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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!

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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.  

Curious Incident of the Apollo Theatre Collapse – 19 Dec 2013

Curious Incident of the Apollo Theatre Collapse – 19 Dec 2013

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Last night I was on my way home when I picked up news of the incident at the Apollo Theatre in London. This morning I took the opportunity to capture what I thought were the significant parts of the incident as it unfolded on social media. It isn’t necessarily in chronological order, as I wanted to bring some narrative to the story.

You’ll notice that I haven’t offered any opinions on the cause of the incident or the effectiveness of the response; that will come in time as investigations conclude.

This is the first time that I’ve used storify, and I actually found it incredibly easy to use and a great way of trying to organise my thoughts. It’s definitely something that I’ll be returning to.


Use social media, but use it wisely

Use social media, but use it wisely

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I initially wrote, and published, this post yesterday evening as the events were unfolding. This morning, news was still coming out of Boston and appearing on social media, so I’ve just made one or two running edits, in italics, to keep it current.


I don’t intend to make light of the coordinated series of explosions in Boston, but I wanted to talk about one aspect of social media, the ‘etiquette of online response’ rather than the events themselves, which the world has just witnessed.

I joined FriendsReunited in 2002. I tried joining Facebook in 2004, when it was still restricted to universities in the States. I joined MySpace in 2005 and was then a relatively early adopter of Twitter in 2009. There have been other formats that have been so fleeting I don’t even remember them. So, I’m confident in saying that I know my way round the various social mediums and in 2011 Emer Coleman (previously of Government Digital Service) referred to me as a “digital native”.

The advent of social media, and the internet more generally, has, without question, changed the way in which I consume information. I’m not alone in this, and social media offers much more than a mechanism for posting pictures of what you’ve had for dinner (although I have nothing against it’s use for that purpose).

But I do find social media interesting during a ‘Breaking News’ story. (Update: the first time I remember encountering this ‘etiquette’ issue was 2010’s Roaul Moat story.)

On twitter we have the hashtag and the humble retweet, which I think are magnificent functions. The Hastag (e.g.#SMEM) allows ‘searches’ of linked tweets, making finding related information easier. The retweet then allows for official and verified messages to be shared to a much wider audience. Whilst twitter has it’s downsides (speculation and subjectivity), I think it’s far more effective. However, on the other hand, my Facebook news feed was jam packed with either people attempting to break the news themselves, or expressing their deep emotional outpourings to affected families. I find both of these considerably less helpful than a quick RT.

It’s simply not instinctive to me to head to Facebook in the ‘initial phase’. I just don’t expect people that I went to primary school with to have the latest information (maybe I didn’t go to school with the right people?!). Obviously, it goes without saying, that this is not about Facebook as a platform, but about how people use it.

Conversely, my twitter feed was filled with some fantastic RTs of relevant news agencies, official feeds and bystander pictures and videos. I didn’t follow @Boston_Police before today, and I doubt I’ll ever really need their day to day updates, but they’re a demonstration of how twitter can be used to spread news and provide reassurance. Yes, I’ve seen one or two images which are certainly shocking, and I think a degree of sensitivity is needed for these graphic images (Update: It can be distressing to see people who have been badly injured, and perhaps the media, and all of us need a bit more self-regulation when sharing images). However, whilst they might show upsetting scenes (including this video), I personally find them preferable to the banality of sympathy that I witnessed last night on Facebook.

Surely it’s a given that we are appalled by this type of incident, why do you need to let your friends know you’re shocked ? In an emergency people who have been affected (either directly or distally) are desperately searching for useful information…yes, be sad and donate to relief funds, but don’t occupy the news feeds of people who are looking for information. This particularly important the closer the events are to home.

That said, there isn’t an instruction book, and only a degree of etiquette has evolved as the platforms have developed. What’s your view? Do you see a difference in the way people use different mediums? What works and what doesn’t? How can we make the best use of these useful communication tools?


Image Credit:

Response – The Great European Stink

Response – The Great European Stink

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Now, this blog post is a bit delayed, more than a bit actually, nearly a month! But as well as my occasional musings on resilience and emergency planning, this blog is also a mechanism to capture the incidents that I’ve been involved with.

Just a week after the Helicopter crash, our team was called into action again, for a chemical release in Rouen, northern France.

Now, there are thousands of chemicals out there, probably more than that, so I’m not going to claim to know the response precautions for every one, however, thanks to some research I did following this episode of TV’s F.R.I.E.N.D.S, I did have a basic knowledge of Mercaptan! The smell that they add to odourless natural gas as a safety measure to identify leaks.

A quick call to expert colleagues in the Health Protection Agency (or Public Health England depending on when you’re reading this) confirmed my suspicions. Mercaptan is detectable by the human nose at around 0.27-0.93 parts per billion, whereas exposure limits are around 0.5 parts per million, and given the gas has diluted considerably as it crossed the Channel, no health concerns were likely; and the work for our team was relatively short-lived.

Meanwhile, in Norway, another incident was creating fumes of a different kind, as 27 tonnes of goats cheese caught fire!

These incidents gave me the impetus I needed to start a personal project to gather information on these ‘low end of the scale’ incidents. I believe that perfecting the response to smaller incidents will make responding to larger incidents more habitual.

Response – Vauxhall Helicopter Crash

Response – Vauxhall Helicopter Crash

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It’s been a busy 48 hours!

One of the earliest photos that I saw (Via @craiglet)

Shortly after 0800 on 16 January I was made aware of an aircraft which had crashed in central London. Fortunately I wasn’t on call, so didn’t have any immediate responsibilities, and therefore decided that I would remain at home to watch the unfolding news. This ensured that rather than getting on the tube, I remained contactable should I have been needed.

It quickly became apparent, in the age of social media and citizen journalists (which is a dated term, but I quite like it) that the aircraft in question was a helicopter, which had collided with a crane on a construction site.

Having established these very basic facts, and having received no calls at this point, I decided that I should probably go to work!

As I arrived, it became apparent that this tragic incident had really grasped the attention of the media, which, as ever was a sea of speculation with islands of truth. For me it’s not a problem, because I’ve been trained to treat media reports with a degree of caution until confirmed. It’s not surprising though, when many members of the public (with limited other information) believe everything they see in the news.

At the scene of the incident, and even away from the scene, response arrangements were initiated. However, the response to any emergency involves many more organisations than you typically might expect. Just as an example, each of the locations in the following sentence fall under the jurisdiction of a different organisation. The helicopter had hit a building site, debris had fallen into a variety of areas, which could have included a very busy stretch of railway, a considerable area of the road network in the area and various business premises and homes.

Providing support, consistent and accurate information and a communication route between the many and varied agencies is my primary role in a situation such as this. The initial phase of an incident, the first few hours generally, are (quite rightly) dominated by the emergency services. As time progresses through, colleagues from Local Authorities, Transport providers, Government and Utility companies all have a role to play in the response, recovery and communication to the public.

Whilst the investigation into this incident is ongoing it wouldn’t be right for me to comment any further than these basic details.

But before the snow arrives, and as the media reports move on to other issues, I felt it appropriate to acknowledge the very wide range of organisations who work together in these situations.

That, and it’s a perfect example of (what I call) the Emergency Planner’s Paradox. It is obviously a tragic incident and my sincere condolences are with the families of those who were sadly killed, but it is a real test of the planned arrangements, and I think they worked incredibly well in this instance.

Photo Source: @craiglet (I chose this one as it was the first that I saw yesterday)