Interoperability in Flooding Response

FloodEx 2009National strategic risk registers in both the UK and the Netherlands have highlighted major flood inundation resulting from a North Sea storm surge as amongst the most significant risks faced by communities in both nations.[1] Such an event is a natural phenomenon and has occurred regularly throughout history, most recently in 1953. On that occasion, more than 300 people lost their lives in the UK, 1,500 were killed in the Netherlands, and an additional 300 were killed at sea. Since 1953, the Dutch government has invested heavily in engineering works to create a strong system of dykes and defences while in the UK similar investment resulted in flood defence projects such as the Thames Barrier, constructed between 1974 and 1982.

While physical defences are essential to ensure the security of at-risk communities, equally important is a robust programme of training and exercises to deal with the consequences of such defences being breached. The last national UK flooding exercise, Exercise Triton, took place in 2004. Primarily intended to test contingency planning in line with the newly introduced Civil Contingencies Act, the exercise prompted the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) to carry out its own research into major flood events and to publish their own report in 2006. This planning and research helped to mitigate, to some extent, the impact of the 2007 summer floods - although as Sir Michael Pitt pointed out in his subsequent report, the UK still has much to do.

Responding to the Pitt Report

On 17 December 2008, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, announced the government's response to the Pitt Review, covering in detail all ninety-two recommendations. With regard to flood rescue, £2 million has been allocated to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to support a Flood Rescue National Enhancement (FRNE) project. The aims of this project include:

  • Making more effective use of existing flood rescue capabilities through a comprehensive multi-agency flood rescue framework, supported by team typing and accreditation systems, along with national standards for training and equipment (first draft documents by January 2010)
  • Quantifying current capabilities and rescue capacity to create a national register of capable flood rescue assets (the initial register was completed in May 2009)
  • Identifying capability gaps and making recommendations for addressing them, with enhancements to be procured before winter 2009/10
  • Ensuring certainty, clarity and consistency in major flood rescue approachs by communicating and testing the outcomes of this project with all Local Resilience Forums, and statutory and voluntary flood rescue providers through a national exercise held in 2011.

Work towards all of these objectives has been taken forward by a small project team with staff from the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) seconded to Defra. Key areas of work, such as the development of a national asset data base and a concept of operations, have been completed. The formulation of draft training and equipment standards has enabled the national procurement body 'Firebuy' to commence work on a national framework contract that will enable FRS, military and voluntary sector organisations to access a standardised and quality-assured range of goods and services, both aiding interoperability and reducing costs. Tackling the thorny issue of statutory clarity, a long-term home and funding for the capability is taking rather longer to address, and it is unlikely that final proposals will be ready for the government before spring 2010.

Flood Resilience in the Netherlands

The Dutch government last undertook a national review of its own preparedness for mitigating the impacts of a major flood inundation in 2008. This review highlighted that despite high levels of preparedness, a number of potential gaps were still evident, especially with regard to evacuation systems, flood rescue capabilities and emergency pumping operations to protect critical national infrastructure.

The Netherlands subsequently submitted an EU funding bid for the largest flood exercise the EU has ever held. The UK was an obvious partner, and Germany, Poland and Estonia also came forward to take part in testing international responses to Europe's most credible flood risk.

The exercise took place in September 2009 and consisted of two distinct parts. The first phase, held over two days, was a command post exercise involving the UK Cabinet Office and other government departments, along with their counterparts in the Netherlands, the EU Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), and national contact points in other member states. This was followed by a two-day field exercise involving the practical deployment of assets to the Netherlands from all participating member countries to undertake rescue, pumping and other flood mitigation works.

The UK contribution was led by Chief Fire Officer Paul Hayden of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service, the CFOA lead on environment and flooding issues. CFO Hayden led the national co-ordination of Fire and Rescue Service flood rescue efforts in 2007, and represents emergency responders on the Defra FRNE project. During the field exercise itself, Hayden joined the EU directing staff; command of the UK contingent was taken by Assistant Chief Fire Officer Jon Hall of Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service, who currently has responsibility for a number of FRS national resilience issues, including many of the FRS's New Dimensions assets utilised on the exercise.

The UK Perspective

The EU exercise replicated a North Sea inundation resulting in the Netherlands' most credible worst-case flood scenario. The conditions replicated also correspond to Risk H19 on the UK National Risk Register, therefore providing an opportunity to use the EU exercise and funding to test developing thinking for an internal UK Major Flood Module. The exercise also provided the opportunity to develop and test planning around the response to Risk H21 (inland flooding) including Bronze Commanders in charge of large-capacity rescue craft; search and rescue teams; first responder teams; mass decontamination units; and casualty handling teams.

