PUBLISHED: 20:14 16 March 2015 | UPDATED: 20:14 16 March 2015
When it comes to looking after the public when an emergency strikes, planning for the worst and hoping for the best isn't quite enough. Essex expert Peter Charman shares his wisdom on how the county is prepared for when the worst might happen
From an emergency planning perspective, we are very fortunate to live in the UK for two reasons. Firstly, and mostly due to geographic good fortune, our country and our county are rarely subjected to major natural disasters. The fact that recent earth tremors made the national news demonstrates how unusual such events really are. But when they do happen, they tend to stick in the public mind for decades. Who doesn’t remember the Boscastle Floods, the Buncefield Explosion, the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 and so on?
Secondly, we have some of the best emergency services and civil protection arrangements in the world, ready to be put into action should the worst happen. Compared to other parts of the world, the UK, and Essex in particular, is therefore a very safe place to live and work.
However, the fact remains that on rare occasions major incidents can and do occur. In recent years we have seen the widespread flooding in Somerset and the Thames Valley as well as the East Coast tidal surge in December 2013 that affected Essex in particular. In the course of my job I am often asked how it all comes together when things go wrong and what individuals can do to minimise the impact of such incidents for themselves and their families.
The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) governs the subject of civil protection. In very simplistic terms, the Act sets out how the various public agencies and private organisations should work together to plan for, respond to and recover from emergencies. In Essex these groups come together under the banner of the Essex Resilience Forum (ERF) to share information, co-operate and develop plans. Partners also regularly train and exercise to provide assurance that plans are fit for purpose. The forum is administered by the Essex County Fire & Rescue Service and has a number of sub groups that work on specific issues.
The planning process itself is based on a county-wide risk assessment which identifies where the planning focus should be. In Essex, for example, the principal risk is coastal flooding mainly due to our long coastline and the potential impact of such a flood. While coastal flooding is a specific risk, for which there will be some measure of warning, many risks give rise to uncertainty about when, where and what might happen. Therefore a general response framework based on the principles of scalability, flexibility and simplicity exists that can be applied to most emergencies.
In the event of a major incident, in most cases, the police would take charge and co-ordinate the response of all agencies through a body called the Strategic Co-ordination Group (SCG). Depending on the nature of the emergency, this group may also be in communication with central government via the Cabinet Office Briefing Room — commonly referred to in the media as COBRA.
Within the response framework, individual agencies may put their own plans into action if needed. So, for example, the district, borough or city council may provide basic shelter to those affected by the emergency. The police may organise evacuation and investigation. The county council may provide transport and social care, the fire service will put out fires or rescue people and voluntary agencies may help with feeding or general support. Obviously this is a very broad overview and much depends on the nature and timing of the emergency, but the key issue is that agencies work together in a pre-planned and co-ordinated way.
Having very broadly outlined what the authorities might be doing, what can you do to prepare for such an emergency? Firstly, at the household level, consider your own situation and make yourself aware of any vulnerabilities. For example, do you live in a known flood zone or is there a history of flash flooding in your location? Are there vulnerable members of your household such as young children or elderly relatives? Have you or your family any medical issues that may need to be considered? Do you have any pets that might need looking after? Thinking beyond your own household, do you have any neighbours who might be especially vulnerable and what about your workplace?
Secondly, what steps might you take to reduce or eliminate your vulnerabilities? You might install some flood protection devices. You should install smoke alarms as a matter of course. Essex County Fire & Rescue Service will visit your home for free and provide a fire safety inspection. You might decide to get some first aid training, install some form of care alarm or get a decent pet carrier or kennel. You should also make sure you have adequate insurance that includes provision for alternative accommodation in emergencies. You might also like to get together with neighbours to address any specific local vulnerability and find out what plans exist at your workplace or your child’s school.
Having reduced the risk, what should you then realistically plan for? There are two broad scenarios you should bear in mind. Firstly, you may be asked to stay indoors for a while — in the event of a nearby fire, gas leak or chemical spill for example — and the standard advice is always, ‘Go in, Stay in, Tune in’. Go indoors, stay indoors and tune into local BBC radio for more information. On the other hand, you may be asked to evacuate for a period of time while the situation is dealt with. Very rarely will either of these last for long, but plan for 12 to 24 hours and that should be ample.
In both cases, a few minutes spent just thinking through the scenarios can save an enormous amount of stress if it should ever happen for real. Ideally you should consider having a basic written plan shared with your family and possibly neighbours. However, simple things like having key phone numbers written down (not just on your phone), a battery powered radio, a decent torch and a credit/debit card may be enough if you have few vulnerabilities.
For staying in, consider how you might cope if you do have specific needs. The key issue is forward thinking, planning before anything happens so that when it does, you react instinctively and avoid delay. Remember however, this is your plan for your circumstances, so try not to rely on a template.
In the event of evacuation, similar thinking applies. What are your specific vulnerabilities? Put together an essentials grab bag or box relevant to your needs that you can just grab and go at short notice. If you were asked to evacuate for 24 hours or more, where would or could you go? Your local council might set up an emergency shelter, but it may be quite basic with limited facilities. In most cases, people prefer to stay with friends or relatives, but once again making arrangements beforehand will make life far less stressful should the worst happen. Your household insurance may cover the cost of alternate accommodation but you need to check now rather than wait until anything happens and don’t forget to make copies of essential documents and keep them at a second location.
Fortunately, large scale emergencies are very rare events and most people will never experience one. Nevertheless, some planning is always useful, even if it just involves a discussion with the family. Most comforting of all is that the people of Essex can be assured that should the worst happen, then the authorities will respond effectively.
Peter Charman is contingency manager at Epping Forest District Council and was, until recently, chair of the Essex District Emergency Planners group. For more details visit www.preparedinessex.co.uk