On Monday 29th February, more than 1000 volunteers descended on Dartford, Kent, to take part in Europe’s largest ever multi-agency disaster response training exercise.
Lasting four days, the scenario was based upon a building collapsing onto Waterloo tube station, with thousands of casualties and tonnes of rubble for emergency personnel to navigate and attend to. Played out within the most realistic (and testing) environment possible, the exercise saw firefighters, police officers, and ambulance personnel cooperating alongside a wide range of other organisations (eg. Transport for London) in an effort to provide an effective and coordinated response to a major disaster in a city the size of London.
MSc students who take part in the Resilience and the Governing of Emergency module within the department, will critically engage with work on scenario planning, live exercises, and resilience and emergency (in both UK and US contexts) – whilst there are various other scenario-based exercises (Military and the Media, Cyber Security Strategy and our own mapping project) that students can encounter throughout their time on the MSc.
During Exercise Unified Response (EUR), some of our own students were fortunate to take part, although in slightly different capacities. Helen Turner – former MSc student and now Resilience Planning Officer for the British Transport Police (BTP) in Cardiff – and current MSc student Chris Schofield, share some of their experiences from the four-day exercise…
Helen Turner – a responder’s perspective:
The air was thick with tension as I stood with the first serial of four officers and one sergeant, watching them nervously study their pocket notebooks for the right major incident acronym and check their Airwave radios were locked on the right channel. They had been briefed to ‘respond to what is encountered’; a short and unpredictable order which gave away nothing of the scale of the disaster that was waiting just a couple of hundred yards away.
As ‘start ex’ was given, they moved towards ‘Waterloo Underground Station’ mimicking their daily role performing high-visibility assurance patrols across London. What they were met with was the result of two years of planning, £1million of European Commission funding, and some very well-briefed volunteers, whose cries and screams could be heard back at the holding area. Covered in dust and fake blood, limping, carrying friends; the volunteers were the first indication that something awful had happened – which the officers confirmed on the radio just seconds later as they called for more units, fire assistance and ambulance presence, and then finally broadcasting the words:
“I am declaring a Major Incident.”
That declaration brought together years of learning and training, and underpins the operational, tactical and strategic resilience of all who were participating. Following major incidents where serious lessons were identified regarding the actions – or inactions – of emergency services, the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP) was set up to improve the way the blue-light services work together, by standardising practices relating to multi-agency working, and delivering training and awareness for organisations. JESIP has provided a doctrine with three key parts: the principles of joint working, the Joint Decision Model (JDM) and the acronym METHANE – a single, simple method of passing information about an incident between services, concerning the incident, location, hazards, access, casualties, and emergency services required.
That METHANE message signaled the start of a multi-agency response phase, where the principles of JESIP – ‘working together, saving lives’ – were most visible in the way services interacted. The structures and processes which support a major incident extend far beyond the rescue efforts contained within the inner cordon of a site – they are maintained throughout the duration of a major incident, until resumption and recovery have occurred, and encompass the actions of Local Authorities, Rail Care teams, councils, The Red Cross, the Salvation Army’, and hundreds of volunteers who staff Survival Reception Centre’s, Humanitarian Assistance Centre’s, and Friends & Family Reception Centre’s.
However, the four-day exercise did so much more than just test practices and protocols; and perhaps what is missing from any debrief is the profound personal effect that EUR had on those who were there. The small details – like the spontaneous standing ovation that London Fire Brigade, Urban Search and Rescue and London Ambulance Service gave BTP officers who were the ‘stretcher-bearing’ serial at the end of the second day – reflect a very human element to what we do. Day two of the exercise also saw a particularly poignant moment: every emergency service player, search dog, evaluator, and facilitator stood alongside the brigaded fire engines for a minutes silence for those who lost their lives in Didcot a week earlier.
There are multiple reasons to exercise live: first, it can demonstrate how successful training has proven to be – or highlight potential gaps, flaws and failures – and can also validate specific processes and procedures. Moreover, live exercising can be an important way to familiarise personnel with the realities of what they may face during an emergency, offering an opportunity to respond in an incredibly realistic environment.
