How can we prepare better for emergencies?

Well designed and planned exercises are essential to ensure that the UK can respond effectively to emergencies of all kinds, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The emergencies may take the form of a terrorist attack, flooding, pandemic flu, rail or air disaster - or any major disruptive event requiring an emergency response.

The number of such exercises taking place across the UK each year within what the researchers call the 'resilience community' - including emergency services, local authorities, central government departments and agencies, and many large commercial organisations - is probably in the thousands, according to Dr Ben Anderson from Durham University and Dr Peter Adey of Royal Holloway. And each exercise varies in scale, duration and complexity depending on its design and purpose.

The aim of the research was to generate new knowledge about how exercises are planned, designed and undertaken, particularly following the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, and to learn from practitioners about how the planning and design of exercises might be improved.

Researchers interviewed emergency services nationwide and observed exercises directly and have subsequently created white papers and user guides indicating good practice in exercise design. These underline the importance of pre-exercise briefing to communicate the purpose, activities, roles and responsibilities of an exercise. They explain the value of focusing on the role of the key responders and those in leading positions in a multi-agency scenario.

They also highlight how thought cards, task cards and aide memoirs for key individuals will instil confidence and knowledge. Equally, the research suggests the effectiveness of the surprise element by introducing a 'no notice' exercise to test capabilities and they stress the use of realism, plausibility and building up a sense of excitement.

The research demonstrates that exercises have a number of valuable functions. They develop, test and validate plans, protocols and procedures, such as those involved when an emergency situation moves from the immediate response to the recovery phase. They test organisational forms and systematic routines, such as how to set up strategic coordinating groups providing leadership. They check the workability of communications networks and practices. Not least, they develop staff competences to have the ability to use a tactical plan and to make judgements under pressure.

Says Dr Anderson: "The learning and capabilities deriving from all forms of exercise make a massive but largely hidden contribution to the ability of the UK to respond to emergencies and ensure public wellbeing."

The researchers have also emphasised the value of exercises in achieving familiarisation with other organisations. This demands multi-agency collaboration and co-ordination, enabling staff and participants to build new relationships and trust with different working cultures. Dr Anderson comments: "Organisations involved in emergency planning and responses have different working styles, hierarchies and structures so that exercises will be challenging in different ways to all involved."

Dr Anderson says: "The informal interaction between individuals and groups afforded by exercises is also central to their value. In our white papers and user guides we indicate how and why maximum learning can be gained and retained from the design, planning and prosecution of exercises. Improved exercising will help local authorities and other organisations be better prepared for the range of emergencies they face"

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Staging and Performing Emergencies: The Role of Exercises in UK Preparedness'. The research project was funded by the ESRC and carried out by researchers from Durham University, Royal Holloway and Newcastle University. The project involved a major dissemination event attended by 40 practitioners including members of local authorities, Police, Red Cross, MoD, the Home Office, the Government Decontamination Service and numerous Local Resilience Forums.
  2. The project approach was threefold: firstly, analysis of major documentation surrounding the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act. Secondly, in-depth interviews with emergency planners primarily from local authorities throughout the UK. The interviews focused on how exercises were designed, planned and undertaken and learnt from in the light of a range of threats and hazards facing the UK. Thirdly, observation of exercises and occasions of planning for exercises by the project team. This included focus on how multi-agency collaborations occur at various stages of an exercise, how exercises could be staged in a realistic way and the role of umpires, players and directors - plus the specific ways in which response in time-pressured complex situations is rehearsed.
  3. The research is accredited to the RCUK Global Uncertainties programme. Global Uncertainties is examining the causes of insecurity and how security risks and threats can be predicted, prevented and managed. The programme is one of six RCUK priority themes and brings together the activities of all seven UK Research Councils to better integrate current research investments as well as support new multi-disciplinary research in security.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as very good.

Sarah Nichols
Telephone 01793 413122

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


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