Cambridgeshire County Council’s Executive Councillor for Public Health, Cllr Steve Tierney, has created a “cabinet advisory group” to look at emergency planning / disaster preparedness in the county which he invited me to join.
Three meetings of the group have been scheduled, the first, held on the 3rd of September 2012, was a briefing by the County Council’s head of emergency planning, the second will be a “disaster game” simulation exercise, to be held in public on the 24th of September at Shire Hall, and finally there will be a “wash-up” meeting where comments will be made.
Key and Interesting Points from Briefing Session
- Cllr Victor Lucas said that the main learning point from some of the biggest recent real life emergencies in the county, evacuations following the discovery of unexploded bombs between Longstanton and Oakington, was the importance of keeping local councillors out of the way. He described how the local councillor in that instance caused a problem by, questioning, and seeking to interfere with, operational decisions, for example pushing to keep the local schools open despite the evacuation. Cllr Lucas told the group that ultimately the Chief Constable had to order that the councillor be removed from the area. Cllr Lucas didn’t name the councillor(s) involved but the site was in the Willingham division represented by Cllr Shona Johnstone who recently relaunched her bid to become the region’s Police and Crime Commissioner. It appears probable that what Cllr Lucas was saying was that his party’s candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, and others like her, ought be kept well out the way of any major incidents, hardly rousing support for her candidature.
- Emergency planning officers see councillors’ role during an incident as being solely to act as a route of two way communication with the public. In particular they expect councillors to use their local knowledge and communications with residents to help identify groups of people or individuals in particular need of assistance.
- There is no plan for elected representatives to have a strategic role in the management of an incident. This was something many of those present questioned.
- The Local Resilience Forum, currently chaired by the Chief Constable, and comprising representatives from each of the “Category One” responders – the District, County, and Peterborough City councils, emergency services and the NHS – is the primary body locally which plans for, and would operationally direct, a disaster response. The body contains no elected representatives. The County Council is represented by an officer: Pat Harding.
- The County Council has “cards” recognised by supermarkets which allows it to purchase goods if they are not freely available to the general public during an incident. (This appears to be a similar, though more tangible, arrangement to the Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme).
- Currently the County Council, along with neighbouring county councils, maintains building 201 at RAF Alconbury for use as a mortuary for mass-casualties. This is the facility known as “The Magic Mountain Bunker, described by English Heritage as:
… a massive double-storey semi-subterranean bunker at the former RAF base at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire – was completed about 1989. It is one of the largest and most sophisticated bunkers in the United Kingdom, representing the ultimate in Cold War bunker architecture.
The group was told the council would stop keeping the facility ready for use as of 31 December 2012 and the subsequent provision of mortuary facilities was a live issue currently under review. It was noted that the presence of the mortuary facility in Alconbury was “not conducive” to the massive residential development planned on the airfield site. Consideration is being given to using Hinchingbrooke Hospital’s mortuary; the emergency planning officer said that size wasn’t as important as facilities for post-mortums, and Hinchingbrooke while small does have the required facilities.
- The County Council has just three emergency planning staff; between them they operate a 24/7/365 point of contact.
The 3rd September Briefing
The briefing was chaired by Cllr Tierney and the main presentation given by the council’s Head of Emergency Planning, who described himself as the “emergency planning manager”, Stewart Thomas. Two or three county officers were in attendance, additional councillors present were Cllr John Reynolds, Cllr Samantha Hoy, Cllr Andy Pellew, Cllr Victor Lucas, Cllr Peter Reeve and possibly one other.
Cllr Tierney kicked things off with an introduction saying he was looking for “advice and suggestions” to come from the series of three meetings. He urged those present not to “terrify the county”.
The Head of Emergency Planning started by saying he had a team of ten officers in 2009, but there were now only three, him and two “advisors”. This change had followed an increased role for, and more staff involved in emergency planning in, the district councils. Mr Thomas said that his team provided a 24/7 on call service.
Mr Thomas said the key piece of legislation is the Civil Contingencies Act, which he noted contains a definition of an emergency as well as the provisions relating to central government invoking emergency powers.
The legislation also defines Category One and Category Two responders, the latter being described by Mr Thomas as “utilities” (it also includes the Health and Safety Executive and Transport Companies).
The group was told that the County Council had a statutory responsibility to prepare plans for dealing with three specific types of emergency:
- Incidents at sites where certain chemicals are stored above certain quantities eg. Chlorine for water treatment.
- Incidents involving pipelines, and the National Grid. (See the resilience forum’s risk register entry for a “Localised explosion at a natural gas pipeline.”)
Mr Thomas said one of the main roles of those responding to an incident was to warn the public; he said the operational capability to do this lay with the the resilience forum, not the council, and did not give any indication of the means to be used.
Mr Thomas said there were various types of emergency plan in place; ranging from a generic plan setting out how the council would respond “when activated”, to site specific plans, for example covering Marshall’s Airport, and “theme” based plans covering for example Fuel, Weather events, Pandemics, Floods.
