London bombings: lessons from the first responders

The response to the July 2005 bombings in London required extensive co-ordination between different organisations, which was largely successful owing to the detailed advance planning by the institutions involved and the dedication of their staff.

Two lessons emerge consistently from the debriefings of the first responders: the detailed plans were vital and worked well; and communication problems still present a significant obstacle to the timely and necessary flow of information.

This summary covers the observations of five of the first-responder organisations, who on 7 July (and again on 21 July) brought their respective plans together:

* the Metropolitan Police (incorporating also lessons from the London Fire Brigade);

* hospitals and the London Ambulance Service;

* the wider transport sector, particularly London Underground;

* FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry - the Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps), which established the casualty bureau; and

* the business community.

This group crosses the public-private sector in a way that was not immediately apparent and indeed, the bombings may well represent the first clear indication of the depth of the interaction, formal and informal, across these groups. All of the first-responder organisations bring considerable experience of handling major incidents - in the shape of terrorist attacks - from the Irish Republican Army's (IRA's) bombing campaign. Many who are today in senior appointments were on the front line during those earlier attacks. Although the nature of the threat is very different now, the ability to respond effectively owes much to those who made sure that the key lessons had been incorporated into detailed contingency plans and occasional exercises.

London's business community has built up a series of practical measures based on its experience of the IRA attacks of the 1990s. For instance, one of the IRA's bombs was located close to key fibre-optic routes, so an alternative communications pager system was introduced that is still in use today. CCTV coverage has been extended, with camera numbers doubled since 2000. However, the business community has expressed concerns that if this capability is to be fully exploited, it needs live monitoring and co-ordination.

Making sure that business can continue in spite of terrorist attacks is a key feature of the approach. On 8 July 2005, business in London was functioning almost as normal. Even on the underground, which had taken a triple attack the day before, 80 per cent of trains were running. This level of resilience brings together public and private sectors in a collaborative way that remains a distant aspiration in other areas of government-private sector interaction.

In 1993, the business community instituted and funded a reward scheme. In today's environment, the need to foster and encourage a better flow of indicators and information from the public to the police, and better understanding of the issues facing different sections of the community, have led to a dialogue between the Asian business community and the Metropolitan Police.

Dispersed leadership

Despite the co-operative relationship across the first-responder community, business is concerned that the political lead and ministerial responsibility for homeland security and resilience have yet to be effectively achieved. Without these, the concern being expressed is that the responsibilities and sense of leadership are too dispersed around the government.

A police perspective on the lessons learned from the first responders on 7 July highlighted four issues:

* command and control;

* the scale of the media interest;

* the multi-agency nature of the response; and

* the huge support from the business community as part of the response.

With three police forces involved - the Met, the City of London and the British Transport Police (BTP) - the 7 July bombings resulted in significant cross-boundary activity. Many of the issues had been dealt with through planning and exercises under Operation 'BENBOW' (which brings different forces together), and this proved vital.

However, there were still problems. Policing London Underground incidents is the responsibility of the BTP, while incidents on buses fall to the Met. In attempting to bring together police teams at all four sites, commanders were hampered by the lack of interoperable communications. BTP teams have radios that work in most tube sites, while the Met and City of London forces have none.

Meanwhile, some Met teams have Airwave sets while others do not. The police often rely on mobile phones because of the need for long conversations. Plans to restrict mobile access were opposed by other agencies, which also often need to rely on mobile phones to contact their own people.

It was admitted that on 7 July, notification and incident monitoring was not as good as it could have been. There is a view that dependence on mobile phones and a wireless Internet leaves the community more vulnerable in this respect than when landline telephony alone is used.

Equally, there is a view that mobile phone providers need to explore further their own trade-off options, such as reducing the quality of the signal to allow for an increase in user traffic. Perhaps in future the mobile service providers should join the community of first responders.

Command and control is vested in a Gold/Silver/Bronze system. Bronze is the command on the ground, and can be defined as territorial or functional. On 7 July it was both, with each of the attack sites having a Bronze Command and another being set up for traffic control. The key for the police is the role and not the rank. It is possible, as was the case on 7 July, for Silver Command to be a lower rank than Bronze.

