An interview with Mr Chad Simpson, Graduate Contingency Planning Officer at Westminster City Council, London, and former MSc International Disaster Management student at HCRI.

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Westminster, London. Photo credit: Billy Haworth

Billy: What does your role at Westminster City Council involve?

Chad: I’m a Graduate Contingency Planning Officer and my main duty is to support the Contingency Planning team with the delivery of emergency planning and business continuity work.

Contingency planning falls under the CONTEST team, which is the government’s counter-terrorist strategy. Contingency Planning represents the ‘Prepare’ portion (preparing for an attack), and at the council I work alongside ‘Prevent’ (attempting to prevent attacks from occurring). Externally we work with ‘Pursue’ and ‘Protect’, who are various parts of the police, intelligence services and central government.

Aside from that we have general day-to-day tasks, which have an overall aim of increasing/maintaining/ensuring resilient standards across the borough and the city. They include arranging and attending training and exercises for local authority staff and our partners. We maintain the records, plans, databases, equipment and rotas, which are used during an emergency response. We also write new and update existing emergency and business continuity plans. Whenever we are alerted to an incident within the borough, we coordinate the local authority response to it. There’s a fair bit of freedom for us to introduce and implement our own ‘resilience enhancing’ ideas, so soon I’ll be involved with a new community resilience project with some other areas of the council.

My role was created specifically to help implement ‘EP 2020’, which is a standardisation project among all 33 London local authorities. The project was in part driven by the events of 2017 (Grenfell and numerous terror attacks). The idea is that each will have a common way of operating during an emergency response. For that I help with updating our current emergency and business continuity plans, and I help create and deliver new training packages for the changing staff requirements.

What are the main disasters/emergencies that require planning for in London?

The majority of incidents are fires, power cuts, gas leaks and water leaks. They technically aren’t emergencies, but they still need a local authority response as it’s possible some sort of humanitarian response is required. At the very least these incidents will need input from other parts of the council, such as the cleansing team to clear up debris from a fire, or the highways team to close roads and repair street furniture. These things are common in all parts of London, but slightly more so in Westminster because of the population density.

Westminster is fairly unique among the London local authorities. We have a very socially and economically diverse borough which includes really deprived areas all the way up to the Royal Family. The residential population is 250,000, and 1 million people pass through the borough each working day. 98% of the UK’s annual tourist population visit the borough. We’re home to the UK government and numerous foreign political entities. We have the greatest concentration of theatres, cinemas, restaurants, bars and clubs in the country, and a major portion of the businesses in London. All of these factors mean that there’s a bit more to do here compared to some of the other boroughs. Aside from the incidents mentioned above, Westminster has a lot of protests and demonstrations – even more so now in the run up to Brexit. These require constant monitoring by us and our security partners.

There are a set of more serious hazards and threats which affect Westminster and the wider city. These can be found in the London Risk Register. This is derived from a National Risk Register and a National Risk Assessment, which is classified. There’s a Westminster specific version which is also classified. The biggest risks are from pandemic influenza, space weather, power failure, flooding and malicious attacks. My personal favourite is severe space weather, which has the potential to disable Global Navigation Satellite Systems (like GPS). This could potentially have an immeasurable list of quite bad cascading impacts… (if you want to know more look here https://www.nap.edu/catalog/12643/severe-space-weather-events-understanding-societal-and-economic-impacts-a and https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/public-sector/emergencies/space-weather/impacts)

There is a generic plan to deal with most of the things you find in the risk register, but we also have a few specific plans for things which need extra attention. They include a pandemic flu, some specific exotic diseases, flooding and a few other things. I can’t go into much detail on these.

How important is it for societies to be prepared for disaster?

I think it’s essential for societies to prepare as best as possible for disaster. At the very least, societies must recognise and fully appreciate the risks and threats they face. There needs to be the ability to continue to deliver basic/essential functions during stressful times. If this doesn’t happen, it is incredibly hard to recover to a pre-disaster state, let alone progress to a more resilient state.

From your perspective, what is contingency planning and why is it important for disaster risk reduction?

