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Keeping Chaos Under Control

Chaos isn’t just a theory. It is the inevitable result of disasters when responses have not been planned. Chaos, and the fear that accompanies it, are exactly what terrorists hope to create when they launch attacks. Public and private authorities must, therefore, carefully prepare their response to various large-scale emergencies, whether caused by natural disasters or terrorists. In the U.K., many initiatives are underway to raise the level of readiness among all the parties that might be involved. Efforts include role-playing exercises and changes to civil defense powers. Also being addressed are issues of staffing, communications, citizen involvement, and surveillance.

Role-playing. The U.K. government held a large-scale simulated chemical attack exercise last September at Bank station on the London Underground, in the heart of London’s financial district. For the Bank station exercise, two train stations had to be closed and several roads cordoned off, which meant the exercise had to be carried out on a quiet Sunday morning to ensure minimum disruption to the capital.

The impact of a real chemical attack on the London Underground during a busy rush hour period would, of course, be a very different proposition for emergency services. Not only would there be more traffic, but it would likely take authorities a while to realize what had occurred. “Scores of casualties could begin presenting themselves at hospitals around London at different times following an attack,” notes Philip Selwood, London’s assistant chief ambulance officer. Nonetheless, the exercise, which involved fire, ambulance, police, and medical staff, offered authorities a chance to test plans and learn lessons.

During the drill, teenage police cadets acted as passengers in a train that was stopped 50 yards short of the platform after the driver reported a chemical attack. Around 500 emergency services staff cordoned off the surrounding streets, rescued and decontaminated passengers, and transported them to a nearby hospital.

Some of the conclusions reached by London Resilience (a consortium of emergency services and transport operators) after the drill have been kept confidential, but three major findings from the official report on the exercise have been published. The first is that work needs to be done to find alternative rescue plans for areas like the London Underground that offer restricted access; the second is that ambulance crews need to be able to provide earlier assessment, care, and delivery of specific antidotes to contaminated casualties. The third finding concerns a problem with communication; the exercise revealed that rescue workers wearing decontamination suits could not talk through their gas masks.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) London Region has come up with a possible solution to the gas mask problem. Linda Smith, regional treasurer for FBU London Region, suggests that firefighters be issued small wipe boards that they can write on to communicate in the aftermath of a chemical or biological attack. “It might be possible to develop decontamination suits that rescue workers can speak through more easily,” says Smith, “but in my 19 years as a firefighter, I have often found that the simplest solutions are the best.” The FBU has also urged emergency services to pay more attention to the direction of the wind when setting up decontamination tents near the scene of a chem-bio attack.

London Resilience says that it will study the lessons of the Bank station exercise. It is planning similar exercises over the next two years. A joint British/American exercise is being planned for 2005.

Support facilities. Government officials know that a completely successful response in the event of a real emergency will also depend on the readiness of support facilities, such as hospitals. These facilities have run their own tests in recognition of their critical roles.

One of those hospitals is Southmead NHS (National Health Service) Trust Hospital in Bristol, south-west England. Nick van der Bijl, the hospital’s security manager, sees Bristol as a potential target for terrorists because it is one of Britain’s biggest cities.

Southmead NHS Trust Hospital recently tested staff response to the following scenario: a helicopter crashing into a supermarket, causing a fire and widespread devastation. Mocked up video from the scene of the incident was shown on hospital TV screens.

Van der Bijl says that many lessons were learned from the exercise, such as the need for alternative evacuation posts in case designated evacuation areas are inaccessible or too dangerous. “We also found that we didn’t have enough security staff to deal with bereaved parents, badly hurt patients wandering around lost, and members of the press trying to gain access,” he says.

Van der Bijl has responded by arranging for his guarding contractor, Securitas, to supply more security officers in the event of a major catastrophe affecting the hospital. The arrangement has been written into the hospital’s existing contract with Securitas.

The exercise also revealed the need for additional equipment. Southmead NHS Trust Hospital has some decontamination tents and suits for use in the event of a chemical or biological attack, but not enough, according to van der Bijl, who has asked for government funding so that he can issue his security guards decontamination suits. “If chem-bio suits can be issued to the armed forces, I see no reason why these suits can’t be issued to hospital security guards as well,” he says.

