What have we learned about emergencies in 2017?

The CommsCamp session grid

CommsCamp 2017

I pitched this session at CommsCamp. I find that the best sessions, from my point of view, to pitch are the ones where I don’t know anything so I have to ask a few questions and shut up. I didn’t take notes I’m afraid so this is a combination of my hazy recollections and personal reflections.

There was a decent gathering as you might imagine at an unconference focused on public sector communicators. I had a mild concern that it might degenerate into back seat driving over Grenfell but I needn’t have worried. Public sector communicators have plenty of experience of their own to draw on.

I’ll take that problem

We were great assisted by having a number of people who had been involved in the response to the Manchester attack in fire and local authority comms. They had some very interesting things to share including the rather wonderful insight that so many people took to social media to thank the emergency services for their work that it threatened to swamp the Fire Service comms team. Something worth feeding into planning and exercising, but a problem I imagine any public service should be very proud to have.

One (local authority) comms officer highlighted how the learning from a multi-agency exercise had fed into their team and made them more effective in the wake of the Manchester attack. I have to say I exchanged a glance with Steph Gray on that. He organised that comms exercise and I was a player in the scenario.

Exercise, exercise….

People also chipped in with their experiences from other emergencies.

Overall a very strong message that the key is exercise, exercise, exercise. It’s good to plan but most people agreed that, at best, the plan has to be adapted on the fly and, at worst, it goes out of the window. What always remains are the skills, behaviours and abilities of your team.


Even where comms teams from different agencies are well practiced and work effectively together there are always points in an incident where rumours may start and it’s hard to get the definitive line from the responsible agency. This, in my view, particularly affects local authorities. They have a more local focus than many other agencies and a particular role around community leadership and safety. So what do you do if rumours are spreading about police action, or a health issue in your community but you’re struggling to get a clear line from a partner agency (presumably because they are focused on another patch)?

I don’t think we got a consensus on that in this session. My own view is that the right response is to confirm that you are aware of the rumours. Ask people not to spread them. Promise that you are talking to the relevant agency and you’ll get back with the truth as soon as possible.

Spontaneous volunteering

Though we didn’t use the jargon, issues around spontaneous volunteers came up a lot. It’s entirely understandable that in the light of an emergency people want to do stuff. The Internet gives them the opportunity to coordinate and take action. This happens fast, much faster than many agencies are set up for. At the very least comms teams can be monitoring for spontaneous volunteer groups setting up and opening lines of communication to them. I wrote a bit more about spontaneous volunteers here.

Though as I type that I’m aware that that is a whole other task on top of the warning and informing that comms teams expect to be doing.


I was also interested in the fact that politicians came up a lot in people’s stories. This is a fairly recent trend in emergency management in the UK. Maybe 10 years ago the advice to, at least local, politicians was to stay out of the way and let the professionals get on with the job. A couple of things have changed that, fundamentally,

  • social media and the face that politicians are and are expected to be much more accessible, people will turn to them in a crisis online as easily as turning to the police or their neighbours
  • new types of local elected officials, the Mayors of Manchester and London have explicit responsibility for police and fire services. But all of the metro mayors have leadership roles in their communities. The rest of us have Police and Crime Commissioners and increasingly visible local authority leaders

Involving politicians in emergency response and recovery without politicising emergencies is a balancing act. We heard that some areas are involving local and national politicians in planning and exercising so that they have a much clearer idea of what’s going on when an incident actually occurs.

Please sir, can I have some more?

All of this points in only one direction. More exercising, more work for comms teams in emergencies, more work for comms teams in recovery.

In a time of austerity, how do you make the case to spend more on things that you hope won’t happen.

I don’t know.

But a few things that have proved effective in my experience (which is very local authority focused):

  • point up the wider benefits of multi-agency training and exercising. Training and exercising local authority and police comms teams helps in emergencies, but it also helps when they need to work together over child protection cases, or licensing decisions, or community relations.
  • integrated emergency management is actually a useful way to manage other things. We manage emergencies in quite a distinct way in this country. It’s a very flexible and responsive way to tackle complex situations. It works outside emergencies. I’ve heard of IEM approaches being used in a multi-agency inspection of dangerous accommodation for migrant workers for example.
  • make emergency management a positive skillset. The prospect of delivering public services in emergencies can be daunting. The consequences of getting things wrong can be terrifying. Many people try to avoid things they find daunting and terrifying. So let’s point out that there are tried and tested approaches to managing emergencies. It’s a set of skills that can be developed like anything else. Train people and design exercises that push them but not too far. Managers who come out of an exercise feeling that they were challenged but were ultimately up to the task are much, much more likely to encourage others to go through the same process. Blue lights, in my experience and in the main, do this much better than local authorities or health providers

Thank you

Thanks to everyone who took part in this session and thanks to the awesome CommsCamp organisers.

See you next year?