Planning for a major incident

Emergency Plan © Nick Youngson

Following the Grenfell Tower fire and its tragic aftermath, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Colchester Borough Council’s own emergency planning procedures.

Whilst I am delighted to be able to explain our plans for dealing with a major incident, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to make any comment on how the situation has been handled in Kensington and Chelsea.

As a local authority, our role invariably starts as support to the emergency blue-light services. They are there to save life, limb and – wherever possible – property. So we may be required to set up a rest centre, for example, where people who are displaced by a major incident can stay for a short period. We did just that, back in February, when Storm Doris unleashed gale-force winds and a tidal surge across our region and coast.

Our role as a council comes more to the fore when events begin to move into the ‘recovery’ stage. This is when we can begin to help support the community to return to as ‘normal’ a life as possible.

A few words of advice: It’s absolutely vital that people consider taking out appropriate insurance to cover the possibility of a major incident causing damage to their property or business. However, I’d say that it’s even more important to give thought at all times to our own safety, and never allow ourselves to become complacent about potential risks – such as, for example, when we stay in a hotel or visit public buildings. It won’t do us any harm (will help ensure the opposite, in fact) to make ourselves aware of fire exits and what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. As Confucius once said: “It’s wise to always expect the unexpected.” After all, it’s for a very good reason that someone will always run through housekeeping rules ahead of a public meeting, so the audience knows, if the fire alarm rings, that it isn’t a drill. It’s not a matter of ‘health and safety gone mad’; it’s simply plain common sense and about taking responsibility for our own and everyone else’s wellbeing.

I’m keen that we continue to encourage other organisations in the Borough – both large and small – to think about their business continuity plan, too, and the way it will help them cope in the aftermath of a major incident or disaster – be it natural like a fire or flood, or premeditated like a cyber-attack.

Developing a comprehensive business continuity plan allows businesses to get ahead of the curve in identifying the potential impacts that could threaten their organisation and impact their customers. A business continuity plan, such as the one we have, provides a framework for building resilience and effective responses to all kinds of incidents, meets legislative requirements, and protects the organisation’s reputation. We know that ‘building-in’ business continuity, making it part of the way our organisation is run, is going to help us to recover more effectively after an incident and get us back to working normally again in the quickest possible time. An effective and tested plan, like ours, enables us to manage the unexpected and so reassure our residents, customers and staff that effective contingency plans are in place.

Some disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire, happen suddenly and without warning, of course, while others allow some time to plan. A tidal surge, for example, may be forecast hours or sometimes even days in advance. We need to be prepared at all times for both.

When facing an immediate emergency, there are a number of responses we need to consider simultaneously. These can be categorised as follows:

Information: This is often unknown, still emerging or just patchy. So just what is the scale of the emergency and what response is needed? The sooner we know, the sooner we can act.

Co-ordination: If we can establish what needs to be done – and, as I say, that is difficult, especially as the situation evolves and perhaps the situation begins to deteriorate – then co-ordinating the responses between a host of statutory agencies, volunteers and Third Sector bodies can sometimes be difficult, initially.

Communications and social media: From the moment a major incident happens, a mass of information pours in from numerous sources, some of which is helpful, some of which is misleading, some of which is plainly wrong. Separating the wheat from the chaff is critical, if our Communications Team and our various information channels, including our website and social media platforms, are to be able to update residents and local businesses with timely and accurate information.

We follow well-defined and well-rehearsed protocols to ensure that our Communications Team remains in close contact with the council’s First Call Officer, our heads of service, the emergency services, government agencies and other public bodies countywide, including Essex County Council, the precise moment a major incident is declared. This also includes providing regular updates to councillors and myself about the incident or emergency as it develops and when it is eventually resolved. The importance of maintaining clear and open channels of communication between all of the relevant authorities, throughout the duration of a major incident, cannot be over-estimated. That is why our Communications Team is on call 24-hours a day, 365-days a year, ready to respond to any media enquiries and share information with other agencies and the public.

Resources: We will usually have a presence on the ground, at the scene, but with all the blue-light services doing their job too, we cannot get in their way. We need to plan to use our resources efficiently, since they might be needed over a longer period of time. It can only be counter-productive to throw everything we have into an emergency, to only then find we have nothing left for tomorrow, the next day, the next week, etc.

The immediate versus long term responses: Obviously we have to consider, as a matter of priority, our immediate response providing help and support to those caught up in an emergency situation. But we also have to think about what we must do, practically speaking, after the emergency has passed. For example, there may be a sudden need to re-home hundreds of people, even though the housing list already has 4000 people waiting on it. And, in the longer term, we will invariably have to consider all of the complex issues, both material and psychological, that are necessary to help the community to ‘return to normal’.

Learning: There are bound to be urgent lessons regarding the incident itself which need to be understood and actioned without delay – but we will also need to examine how the emergency was handled and what could work better in the future.

Compassion: It is important that we understand and relate to every single one of the human stories that emerge after a major tragedy, because every catastrophic event will have a devastating impact on individuals and families.

I am pleased to be able to reassure residents that we routinely practise our emergency planning response to incidents, and that seven of our senior managers take it in turns to be our First Call Officer a month at a time. And we usually deal with a number of ‘incidents’ each and every month.

As I alluded to earlier, I didn’t write this blogpost to pass judgement on what did or did not happen in London recently. I hope you will have found it informative and have a better understanding of the issues and responses a local authority like Colchester Borough Council needs to consider in the event of a major incident or emergency.

If, heaven forbid, a event of the order seen recently in Manchester and London were to happen in Colchester, I would like to think my colleagues and I would get more decisions right than hindsight would show had been wrong – simply because we are confident that we constantly plan and practise for it.

Finally, I would just like to reassure residents that we have no high rise buildings in our housing stock – only two- and three-storey blocks – all of which have been inspected to ensure they do not have the same cladding as that used on Grenfell Tower.