The exercise further highlighted a need for the hospital’s security staff to receive special training in how to handle a major catastrophe, adds van der Bijl. If the hospital’s security officers are eventually given decontamination equipment, they will require training in how to use it. With this in mind, Southmead NHS Trust Hospital is planning to enlist the help of its local fire brigade to train security officers in how to use decontamination equipment. The trust also wants staff from the hospital’s burn unit to teach security officers how to deal with someone suffering from burn following a fire or chem-bio attack, something which van der Bijl says the officers struggled to cope with during the recent fire drill.

Van der Bijl is also considering calling on the hospital’s media communications team to give his officers some tips on how to handle media demands in the aftermath of a major incident. The hospital’s fire drill exposed the officers’ inexperience in handling the media. “Our staff need to learn how to sensitively handle any press who might try to muscle their way into the hospital,” he says.

Corporate drills. Companies, too, understand the need to practice. For example, The Boots Company, which has a 300-acre headquarters campus in Nottingham with more than 10,000 staff and dozens of offices, warehouses, distribution centers, and processing plants, has also conducted tabletop evacuation exercises with local authorities and emergency services. Those exercises “help us to get to know how our local authorities work so we can assist them in the evacuation of local residents,” says Stuart Davidson, site services manager.

New powers. The U.K. government is seeking greater authority to respond to emergencies and is pushing for that authority through the Civil Contingencies Bill. The legislation would widen the definition of what constitutes an emergency to include terrorist threats to the U.K.’s political and economic structure, and it would give the government the power to declare a state of emergency on a regional as well as a national basis.

The bill would also establish a new framework for civil defense, which has remained largely unchanged since the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. The bill is currently progressing through Parliament and is widely expected to become law before the end of July.

Paul Eskriett, principal security and contingency planning officer for the Corporation of London, which provides local government services for the City of London, says that the update of civil defense law for peace time is a good idea. It means the law will now cover fire and floods as well as terrorist activity, he notes.

A new tier of civil protection organizations, described in the draft bill as “resilience bodies,” would be created to coordinate the response by local and national government to an emergency. These resilience bodies would test whether local authorities have sufficient contingency plans in place.

As part of its civil contingency planning, the U.K. government also recently confirmed a plan to evacuate hundreds of people to Kent in the event of a major catastrophe in London. Evacuees would be moved out to the county located to the southeast of the capital, where they would be given food and shelter at sites such as schools and churches.

As for the private sector, it is currently left up to each company to decide when and how or whether to evacuate on reports of a threat. But the Joint Security Industry Council (JSIC), the umbrella organization for the U.K. private security industry, is lobbying the U.K. government to give greater powers to corporate security managers to order evacuations and to carry out practice drills for emergencies other than fire. The powers could be added to the Government’s Civil Contingency Bill, they say.

Mike Welply, chief executive of JSIC, explains the effort this way: “There are mandatory requirements for fire safety, but for threats such as bombs, there are none. A lot of businesses already carry out bomb-threat evacuation drills, because it is good practice to do so, but there are no laws that make them do the drill, so a lot of businesses don’t bother.”

JSIC’s stance is supported by The Boots Company’s Davidson. “If I wanted to carry out an evacuation exercise at our head office, which houses 3,500 staff, I would have to justify my decision to a number of company directors. If there was a formal power there for me to use that makes such evacuation drills mandatory, it would make life much easier,” he says.

Staffing. The British government has already formed a Civil Contingencies Reaction Force, staffed by about 350 soldiers from the U.K.’s Territorial Army (who work on a part-time, voluntary basis and make up one quarter of the British Army) to respond to any major emergency. But Bruce George, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, says that the force may not be enough. His committee has recommended that the Civil Contingencies Bill be amended to give private security guards a greater role in public protection.

George says that if a major U.K. city suffers a large-scale terrorist attack, licensed private security staff should be called on to aid police, military, and emergency services personnel in their response to the attack. “Let’s say that Company X has got eight security guards. Will that company, if it has to close up entirely after a terrorist attack, require those eight guards, or could any of them be deployed in support of the police?” wonders George. He believes that security guards, under the control of the police, could carry out duties such as guiding people to safe areas.

New regulation of the U.K. private security industry will pave the way for security guards to provide this sort of support role, predicts George. He says that the government has no choice but to enlist the private security industry in public protection, because most of the British military would be engaged in other duties at home and abroad in the event of a terrorist attack.

