The tragedy of Grenfell House is unbearable. I don’t propose to write about the event itself, because there’s nothing I can add to the testimony of those who were there, and those who survived.
However, there is an angle to the disaster that I have not heard mentioned, and it holds some pointers towards minimising the risk of similar events.
The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) places a duty on all Local Authorities to develop and implement a Local Emergency Plan.
That is to say, every Local Authority must carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of possible events that could lead to loss of life or serious civil disruption, and put plans in place to mitigate those risks. They must do this in partnership with other Category 1 responders, who include the Police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, and the Environment Agency.
Planning to mitigate the risks involves training and exercises designed to identify weaknesses in emergency response.
During my time working for the Environment Agency, I took part in training sessions and exercises in emergency response. Feedback from participants after the exercises showed how effective they had been at identifying problems. These problems were then resolved.
Now, I was just about to type “It’s obvious that a good risk assessment leading to an emergency plan that you practise must lead to a better result when a disaster happens.” But then I thought “No, it clearly isn’t obvious, or all Local Authorities would be doing it diligently”
So let me give you a (fictional) example to consider.
A tanker driver is suffering from Type 2 diabetes. He doesn’t realise it, and during his journey he feels progressively more unwell. He drives onto the industrial site which is his destination, and blacks out at the wheel. The tanker ploughs through the concrete wall around a tank containing a highly toxic chemical, and splits the tank. The tanker itself starts to smoulder, as diesel and oil from the damaged engine contact the exhaust.
You have a man slumped over the tanker’s steering wheel, a tanker which could go up in flames any moment and a tank slowly leaking a highly toxic chemical. What do you do first?
It doesn’t take Einstein to realise that if you’ve planned for an event like this, you’re more likely to respond correctly than if you just wing it.
So it’s extremely important that every Local Authority takes their duty under the Civil Contingencies Act very seriously, and does a proper risk assessment, and ensures that all responders have trained together.
I hope that post-Grenfell, every Local Authority in the country revisits its risk assessment and its emergency plan, and renews and intensifies its training and exercises to ensure that the plan will be effective.