Would Gloucestershire be able to cope with a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy?
Gloucestershire's Chief Fire Officer Jon Hall chairs the Gloucestershire Local Resilience Forum, a partnership formed under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to bring together those involved in responding to emergencies within the county. Here, he looks at the manner of response in the county to a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy.
"Let's start with the fact that no one is fully prepared for a disaster. If we were, then it would be routine and certainly wouldn't feel like a crisis. The truth is that, as emergency professionals, all we can do is try to provide individuals, communities, organisations and responders with a suite of tools, skills and capabilities that we hope they will be able to use to return to some new normality as soon as possible after a disaster.
Most disasters, whatever their cause, have a predictable set of consequences including: loss of power, loss of water supplies, interrupted communications, disruption of care services, removal of transport infrastructure, and an overwhelming of public services that we simply expect to be there for us.
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The role of the Local Resilience Forum is to use the skills of member organisations to address each of these consequences and to make arrangements in advance to minimise their impact. Although they can't stop disaster striking, they all contribute to what is known as a Community Risk Register, used to highlight impact and the likelihood of a wide range of incidents.
Starting with the help available to individuals, many organisations, local and national, offer advice on how to improve personal resilience. The Environment Agency is a key member of the forum and produces extensive information on issues relating to flood defence and protecting homes. This information ranges from how to monitor rising water levels on our rivers to practical advice on water-proofing our homes. In crisis, they activate their emergency control rooms that monitor watercourse levels around the county and maintain flow through sluices and drains. Teams of technicians will be working hard during flooding to remove blockages and ensure flow in problem areas wherever possible. There comes a point, however, when the water table is full and the low-lying areas of the county have nowhere to drain to. When combined with continued rainfall, there is a natural limit to what can be achieved until conditions change.
The Resilience Forum has an extensive communication network using specialist advisers from all partner organisations, which gives it the ability to quickly develop safety instructions and act together to provide consistent messages through broadcast media. Many of these are pre-drafted but can be adjusted to fit the needs of specific locations in a variety of circumstances.
Just like in the USA this week, if we're lucky there will be some notice of impending disaster. Well practiced plans will be implemented and, within a few short hours, all members of the forum will be brought together for a preliminary meeting to agree early objectives and to discuss the state of readiness. Pre-emptive public safety messages will be agreed and members will then start preparing their own organisations for what is to come.
Each of our county, district, borough and city councils work hard through the forum to ensure they can maintain core support services during a crisis. They identify the most vulnerable and, working with the Director of Public Health and NHS providers, can help prioritise the delivery of life support, medical and care services when normal delivery is simply not possible. County staff will be working to reinstate transport infrastructure and maintain a critical supplies network and districts will be mobilising groups of staff and volunteers, implementing well practiced plans and opening-up their premises to create rest and evacuation centres.
As the storm hits, local blue light services and voluntary responders are likely to be fully committed to dealing with incidents during the early stages. They will all be recalling staff, implementing mutual aid arrangements and working to co-ordinate incoming resources from all over the UK and even overseas. From the Waterwells site in Gloucester, a special multi-agency cell, known as the Strategic Co-ordinating Group, will meet frequently to provide high-level decision making and a clear link with Government. Under the overall command of the Chief Constable, it is through this body that national resources such as military aid will be requested and the machinery of Government will be kept informed of the local situation.
Representatives of key organisations such as utilities (communications, power and water providers) will be brought in to provide a focus for operations depending upon the developing situation. Wide-scale weather events are unlikely to respect county borders so extensive communication will be underway with neighbouring authorities in the UK.
During the earliest stages of the emergency, the number of people needing help will outstrip the county's ability to respond to every call for help. There are only so many emergency workers available so, during this phase, initial prioritisation will be undertaken by emergency call handlers. Communities will be asked to manage as best they can and will be asked to care for their most in need. If the disaster is widespread, this could result in a period of days when personal resilience is the only option available.
A unit in the county council, known as the Civil Protection Team, continues to promote this awareness and preparedness to communities but it is one area where our colleagues in USA are better prepared than ourselves. Since Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana/New Orleans, they have learnt the lesson that, no matter how good preparations are, there will be a period when communities will be on their own while more urgent issues of the critical infrastructure are dealt with.
It will depend on the nature of the disaster how long this phase might last but effective pre-plans will bring-in additional staff quickly. Military support will be provided immediately to help with lifesaving operations and pre-defined logistics centres will be established to manage and co-ordinate incoming resources. Evacuation and rest centres will be established by local authorities and emergency communications arrangements will be implemented in the event of lost mobile networks.
From the earliest stages of the disaster, the objective of all involved will be to start restoring normality wherever possible. The same agencies involved in the emergency response phase will also come together as soon as possible to establish arrangements by which recovery can start at the very earliest stage.
Although it may not seem it to those most affected, quite quickly the initial crisis phase will come within the control of agencies and as many lives as possible will be stabilised. In a disaster, this may mean as little as everyone having a roof over their head and drinking water/food to survive while infrastructure is re-established. The work will then really start to create what is often referred to as 'the new normal'. With possible loss to home and property following large-scale disaster, the previous state of what felt 'normal' may never be re-established, but slowly and surely communities will recover.
The lessons of Sandy have only just begun and the above description of local arrangements will need to evolve to reflect what we learn in the coming months. Just be reassured that there is a group of people on the Local Resilience Forum working hard to prepare us for that which we hope will never happen.
The work of the Local Resilience Forum can be followed at www.gloucestershireprepared.co.uk. If you would like to volunteer to help improve your community's resilience information is available through the Civil Protection Team at http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/accredinfo.