The UK element of the FloodEx field exercise was launched on 21 September 2009 at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, with a keynote speech from former Home Secretary and Worcestershire MP the Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, who stressed the importance of being able to pool resources internationally so that the UK can accept as well as offer international aid - a situation she described as a source of strength rather than weakness.

The first element of the exercise was to test the logistics of moving all the resources - a convoy of more than thirty-five heavy and light vehicles - in a way that enabled them to arrive safely at the destination as a cohesive unit and in a fit state to deploy across international borders.

As all experienced emergency managers and military personnel know only too well, operations are the art of what is logistically possible, and effective logistical support is vital to the success of any major operation. However, current UK civil resilience thinking places most of the emphasis for provision of logistical support - food, fuel and accommodation for example - on the impacted Local Resilience Forum area. This is not the case in the rest of the EU or North America, where incoming assistance teams are required to maintain a level of self sufficiency, especially for the first forty-eight to seventy-two hours of operations. The UK's final evaluation report will explore this issue in some depth and highlight some of the issues requiring further thought.

The following days' rescue scenarios included tasks such as moving heavy pumping equipment into remote locations and setting up pumping stations to simulate protection of critical infrastructure sites; high-volume pumps from different nations moving water in a relay over several kilometres to simulate emergency drainage work; and the rescue, recovery, decontamination and medical triage of more than 400 'live casualties' pulled from the water at two very different rescue sites, 60 kilometres apart.

These provided valuable experience of working on the ground with international partners, giving participants the opportunity to see one another's skills at work in very realistic scenarios. This had not been a carefully stage managed element of the exercise, simply the successful result of a clear overall response framework put in place by the Dutch national authorities and the international contingent commanders, providing highly trained professionals with the flexibility and empowerment to do what they do best.

The Debrief

A number of issues were highlighted by the exercise, all of which will be used to inform future planning and training. A final EU evaluation meeting will take place in December 2009, leading to the publication of an EU evaluation document. Final evaluation of the UK element of the exercise is also being undertaken and a detailed report supported by DVD footage will be finalised by January 2010.

Following the exercise, CFO Paul Hayden said that he was delighted with the exercise, which had thoroughly tested the concept of a modular approach, with various elements coming from different organisations to form a single cohesive operational capability. It had also tested new UK government-funded fire and rescue capabilities for command, control and public decontamination and FRS Urban Search and Rescue teams. Whilst these capabilities had not been provided for a flood response, they form a critical part of UK resilience and the principles involved are identical, regardless of the nature of the disruptive challenge. Testing co-ordination between the many flood rescue teams from the Fire and Rescue Service and colleagues from the military and voluntary sector had also proven a great success:

A fortunate, if unintended consequence, of [the] international nature of the exercise was that any organisational or jurisdictional barriers between UK members of the module were swept away. The UK team of 120 plus specialists came from various FRS across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with additional teams from RNLI and the RAF. However, such was the degree of our cohesiveness that our international colleagues thought we had come from a single organisation that trained together regularly. Whilst we still have much to do in UK, frankly, pre-2007 this simply would not have been possible.

Two other key lessons have been immediately apparent. The first is that the current standard EU command and control process, developed to enable EU teams to operate in countries outside of the EU where no national command systems are in place, is not necessarily the best way forward for developed countries which have well-established and robust arrangements for responding to major internal civil contingencies.

During the exercise planning stages it was decided that it was extremely unlikely that either the Dutch or British emergency management structures would collapse entirely. Therefore, for the field exercise, the standard EU command and control system was amended by the Netherlands to enable all incoming EU assistance teams to be incorporated into their national command system. This hybrid was very successful and could potentially address some of the concerns within the UK of incoming EU teams operating outside of our structures.

The FloodEx exercise gave an opportunity to identify and resolve simple practical issues, which could have otherwise gone unnoticed. It also posed the question of whether we are willing to work together with civil resilience international partners in a meaningful way and accept specialist mutual aid during a major event not as a sign of weakness, but evidence of effective planning.

Paul Honeghan

Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service


[1] British Cabinet Office (Ref. 289116/0708), 'UK National Risk Register', 2008, ; Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, 'National Security: strategy and work programme 2007-2008', 2007, .

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