Both the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Metropolitan Police, which is responsible for policing London, have recently held discussions with the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) and guarding providers to see how private security officers could support the police response to a major emergency. The possibility of security officers carrying out decontamination duties and helping to guide civilians to safe areas is under consideration.

George emphasizes, however, that private security guards would have to be well-paid, as well as properly trained. They would certainly need more than the two days’ training currently received by the majority of U.K. security guards before they start work, he notes, if they were to be relied on to provide emergency support.

Britain’s major guard service providers (referred to as “manned” guarding companies in the U.K.) are split over whether they should agree to dispatch some of their guards to provide public support in the event of a major emergency. Britain’s largest manned guarding contractor, Securicor Security, strongly supports the idea. Group 4 Falck, another of Britain’s largest manned security providers, would also be willing to release its security guards to help emergency services respond to major incidents. But another leading U.K. manned security company, Securitas, is skeptical about the feasibility of the proposal.

Guards in Securicor’s events division recently sampled what it would be like to work under police supervision, having helped the Metropolitan Police secure Europe’s biggest arms fair, the four-day Defence Systems and Equipment International show, in London Docklands last September. Securicor’s officers worked as an operational arm of the Metropolitan Police, taking orders from police chiefs.

The operation went smoothly and Douglas Greenwell, marketing director for Securicor Security, says that this example of public-private partnership demonstrates that properly trained private security officers can work harmoniously alongside police officers, to the benefit of both parties. “The presence of private security staff allows police officers to concentrate on carrying out more police-specific duties,” says Greenwell. He adds that the U.K. private security industry would improve its public image by working alongside emergency services departments in times of crisis.

“Clearly there is a role for officers from companies such as ours to play in supporting the emergency services in the event of a national emergency,” says John Bates, director of communications at Group 4, but he adds that “those guards would have to be carefully selected and appropriately trained.”

There is also the issue of cost. Group 4 admits that its willingness to release officers is likely to depend on whether the police and the government are prepared to pick up at least some of the tab for training private security officers in how to respond to a major emergency.

Securitas simply sees the idea as impractical. Based on the increased client demand for security guards that Securitas experienced in Britain immediately after 9-11, the company indicates that in the event of any future major emergencies, demand from existing clients for extra guards would leave it no officers with which to support emergency services.

David Norton, managing director of Security Assessments, a consultancy that advises several major U.K. companies on manned guarding issues, fully understands the stance taken by Securitas. Norton, who worked for 23 years for Reliance Security Group, one of the U.K.’s five biggest manned security providers, believes that contract guarding companies and their clients might be unwilling or unable, to release guards for public duties in the event of a terrorist attack. “If their building is bombed, the client might need more manned security rather than less,” says Norton, who bases that view on his past experience. “There were more security guards required inside insurer Commercial Union’s London headquarters after it had been bombed (by the IRA in 1992) than prior to the bombing,” he recalls.

A growing number of major U.K. businesses are hiring extra private security staff all year round so that they have more guards to call on in an emergency. Some end users have achieved this by paying for an extra security guard to help cover every 168 hours (seven days) guarding. U.K. manned guarding companies have traditionally provided clients with three officers to cover every 168 hours guarding: one officer works the day shift, another officer works the night shift, while the third officer is off-duty.

Wilson James, one of Britain’s fastest growing contract guarding providers, provides four officers instead of three to cover a 168-hour week, with two officers covering each 24 hour period while the other two officers are off duty. This means that the company’s clients, including British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) headquarters, Tate Modern art gallery and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (all in central London), have double the number of off-duty staff to call on than under the old system.

In the event of an emergency, that could be quite significant, says Stuart Lowden, director of corporate services at Wilson James. “Yet this is something that many security end users and contractors don’t think about. They often design for the day-to-day running of the building but don’t design for a major emergency.”

Communications. Initiatives are also underway to improve and coordinate communications during an emergency. Retailers in Wolverhampton, a town in the West Midlands in the heart of England, for example, have addressed this need by expanding the use of a retail radio link that was initially established as part of the Wolverhampton Retail Crime Initiative. Retail radio-link schemes, which retailers pay an annual fee to be part of, are springing up across the country as part of a government drive to foster partnerships to fight crime.