The group was told by Mr Thomas that the Local Resilience Forum comprised all local category one and two responders but that there was a mixed response from some of the category two, utility companies, in their willingness to participate. We were told that the forum was attended by senior officers, and chaired by the Chief Constable. Mr Thomas noted that as the ACPO lead for emergency planning the current Chief Constable has particular interest and expertise in the area. As well as being the County Council’s representative on the forum, officer Pat Harding also chairs the “Programme Board” of the forum, which was described as the body which actually gets things decided by the forum done, the “business end” of the organisation. The forum is supported by a secretariat, led by a senior police officer, and comprising of staff from bodies which are members of the forum.
Mr Thomas went on to talk about the role of elected councillors during an incident. He said their only role was identifying need and communicating between the authorities and the public. Mr Thomas said that any leadership role would only come in later, for example in terms of “working to recreate an area”.
Cllr Tierney interjected to make two points:
- Cllr Tierney agreed the Local Resilience Forum ought be an entirely officer based group; saying the necessary strategic decisions ought to have been made before an incident occurs, and the officers would just be implementing pre-made decisions.
- Cllr Tierney expanded on his understanding of the role of ward councillors, he said they could use their local knowledge to identify people who might be particularly affected by an event who might not be known to various parts of the state, such as the council or NHS in advance.
In concluding his presentation Mr Thomas described the County Council’s role in an emergency as doing what it always does; he said: “In an emergency we do what we do on a day to day basis”.
Cllr Victor Lucas asked about the involvement of political leadership in the Local Resilience Forum. He asked if the council leader would have a role in the gold command organisation. While the question was dodged and not directly addressed, the answer appeared to be “no”.
Control centres were asked about next. Mr Thomas said there were a number of rooms, just normal meeting rooms, not bunkers, which had had very minor modifications made to them to enable their use as control centres in an emergency situation. The group was told that generally the police would take the lead, but in the case of say a fire, the fire service would, or in case of pandemic flu, the NHS would. Cllr Lucas questioned this approach saying that as civil unrest was be expected, in all the predictions he was aware of, to be a consequence of pandemic flu, the police surely ought take the lead. Worryingly Mr Thomas described a flu pandemic as “like a fire” and as the fire service would take control of a fire related incident the NHS would a flu pandemic.
The Magic Mountain Bunker, Building 210 at Alconbury was discussed next. Cllr Lucas asked about the plans for providing mortuary facilities when it ceased to have that role. Mr Thomas said that was not yet decided, but that the “national temporary structure”, as deployed in London following the bombings on the 7th of July 2005 was available to Cambridgeshire, and alternatives such as contracting the provision to a private company or designating Hitchingbrooke Hospital were options.
Cllr Lucas referred to an exercise held at Wyton on the Hill, where the response to a release of a toxic chemical in a supermarket had been rehearsed by the emergency services. He suggested that a calendar of exercises be maintained and efforts made to co-ordinate exercised by councillors, such as that planned by Cllr Tierney, with those by the front line responders. Cllr Lucas said he thought the planned exercise was a good idea, as it was valuable to get people in positions such as Cllr Tierney’s considering the kind of strategic questions they may have to ask in a real situation.
After the role of councillors was discussed, as reported above, in relation to the unexploded bombs near Longstanton, the potential role for the Police and Crime Commissioner was raised. It was noted that in London, it is the Mayor, and the Mayor’s office for policing, which was looked to for the lead in the public relations, and priority setting, response to widespread rioting. Cllr Lucas also asked about the role of the council’s audit committee in relation to emergency planning.
Cllr Tierney and Mr Thomas explained that the responsibility for scrutinising emergency planning extended over all the council’s scrutiny committees.
I asked about the involvement of supermarkets with the council’s emergency planning arrangements. In my view they, as now the almost only source of food, as well as organisations holding stocks of fuel and bottled water, and having some the most significant logistical infrastructure in the country. Mr Thomas said the supermarkets were not involved in emergency planning, and were neither classed like the utility or transport companies as category two responders, or treated like them and involved in the resilience forum. Mr Thomas did however note that in practice the supermarkets had provided much assistance in emergency incidents; he also revealed the existence of the priority card system for accessing goods, which I had never heard of and find quite incredible.
I asked if three staff was enough to provide 24/7/365 cover. Mr Thomas responded to say he thought it was quite good and quite sufficient – this surprises me as with one person ill or on holiday that leaves just two people to provide the cover, and given the importance of the role it’s presumably something that takes some time to hand-over when staff move on. Mr Thomas stressed his officers generally don’t do much themselves, and just answer the phone and get in touch with the person needed; he also noted that many people in the County Council are involved in any response, and there are lots of staff and directors available to pass matters on to.