Officers present at 7/7 have remarked – above all else – they were not prepared for the sound of mobile phones ringing in the carriages; a small detail, with huge consequences for officer welfare and trauma management. When carrying out a search of the eighth carriage, our Police Search Advisor (POLSA) piped different ringtones through speakers in the carriage. The effect was tremendously eerie, standing in the semi-darkness and thinking of the fact that every ringtone symbolised a person that may never answer the phone again. This small detail, replicated for officers who conducted the search, is now embedded in their memory, their business as usual response, and will only enhance their ability to respond to similar emergency response situations in the future.
Helen Turner is a former MSc student in Geopolitics & Security at Royal Holloway. Following the completion of her studies in September 2015, Helen joined the British Transport Police as Resilience Planning Officer, based in Cardiff.
Chris Schofield – a casualty volunteer’s perspective:
As part of my Masters degree, I am studying how emergencies are governed and rendered governable for responders, through the performance of crisis simulations and exercises. The opportunity to divert from reading and immerse myself in EUR was therefore invaluable, but I hadn’t anticipated just how immersive the experience would be.
“The most mentally overwhelming part was the total chaos expressed through sheer noise”
The most striking sensual element of the day wasn’t the visual gore of the injuries brushed, squirted and glued onto volunteers, or the unsettling look of fatigue on firefighters entering their fourth day of assessment. The most mentally overwhelming part was the total chaos expressed through sheer noise: the shrieking of the injured; the slapping of hands on carriage windows by passengers desperate to escape their blood-soaked carriages; the whir of drills and electric cutters put to work to free them; the permanent pierce of the station alarm system, and the mechanical thumping sound of wood being chopped and hammered into useful wedges by Urban Search and Rescue, which were then used to prop-up carriages or cover dangerous protrusions of twisted metal.
This uncomfortable chorus juxtaposed sharply with the acoustic serenity of spaces like the Humanitarian Assistance Centre, where Salvation Army volunteers and Rail Customer Care teams offered tea and biscuits to a waiting room of exhausted survivors. Here a triage of very different sorts was performed, one that is understated yet nonetheless critical following a major urban incident. My alter ego was assisted with finding a locksmith, for example (my keys and wallet were lost during the collapse), hundreds of others needed to find missing relatives, others simply emotional support.
My overriding memory of the sounds speaks to a recent focus on the more sensory and corporeal effects of emergency exercises on their participants. As Helen noted above, one of the most traumatic triggers for 7/7 responders was the mere sound of a mobile ringtone. Training participants in coping with sensory overload was evidently a key aim of the EUR’s planners and evaluators.
As is often the case, the seemingly mundane spaces of the Exercise site proved to be the most innovative and interesting. Banks of computer screens constituted the ‘Pseudo-Media’ and emergency communications rooms, both injecting a non-physical, digital urgency on a much greater scale, where a distressed general public demanded prompt information and trapped casualties’ cries for help took the form of Tweets:
Such evidence of the depth of planning which went into EUR left me satisfied with the sophistication of British emergency response capabilities. The aural and digital elements were the most impressive, and I look forward to seeing which innovations are introduced to future exercises.
Chris is studying the MSc in Geopolitics & Security at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is currently researching the use of Big Data by emergency practitioners.
Exercise Unified Response was the largest live exercise in the UK to date, two years in the planning, with around £1million of funding coming from the European Commission. It involved over 70 agencies – from ‘blue light’ emergency services, to Local Authorities and Train Operating Companies, as well as over 2000 volunteer ‘casualties’, playing over four days, in four different sites. The main live exercise site saw eight tube carriages arranged amongst thousands of tonnes of rubble, accessible only through a single station entrance, complete with barriers, and the labyrinthine construction of shipping containers mocking up tube walkways.
In addition to thoroughly testing the rescue procedures of London Fire Brigade, London Ambulance Service, and three Police forces, Exercise United Response also tested the UKDVI (Disaster Victim Identification) response – a huge part of any major incident concerning body recovery, and body identification, with participation from teams across Europe. The European Union Civil Protection Mechanism was also enacted and tested through work at the London-based ‘ExCon’, and on the third day Urban Search and Rescue teams from Cyprus, Hungary and Italy entered play.
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Editor note: Given the recent awful events in Brussels this week, there was a great deal of trepidation over publishing this blog post – and its timely nature. However, a brief look over the #unifiedresponse hashtag following the attacks is perhaps evidence of the necessity of such crisis/disaster simulations and exercises around the world – and the means of which they improve emergency response and coordination in times of crisis.