Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, Shadow Security Minister and leader of a Conservative Party policy group on how the UK should deal with national emergencies such as the current flooding crisis, has said that at present the country is ill-prepared, and that it needs a dedicated organization to deal with such events.
While little, if any, blame can be levied at the responders who are currently dealing with the nationwide floods, it is easy to see that her proposal has merit. There are a number of agencies currently tasked with aiding the blue light services in times of emergency, but none of them are dedicated to it; all have other priorities. The different agencies tasked with backing up the full-time, professional, emergency services are undoubtedly well trained, willing and competent in their duties, but in all cases when used for emergency response, they are square pegs being forced into a round hole.
The Civil Contingencies Reaction Force (CCRF), the emergency response capability of the Territorial Army, is composed of soldiers from within the TA, and there is a very real, and increasing, chance that they may be deployed overseas when they are needed in the UK. The voluntary organizations on the Government’s official list, and listed on the UK Resilience website, are in many cases Christian organizations such as the Salvation Army, which may cause inherent problems should a civil emergency affect a predominantly non-Christian area. Charities such as the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) do not tend to attract the younger, more physically able members who are more likely to be needed during emergencies.
There is also the problem of recruitment to such organizations. At a Community Reassurance conference held in London in March 2007, to discuss the role of communities in the voluntary sector, it became clear that many ethnic minorities see the voluntary organizations currently recognized as official emergency responders as too predominantly white and middle class – and therefore unwelcoming if not entirely inaccessible.
Though the organizations are quick to deny that this is the case, the perception, if not the reality is a barrier to a more representative community involvement. Similarly, many men and women in the UK who would be happy to train and prepare to help their community in an emergency situation, are not prepared to do so if such training brings with it a requirement to bear arms, risk overseas deployment to a war zone or, in fact, to support the military at all, as joining the Territorial Army would require them to do. Likewise, the military may not want to open its doors, and secrets, to people who may nonetheless make a valid contribution to community protection. There are enough negatives against all of the current contenders who might form the basis of a dedicated emergency response organization to suggest that an entirely new one is needed.
Such observations all lead to a conclusion similar to that proposed by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones: the creation of a dedicated, organization separate from the military and the existing voluntary responders. Such an organization should be entirely secular and apolitical, able to reflect each community it represents. There are templates for this in other countries: the United States has the Citizen Corps and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs – see Monitor May 2007), set up in the wake of 9/11 for precisely this purpose. In some countries, including Canada, the lead agency for accommodating and feeding evacuees is not shelter charities but national, and international, hotel chains.
Many countries, particularly the Scandinavian ones, have Home Guards tasked solely with civil defence and emergency response – as the UK did until well into the Cold War period but which fell out of political favour as frosty relationships thawed. Perhaps it is time we had one again, but not, in the modern climate, made up from those who have been demobbed from national service, but from those who have undergone a dedicated training programme aimed precisely at reassuring and aiding their community in an emergency. It would cost money, undoubtedly. It would take time to set up and in the early days it is inevitable that many of its leaders would be drawn from the organizations that are filling the role at present, but given time to settle down and evolve, it could grow into an organization truly representative of the community it serves, accessible to every citizen and fully prepared for whatever contingency it may be called to assist with. And it needs to be in place before that disaster hits.