Welcome to the 'riskscape'
On one day in July 2021 fires devastated large areas of Sardinia, flooding occurred for the second time in two weeks in London and I received a message from research colleagues in Germany that read "the institute was quite destroyed and many colleagues have suffered tremendous damage to their houses." Hot, humid weather and developing storms made me wonder whether my house was about to suffer the effects of the kind of concentrated microcyclone storm which has come to be known colloquially as a 'water bomb' and scientifically as ‘explosive cyclogenesis’. The last one caused mayhem as water poured copiously through the door (on the third floor) and I broke my foot as I scrambled to mop it up and save the parquet. So much for the personal reflections. What does all this mean for Britain?
If we look at major emergencies in the UK over the last 25 years or so, there have been significant deficiencies in the response in just about every case. In some instances, notably the Manchester Arena bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire (both in 2017), the shortcomings have been nothing less than scandalous (Kerslake 2018, Moore-Bick 2019). The same is true of some of the earlier events, such as the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989. Lessons have been identified and in some cases learned, but the process is inhibited by the weakness of the overall system.
This has been the case despite the fact that Britain has formidable expertise in both the practical and the academic domains. Recently, I spoke to a senior emergency planner who has worked for years in the transportation and nuclear industries. From memory he recited to me a catalogue of omissions, oversights and failures in managing the risks. I asked him for a prediction of what would happen in the future. He looked gloomy and said that the most likely scenario would be a large destructive event in the nuclear or chemical industries, or perhaps a major infrastructure failure of some kind. In each case, there are plenty of risks and situations to choose from. However, do we really appreciate the magnitude of the challenge posed by climate change, not merely in terms of average values of temperature and precipitation, but with respect to extreme events: heatwaves, cold snaps, snow, ice, frost, rain, floods, rising sea levels in conjunction with coastal storm surges, and so on?
A climate of increasing risk
A report by the Met Office and associated climate scientists (Kendon et al. 2021) confirms that the United Kingdom is getting warmer and wetter. The potential for extreme weather events is increasing fast. The forecast is for heavier rain, more flooding, greater heat waves and, paradoxically, more substantial cold snaps and deeper snow. Moreover, the rate of sea-level rise has doubled since 1900, which will increase the impact of storm surge flooding along the nation's coasts. Billions will have to be spent on making the country's infrastructure more resilient against this sort of event. More flood defences will have to be constructed and those that exist will need strengthening and maintaining, at great cost. Alarmingly, a survey by the Environment Agency that nearly 6 per cent of existing flood defences are in a poor or very poor state (Environment Agency 2021). One only hopes that land-use planning will stem the flood of new construction in areas that are prone to inundation by rivers that burst their banks and seas that rise up and surge inland, eating away at properties and coastal defences as they go.
The bureaucratic approach
Emphasis is quite rightly placed on mitigating these impacts and preparing to adapt our lives and livelihoods to climate change. However, it would be wrong to avoid thinking about how to improve our ability to respond to meteorological disasters when they occur. In the UK, the term 'disaster' is not used: 'major incident' is preferred. This is acceptable when one is dealing with a road accident or a train crash. But in 2008 floods stretched from Alnwick in Northumberland to Tewksbury in Somerset, nearly 500 km away. Was this not a disaster? And how can the death of nearly 130,000 people from Covid-19 be called a 'major incident'? It is time to call a spade a spade.
Every country needs a law that specifies the nature of the civil protection system and the basic details of how it works. In the UK this is the Civil Contingencies Act of November 2004. Oddly, it was sidelined during the pandemic as the Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, judged it to be 'too extreme'. He went on to promulgate a law, the Coronavirus Act of March 2020, that is perhaps even more 'extreme', although mitigated by its incomprehensibility. To illustrate that, consider just one of the 102 provisions and 29 schedules. namely paragraph 25D, subparagraph (1):
"Regulations under section 25C may not include provision imposing a restriction or requirement by virtue of subsection (3)(c) of that section unless the Department considers, when making the regulations, that the restriction or requirement is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by imposing it."
Wording of this kind is designed to defy the country's leading philosophers of logic, and let's remember that the Act is designed to tackle a major emergency–sorry, disaster.