Police are connected to the radio link, as are more than half of Wolverhampton’s 220 town center retailers, including Gap, T.K. Maxx, and Marks & Spencer. The link is used primarily for retailers to exchange intelligence on known or suspected shoplifters, says Sandy Craig, coordinator of the Wolverhampton Retail Crime Initiative and a former detective superintendent of West Midlands Police. But it would be invaluable in coordinating the evacuation of shoppers and staff in the event of a major catastrophe, he says.

“For instance, if the threat was identified as being at the back of a store in an area where staff would normally evacuate to, we would want to inform each other that the threat is at the regular evacuation point and that staff should avoid that area,” says Craig. “The quickest way to relay this information is through the radio link.”

Craig notes that retailers are generally still reluctant to work together to formulate emergency response plans in advance of an incident, preferring to conduct such evacuation exercises in isolation. But he sees the retail radio link as a step in the right direction towards closer cooperation among Wolverhampton’s retailers. Craig is hoping to spur interest by getting the initiative’s members to meet once every six months to conduct a tabletop joint-evacuation exercise.

Citizen involvement. While U.K. retailers are relying on two-way radios to communicate with each other, local authorities are turning to mobile phones to inform local residents of any major incidents. Both Brighton and Hove City Council on Britain’s south coast and Oxfordshire County Council have adopted a new City Alert Texting System (CATS). Another 180 local authorities have expressed an interest in adopting CATS, according to the system’s supplier, Eazytext.

Local authorities will use CATS to send text messages to local residents to warn them about incidents ranging from a fire or flooding through to a major terrorist attack. Brighton and Hove City Council leader Ken Bodfish hopes that the system will help his council and emergency services rapidly evacuate an area under threat, as well as provide crucial follow-up information to people affected by an emergency.

“Ever since the old wartime sirens were decommissioned, local authorities have lacked any means of directly alerting people to serious incidents,” reflects Bodfish. The new CATS initiative helps to fill that need.

A significant number of local residents have already signed up to receive CATS alerts from Brighton and Hove City Council, at a cost of £1.50 ($US 2.70) a year. The emergency communication system is run from the council’s secure Web site.

Patrick Mercer OBE (Order of the British Empire, awarded by the Queen for valuable service to Britain), Member of Parliament for Newark and the Shadow Minister for Homeland Security for the Conservative Party, wants the government to go further than simply providing the British public with information on terrorist threats, however. Mercer wants to see all U.K. citizens trained in how to deal with a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) attack. “In 1938 (and with World War II threatening to break out), my mother, as a schoolgirl, was trained in how to deal with a gas attack and an aerial bombardment,” he says. Similar preparations for citizenry facing today’s threats would make equal sense.

The U.K.’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NACTSO) recently announced that the chemical and biological threat to the U.K. is actually low, but that the fear factor is high, which is why Mercer sees CBRN response training for citizens as so important. “Training people in how to respond will actually help to dispel fear,” he explains.

Surveillance. According to the country’s national CCTV User Group, the U.K. has more cameras trained on public places than any other country in the western world. Nearly every town and city center in the U.K. has a public CCTV operation, run by a local authority. The centers of large cities such as London, Manchester, and Birmingham are covered by several hundred surveillance cameras.

With this in mind, Inspector Andy Standen of the Thames Valley Police Operations Group, which covers a large region just west of London, says that CCTV operators could do a lot of “assess and inform” work in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency. If a bomb went off, for example, CCTV operators might be able to determine whether there were casualties, and they could then send that information back to the emergency services personnel.

Given that public CCTV operators could be called on to monitor events and exchange information with emergency services personnel following an incident, these operators should be trained to handle watching harrowing or repugnant images, says Inspector Standen. “CCTV operators must be prepared for something nasty; otherwise, CCTV managers might have a welfare issue on their hands, he says. “You need to consider what support you need to give your staff, as you can imagine the impact the sight of dead bodies or body parts could have on CCTV operators.”

Standen advises CCTV managers to show their operators a video of major incidents such as 9-11 and the Bali bombing to brace them for the devastation of a major terrorist attack. “If CCTV staff are going to be seeing something on their monitors for the first time, then it is the wrong time,” he says.

By their nature, emergencies, especially terrorist attacks, create chaos. But as these U.K. efforts show, public and private authorities can ensure an orderly response by putting resources and plans in place long before they are needed.

Lawrence Mark Cohen is a freelance writer based in England.