Exercise Unified Response, coordinated by the London Fire Brigade and involving all the emergency services, first responders, local authorities, utility companies, forensic specialists and victim identification teams from across the country has just been completed. Teams from Hungary, Italy and Cyprus also took part and the EU funded some £2million of the costs.
The largest exercise of this nature ever staged in Europe, simulating a building collapse on a tube train, the exercise took place over four days and several hundred volunteers were involved as victims with over 70 agencies involved in their rescue.
Exercises test working practices and help identify best practice without having to experience the real thing. In truth we do not do enough of them, nor are we always honest enough about the lessons learnt – especially where it went wrong.
7/7 taught us above all that communications were of prime importance: between the emergency services; between the services and first responders; between the lead agencies and the public; and between all of the above and the media. During 7/7 the Met Police Commissioner told everyone in London to “Go in! Stay In! Tune In!” at 10.30 in the morning. By 5.30 that evening the instruction still stood as nobody had thought to countermand him in the meantime.
How do you exercise the contribution of the voluntary services such as the Salvation Army, whose provision of tea and bacon sandwiches was invaluable in July 2005? How do you allow for the contribution of Marks and Spencer’s who closed their store to the public but opened it up for the survivors, or the Metropole Hotel that reserved rooms for the emergency services to rest in and who converted reception rooms for survivor reception and processing?
How do you test for the individuals who turn up at catastrophic events claiming to be either a doctor or a nurse, when in truth they are neither? Or the TV news teams that camp outside hospitals, buy white coats and clip boards, pretend to be medical staff and try to get onto the wards in hospitals trying to film survivors or their families?
A simulated exercise helps the professionals to test their procedures, something that the blue light services do on an almost daily basis. Yet the rescue of survivors also depends upon the unsung contribution of the general public. We must and should educate our fellow citizens in what to do if they are caught up in such a catastrophic event.
We must also ensure that private companies and organisations have their business continuity plans in place and are understood. We must encourage them to have a process to know where their employees are during working hours and channels to communicate with them.
Our individual and corporate resilience and survival is interdependent, not simply the responsibility of the blue light services. We must all be prepared and know what to do in the event that we get swept into the whirlwind no matter what its size – a fire, flood, vehicle accident, burglary or a medical emergency.