The real problem is that the British emergency planning, management and response system is fragmented and incomplete. It lacks a national emergency operations centre. For the ops people in Rome there is a cluster of five emergency operations rooms in a substantial purpose-built complex. In The Hague there is a compact but technologically advanced operations centre. In Britain, there is the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, which is a mere discussion chamber, staffed on an ad hoc basis and very occasionally frequented by the Prime Minister.
Emergency planning is a vital occupation. In major emergencies the plans orchestrate the procedures and reduce improvisation to a necessary minimum. This is a good idea because improvisation in place of proper foresight and preparation can be lethal, as we have seen with the provision of personal protective equipment and the first test-and-trace system in Britain. However, in the UK emergency planning is hardly a profession. Despite the presence of 62 universities that teach some aspects of disaster and emergency management, it has no graduate entry requirement and no career progression. Where it exists and has not been dispensed with in austerity cuts, expertise and institutional memory are easily lost in the rotation of staff.
Britain was one of the first countries to institute a national register of civil risks. This document is periodically updated and the latest edition came out in 2020. Interestingly, since the first edition in 2008, pandemics have been regarded as the leading risk in terms of their probability of occurrence and seriousness of consequences. Despite this, in early 2020 when Covid-19 struck, preparedness was at a low ebb and government was distracted by other contingencies, notably Brexit and counter-terrorism.
The National Risk Register has been criticised because it is not a particularly user-friendly document, it takes only a short-term view of the threats and hazards that assail the UK, it does not enquire into how risks can manifest themselves in combinations, and it is unknown to many of the organisations and decision makers who could make good use of it.
The local level of emergency preparedness in the UK does use the risk register, as it is charged with preparing community risk registers, which are local versions of the NRR. They are managed by the country's local resilience forums. These are rather ambiguous bodies. They lack consistent funding and have little executive authority. They have few mechanisms for involving the community or creating an efficient, effective local system. This is particularly unfortunate as there is immense scope to generate more community engagement. Indeed, the challenge of the century in civil protection is to persuade ordinary people to be more responsible for their own risks.
One wonders why the police are the lead agency in the UK and why the emergency planners are so seldom the emergency managers? The answer lies in both the undervaluing of emergency planning ('disaster science' is not represented in, for example, the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE), and the excessive emphasis on command and control. An extension of this is the widespread use of military forces in civilian emergencies in the UK. At a time when the military complement of personnel is shrinking and there are many other demands on the attention of our armed forces, this does not make sense. Indeed, some military commanders I have spoken to are uneasy about their role in floods, storms and so on. It is a role that is seldom sustained enough to make a thorough-going difference. In fact, in general terms, the evolution of emergency management can practically be measured by its degree of demilitarisation over recent decades.
In the response to civilian emergencies, all countries experience a certain tension between centralisation and devolution. The UK has become highly centralised in its organisation, but most emergencies are far from being nationwide events. Given the future challenges, it makes clear sense to reverse this tendency.
Inspiration from elsewhere
I have the good fortune to be a dual national with British and Italian citizenship. In my home town in Italy a civil protection service has existed since 1525 (some 281 years after it began 17 km down the road in Florence - where it is still headquartered in the same building as it had in 1244). Organised voluntarism is fully incorporated into the system. This gives us a modern, efficient ambulance service that often has a doctor on board as well as paramedics. Across the road there is the emergency operations centre of the forest fire-fighting volunteers. Both services do much more than responding to casualties and fires respectively. 'Civil Protection' is written large upon their fleets of vehicles. Laws protect their operatives and define their responsibilities in major emergencies. Both services will look to the municipal emergency operations centre, which is combined with a small detachment of the national fire and rescue service. This is responsible for six local municipalities which respond to emergencies in consortium. The provincial emergency plan is fully digital and it is coordinated by the civil protection service of the region.