Lifestyle changes were the subject of my last question (I felt three was as many as I could get away with). Mr Thomas had explained how plans were updated in response to changes for example in the uses of chemical storage sites, I asked if the council kept track of how people’s lifestyles were changing, for example in the way people communicate, and for example the way people now shop more frequently, and adapted their plans in response. (I was thinking about the often cited quote that the country is x meals from anarchy and a recent complaint by the Chairman of the Orchard Park Community Council, saying bus problems meant those he represents had trouble doing their *daily* shopping.
Mr Thomas said that adapting plans to such lifestyle changes was a key part of his and his team’s work. He gave another example he considered very important, that of increased commuting distances. He didn’t expand on what issues commuting further gave rise to, put presumably if there is an incident in a city like Cambridge many of those in the city don’t have a place to sleep here, if usually they commute out and are prevented from doing so.
Mr Thomas said that the “PR Staff” of all members of the resilience forum regularly got together to discuss and update their plans for communicating during an emergency.
Lastly Mr Thomas was asked to expand on a comment he made saying that the team routinely took calls and did their job, he was asked what kinds of things they did. He responded to say there were often small incidents where the police perhaps needed to seal 3-4 homes off, or perhaps there was a small flood, and people needed urgently to be found accommodation and transported to it, he said the county officers arranged this with the district councils and taxi companies.
The group was also told how the emergency planning team worked during period of threat of fuel supplier strikes, to ensure that those service providers who needed fuel got it. Interestingly no mention was made of last summer’s disorder.
Cllr Reeve of UKIP asked “When do the military take over?”, ex military officer Cllr Lucas began responding, saying there were various tiers of involvement, but before he got to explaining the concept of military aid to the civil power to Cllr Reeve he petered out as it didn’t appear Cllr Reeve was asking a serious question – but simply suggesting the military be called in more often, and more readily, to deal with emergencies. Mr Thomas said that at a national level central government through COBRA would take the decision to deploy the military; Cllr Lucas said that various military units had “sealed orders” for a range of eventualities.
Finally – asked what the top risk to the county was in his view, Mr Thomas answered unhesitatingly: “Floods”.
The Disaster Simulation Game
Cllr Tierney said the group would be split into two for the disaster game simulation; one red teaming and creating the incident and the other playing those responding. He said he would use his experience in computer game design to assist in the preparations.
The three hour session will be spit into:
- What happened; and what the conditions are.
- How it escalates.
- How it either escalates, or steps down.
Cllr Tierney said the scenario could not be silly – it was not to be a zombie attack (the council have announced how the are planning to deal with one of those) or a “nuclear strike”. Cllr Hoy suggested incorporating bomb threats to schools – something which has recently been experienced in the county.
I asked if others, such as the county’s director of public health, would be invited. Cllr Tiereny said it would be open to all to observe.
Emergency planning and preparedness is a massive area, and with the three strong team at Cambridgeshire County Council we’re seeing only a tiny slice of it. Like many aspects of government in the UK, there are many tiers involved; for example following the presentation mentioning chemical hazard sites, asked about biological hazard sites, Mr Thomas said that was something that would be dealt with way above his level, despite the presence of a number of major hospitals, as well as academic and commercial research involving infectious material in the county.
Clearly Mr Thomas and his team are giving consideration to the logistics of things like dealing with the aftermath of a mass-casualty transport incident; or incidents which require people to be provided with emergency accommodation – in the short or long term; if any scenario involves such things, I suspect they will be able to confidently explain the approach they would take; details of accommodation arrangements though they will be able to say is the responsibility of another tier, the district councils, so we won’t actually get down to the details.
Things which it might be particularly useful and interesting to see as part of a scenario:
- For Cabinet Member for Cllr Tierney tested, and exercised, with a decision to ban or limit travel or gathering, for example following an actual or suspected disease risk.
- A requirement to communicate rapidly with the public in particular areas, to find out how this can be done. eg. do the authorities have the ability to broadcast text messages here, or do they assume we all have battery powered radios to listen to the BBC?
- A general collapse in the banking / money system (I wonder if this is one of the confidential elements of the Risk Register, or one not considered?)
- The impact of something preventing the import of gas / electricity.
- A major road incident, with associated gridlock – something that’s a daily problem in the region, and with just a few added factors such as weather, or the vehicles involved carrying a highly hazardous load, could one day be much worse.
Without the involvement of the police, health service, ambulance, fire service and others, I think the most interesting aspect of the exercise will be seeing how councillors respond, and what their considerations are, and how they weigh up the risks – will they bring the county’s economy grinding to a halt at the merest threat of something which could escalate – or will they adopt a laissez-faire attitude until it’s too late? One result of the exercise could even perhaps be Cambridgeshire residents deciding to elect different people to represent them in these kinds of emergency situations – if the decisions taken in the simulation turn out not to be popular!
Perhaps councillors’ simulation responses will be scrutinised at committees, and there will be questions be asked, and they will have to defend their decisions, at a future full council?
The Public elements of the County’s Risk Register are available via the Emergency Planning page of the South Cambridgeshire District Council website they detail some anticipated threats, historical references, and include some assessment of the risks.