recovery

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It’s cliche, but recovery starts at the moment that something bad happens. If you fall down and break your leg, nobody says “oh, just wait a bit before getting medical attention”; you get the help that you need when you most need it.

recoveryIn a disaster, there is almost unanimous agreement that recovery starts as soon as the incident happens. I fundamentally agree with this, and in a broad sense even response activities can be classified as ‘recovery’ interventions of some sort. However, in the typically process-dominated world of emergency management (in the UK at least) this mantra that recovery starts at the outset of the incident is, in my opinion, both misinterpreted and over simplified.

Let’s revisit the broken leg scenario – yes you get help, but you don’t skip straight to physiotherapy…you need time to heal first.

As I’ve been working on the planning for Exercise Unified Response I’ve been frustrated by comments from colleagues insisting that because we have this mantra, that there should be recovery meetings from the outset. On one hand I agree with the philosophy, but on the other hand in practical terms surely you need to understand what it is you’re recovering from before you try to attempt recovery?

In my experience it’s rare that the precise impact of an incident is understood from the outset. Indeed, the likelihood of cascading failures and secondary incidents means that in some circumstances the initial incident isn’t even the biggest concern from a recovery point of view.

Provided that response actions are effective and appreciative of longer-term prognosis, I think you can afford to take a breath before formally implementing structures contained within your long-term recovery plan. In the emergency phase lots of decisions need to be taken in sub-optimal conditions. It’s surely doing a disservice to the objective of long-term recovery to take decisions which have wide reaching implications without a more well developed understanding?

I’m not advocating ‘not doing recovery’, if anything it’s one of the most important aspects. I’m just saying do we need to rush into recovery at the same speed as emergency response, or should it be more considered? Would it help to view everything that happens after the incident as ‘recovery’, but that recovery needn’t rely on the activation of a specific plan?  That sometimes the rigidity of the structures that have been developed can be a constraint?

There you have it, my first blog in ages, and I’m posing what I expect is a fairly controversial question! I’d be interested in your views about the practicality of when recovery can actually start!

The gestation of exercise artificiality

The gestation of exercise artificiality

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The theme for Business Continuity Awareness Week 2015 is about the value of exercising and testing plans. Having facilitated, participated and observed in my fair share of exercises over the last 8 years I’ve reached the conclusion that they’re a waste of time. Worse than that, I think a bad exercise can do more harm than good. I know that’s not going to be popular, so let me explain what I mean…

The process of exercising is designed to validate the assumptions in a plan (or elements of a plan). This is a process which I absolutely think is necessary, but one which, all to often, isn’t effective.

From full-blown reconstructions to glossy media injects, exercise planners or consultants do their best to make the exercise environment realistic. However, this realism tends to evaporate quickly.

I think the problem with exercising starts in the planning phase. Committees meet for months before an exercise to determine locations to use, dates and times, who should participate and what scenarios to use. I think these conversations are pointless, here’s why:

Location: Don’t take people out to a nice conference venue. Yes it’s lovely to have refreshments on tap, but does it familiarise people with the locations they could be working in? If your plan identifies an emergency operations centre, use it! If that facility has a ‘business as usual’ function then make staff there aware that it also serves another function and so they need a business continuity plan themselves! If your facilities are poor all the more reason to use them – it might just help secure investment!

Date and Time: Incidents often happen without warning, therefore so should your exercises. There are some dangers associated with no-notice exercises, but planning in advance can mitigate this. Nor do incidents always respect the convenience of occurring within office hours. Think about conducting your exercises outside of normal office hours. A plan that works effectively at 3am on a Sunday is a good plan!

Invitees: Don’t invite people to your exercise. That might sound a bit odd, but anyone with a defined role in a plan has a responsibility to participate in exercises. The planning process should identify 24/7 contact details for people able to undertake the roles identified. Use those contacts! For instance: if you have a Duty Director on-call, call them. If you use a telephone tree or other alerting system, test it in anger to see if it works.

Scenario: Unlike the three aspects above, picking the right scenario is important. However, beware of falling into the trap of picking a scenario and designing objectives to fit. The focus should be on your capability to respond to issues, the scenario is just a vehicle to facilitate that.

In my opinion, the only two aspects that should be discussed before an exercise are the objectives (what are you trying to learn) and the evaluation (how do you plan to learn it).

Objectives: Exercises really do work best when the objectives are specific and measurable. Specific objectives need to be developed at a high level in advance of the exercise. They should be made clear to all participants so they have a shred understanding about the purpose of the exercise. Don’t be scared of having lots of specific objectives, they’re far more useful than an all-encompassing generic objective like “demonstrate an understanding of plans and procedures”.

Evaluation: There is no correlation between the size of an exercise and its utility. If you’re only interested in whether people can communicate then think about a simple communications test. If you’re interested in how people perform under pressure then look at job-task analyses. The easier an objective is to measure objectively the more confident you can be in your evaluation. Part of your evaluation discussion should also identify the next steps. Have a system in place to make sure you don’t learn identical lessons from one exercise to the next.

Avoid the pitfalls, concentrate on the objectives and exercises can be useful in validating your plans. Happy Business Continuity Week!

Keep Ma’am and Carry On

Keep Ma’am and Carry On

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Emergencies, thankfully, don’t happen often. However, this means there are limited opportunities to validate the plans which are developed to determine whether they will be effective.

Exercising provides some level of validation, providing a realistic yet fictional scenario against which to assure organisations, governments and the public of the capability to respond to certain situations (that said, there are many alternatives to exercises, which can be time and resource intensive).

Exercise Wintex-Cimex was held in 1983 and looked at a Cold War scenario. Today, the text of a speech writen for the Queen was released from the National Archives – see the images below.

queens1 queens2

As you’d expect with a message from the Monarch on the announcement of World War 3, reassurance, solidarity and community emerge as key themes, as well as support to British troops. Whilst it was never officially used, the Queen’s message chimes very nicley with the Keep Calm and Carry On message developed during World War 2. I wonder how well this sat with the Protect and Survive messages?

I have developed, facilitated and participated in a wide range of exercises at local and national level. One of the exercises saw me undertake a very similar task, writing a statement for the Mayor of London. Who knows, maybe in 30 years that will be released to similar fanfare!