However, each level has substantial autonomy. With the scale of the response required on 7 July, the Met uniquely instituted two Golds, one above the other.

Given the complexity of the first-responder group, the ability to read the emerging picture at higher levels is fundamental, and those in Gold and Silver positions will have a wider picture than Bronze on the individual sites. It can be tricky if, for example, utilities raise an issue of which the police were previously unaware. The Met therefore looks to bring together logistic and communications expertise at Gold and Silver levels, seeking to find a solution to assist the operation overall.

In developing a more sophisticated command-and-control structure, with appropriate expertise at each level, the Met is emphasising the multi-agency approach, especially the significance of the transport agencies.

The paramount consideration of all first responders is to preserve life; then to retrieve the best evidence from the scene of what is a multiple murder investigation; and then to keep the Treasury and business community informed in order to prevent the economy failing. The conflicts here are often seen in terms of information flow, and a proposal is underway to set up knowledge cells, specifically tasked with clearing information blockages.

The ultimate information problem occurs when handling the media. On 7 July the media pressure on the Met's Public Affairs Department was immense. Everyone was trying to ensure accuracy, especially with casualty figures. Naturally, a great deal of frustration and confusion abounded.

There were many mixed messages and the 21 July response suffered from the same information problems as had occurred two weeks previously. Where were the explosions? What were the casualty numbers? What type of explosive was used and had there been any chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination? Problems in understanding each agency's standard procedures were unresolved.

Discontinuity of information

As a matter of course, when an incident occurs between two tube stations, fire appliances will attend both stations. On 7 July (three underground explosions, six sites attended), discontinuity of information led to the story being spread that there were six tube bombs. There was also semantic confusion, for example over the meaning of the term 'power surge'.

To some it was a codeword for a bomb; while to the system operators it denoted the fact that an 11 kV cable had been severed at Edgware Road, leading to problems at Liverpool Street. Both interpretations were true.

Transport authorities have become a key component of an integrated response system. Key issues for them are ensuring a safe environment; site containment; control of the railway networks; ensuring that customers know what is going on; and staff confidence. Incident management training of their own Gold and Silver Commands is a high priority, especially as their drivers and platform staff are likely to be first on what may well be a dreadful scene.

A decision to evacuate the underground network is not taken lightly; on 7 July this put an extra 200,000 people on the streets. Again, the value of clear planning was evident, although the complication on 7 July was the subsequent bus bombing. By early afternoon, the transport authorities knew that they had 1.5 million people in central London who needed to get home, which required a high degree of collaboration between normally competing providers, and understanding, co-operative customers.

The duty of care to casualties was a common feature across the first-responder community. A total of 56 people died (including the four bombers), and more than 700 casualties were taken to hospital.

Initial mobilisation of hospital plans tended to occur based on rumour, which, perversely, was helpful as the key personalities were able to warn each other by mobile phone before the system was blocked.

By using well-exercised plans through a series of escalatory measures, and with off-duty staff reporting in large numbers, the hospitals were able to create the capacity they needed.

Of equal importance were the resources that were freed up in every department, medical and managerial. At least one hospital had lost outside communications by the time victims arrived, but the major incident plan was in place and working well. Even the slightly injured needed to be held at hospitals to ensure that no complications arose, and chaplains proved particularly valuable in treating those who felt guilty at having survived.

Senior staff noted that what tends to go wrong in every major incident is the provision of clear and accurate communications. On 7 July the 'send three and fourpence' ('send reinforcements') syndrome was seen in the muddle that was created when a 'Kings Cross site cleared' message became 'site closed'.

Across London's first-responder community there was, on 7 July, a clear set of priorities expressed in major incident planning that worked and were validated. They put an emphasis on getting London up and running again. However, the concerns around information delivery, especially to the media, remain to be resolved and will present significant problems in the future.

Philip Pratley is an associate partner with DS&S

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