In Florence, a consortium of 29 volunteer organisations includes specialists in medicine, transportation, radio communications, fire-fighting, logistics and hazardous materials response. It can put 1,000 operatives into the field within ten minutes and 5,000 within two hours. I can verify that is is not a mere boast, as I have seen it done. In the case of a major national emergency such as a large earthquake, following a well-rehearsed procedure, the regional convoy will form up and be on its way within a matter of hours. Above all, this is a matter of local pride, not merely expediency. When one of the local ambulances developed a short circuit and caught fire, the townspeople stepped forward, paid up and six weeks later two new state-of-the-art cardiac arrest ambulances were parked outside the town hall for inspection. No doubt people were thinking "I may well need this service one day," but they also benefited from a sense of ownership. There are many civil protection volunteers among friends and family members. One curious result of this is that the last three major earthquake emergencies have involved more civil protection volunteers than members of the affected populations, but very much in the orderly, well-directed manner that is characteristic of a mature public service.
This digital pen-portrait of local emergency arrangements is meant to illustrate the point that the ability to respond to major emergencies is of necessity dependent on local arrangements. Civil defence involves the protection of populations against armed aggression. It is perforce a 'top-down' national affair and it is the parent discipline of civil protection. The latter is quintessentially 'bottom-up', as the theatre of operations is invariably the local area. No outside forces, whether civilian or military, can quite match the local understanding of local characteristics and needs.
A recipe for the future
The future holds considerable challenges: a possible epidemic of lethal, non-seasonal influenza, highly destructive extreme weather events, infrastructure failures with cascading consequences, and so on. Emergency planning, management and response in the UK needs to be welded into a coherent system with the following characteristics. First, it must be based on the local level, as all disasters are local problems. Secondly, it must be harmonised regionally and nationally, with standardised methods and procedures. Thirdly, it must be inclusive and representative of the diversity of the population. Fourthly, it must harness the voluntary sector in a coherent, joined-up way as part of the system. It must be demilitarised so that civilian authorities take full responsibility for creating resilience and response capability. Fifthly, it must divest itself of its traditional command-and-control ethos in favour of the more collaborative model that has become the norm in the modern world, a model that makes full use of the ability of information and communications technology to foster collaboration.
Finally, it is time to make full use of the talents of women, young people and members of minority groups. Although there are still relatively few women in emergency management, those who are members of this profession tend to be very good: practical, level headed, good at multi-tasking and not afraid to speak their mind in favour of improving the service. The typical emergency manager is still a middle-aged white male with a military background. Although some of these people are outstandingly good at their jobs, much depends on whether they can lose their military ethos, as it is simply not appropriate to the management of civilian emergencies. Indeed, it is one of the most important factors that inhibit positive change. One of the lessons of Covid-19 is that failure to view emergencies from the point of view of minority groups creates disadvantage, unfairness and discontent. The solution is to have emergency planners and managers who are not only well educated in the field, but they also have a more varied perspective on it.
Sir Oliver Letwin's excellent book Apocalypse How? (2020) describes a major infrastructure failure in the UK caused by a space weather incident, which occurs, hypothetically, in the year 2037. It describes the struggles to bring the situation back to normality given the role of funding cuts in the disappearance of redundancy and alternative systems. It ends on a relatively comforting, optimistic note. But unless the official mindset changes, I am not sure that the real thing will enjoy such a happy ending.
Environment Agency 2021. Risk of Flooding from Rivers and Sea. https://data.gov.uk/dataset/bad20199-6d39-4aad-8564-26a46778fd94/risk-of-flooding-from-rivers-and-sea (accessed 30 June 2021).
Kendon, M., M. McCarthy, S. Jevrejeva, A. Matthews, T. Sparks and J. Garforth 2021. State of the UK Climate 2020. International Journal of Climatology 41(S2): 1-76. doi: 10.1002/joc.7285
Letwin, O. 2020. Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster. Atlantic Books, London, 256 pp.
Kerslake, B. 2018. The Kerslake Report: An Independent Review into the Preparedness For, and Emergency Response to, the Manchester Arena Attack on 22nd May 2017. 224 pp. http://www.kerslakearenareview.co.uk/news/ (accessed 21 October 2022).
Moore-Bick, M. 2019. Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report. Report of the Public Inquiry Into the Fire At Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017. UK Government, London (4 vols.).