Contingency planning is about recognising and assessing the risks posed by hazards and threats, and creating and implementing plans designed to minimise the impact of those events on day-to-day life, should they ever occur. We have a legal requirement for emergency planning under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

Contingency planning has its place, but I think disaster risk reduction is about much more. My job focuses on preparation and response, after hazards and threats have already struck. This reflects the fact that the whole ‘London resilience system’ is based on the disaster cycle. Disaster risk reduction should be about managing risks rather than managing hazards. In my opinion, there needs to be a holistic approach to disaster risk reduction. I think we could benefit by looking more closely at the underlying pressures and causes of the issues we face, something more like the pressure and release model. Those tasked with managing resilience need to pay more attention to tackling underlying societal issues. Take the Grenfell Tower fire for example. We were well-prepared to deal with fires and we do so very successfully every day. However, there were other things which increased the risk of the disaster occurring, like the lack of good quality affordable housing. The condition of the block was a direct contributor to the disaster. Housing quality isn’t an emergency planning issue, but it does affect overall resilience. Would the fire have been so significant if housing was up to standard? Probably not. I sense that things are gradually going towards this holistic way of thinking. London is one of the members of 100 Resilient Cities, which is all about increasing resilience by looking at ‘acute shocks and chronic stresses’ together.

What does the planning process look like at Westminster City Council – what steps are involved in creating a contingency plan?

Once a risk/threat has been identified, a working group will be set up which will involve industry and academic experts on the subject matter. This is usually done at a national or a pan-London level. They will analyse the issue and then the planners will work backward from there. Take ‘space weather’ for example (check it out in the London risk register for more info). The group will identify the possible impacts of an episode of severe space weather. Just as an example, electricity could be out for up to two months, GPS could be out for days, we’d have severe disruption to aviation and we’d lose mobile phones and internet for some time. Planners would look at the consequences of these things; no clean water, no money, no public transport, no fuel… From that, they would take essential parts of existing plans – we already have plans for water shortages, travel disruption and fuel shortages. This part of the process is quite long and involves all the relevant category 1 and 2 responders. Once you have a decent draft ready, you can begin a more formal emergency planning process. The official emergency planning guidance from the Cabinet Office is what all category 1 and 2 responders should be adhering to. There’s a ‘planning cycle’ – similar to the disaster cycle, which is a good way of organising the planning process.

What challenges do you face in preparing disaster plans?

Convincing people/organisations that contingency planning and business continuity is important – contingency planning is my primary job so it’s my priority, but for most others it’s just another task in addition to the long list of things they have to do in order for their organisation to function.

How do you test whether a plan will be effective?

To test plans we run table-top or live exercises. With a table-top we cram in a load of different scenarios in a short space of time. We get the opportunity to brainstorm scenarios and think of all the possible consequences in an informal setting. Live exercises are great once we have a better idea of what we’re doing. They give us a bit of experience with carrying out our roles, and we can sort out any practical issues we hadn’t thought of at a table-top. It’s better to sort out issues in a run-through where we can make mistakes, rather than a real emergency.

There are a number of regular exercises we take part in, such as Project Argus and Project Griffin (to do with terrorism), and Safer City (an annual London-wide exercise). We might also run a table-top before a specific planned event. I was involved in a table-top exercise for London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations (my first big event), and it gave me a lot of insight into where I fit within the whole operation and the practicalities of implementing certain plans.

A good example of why this is important is the Manchester Arena bombing. A few months before the attack there was a terror training exercise based on a marauding gunman attack. The actual method of attack was different to the real thing, but the mechanisms of response were tested. Any issues they found could be ironed out and it was an opportunity for response personnel to practice things they’d learnt in a realistic scenario.

At what point is a plan put into action? Is there a particular trigger?

We could announce a major incident if we felt it was necessary to do so, as could any of the category 1 responders. There are some specific events, like terrorism, which automatically trigger plans.

However, it isn’t really that common for us to activate plans. The majority of things we deal with are planned events like Winter Wonderland and British Summertime in Hyde Park, protests and demonstrations, or incidents like gas leaks and burst water mains which aren’t severe enough for plan activation. Since I’ve joined there hasn’t been an emergency severe enough to activate plans.

How often are plans reviewed and/or updated?

We review them constantly. A lot of them contain things like contact details and addresses which change all the time so we need to stay on top of those. Road layouts and maps are often involved, and they also change quite a lot. If we receive new intelligence or advice from our partners, we need to update plans to include that. The major plans like JESIP and LESLP are reviewed every 4 years by the London Resilience Team, and we react to whatever changes they make with those.

You studied at HCRI, completing the MSc International Disaster Management in 2018. How did your studies at HCRI prepare you for your current role at Westminster City Council?

Overall, I think my dissertation project best prepared me for my job because I hadn’t really done much to do with emergency planning in the UK before that. I taught myself about how disaster management works here, and I tailored it to be as relevant as possible to the area I wanted to work in. It was also brilliant for networking and I gained a lot of industry contacts who helped me get to where I am now. I’m still in contact with many of them and a few are my colleagues now. Aside from that, the Emergency Humanitarianism Assistance module gave me the best practical experience. From that I gained experience of working with partners and of contributing to multiple simultaneous workstreams, both of those are very relevant for me now. It also gave me a bit of a taste of the fluidity of disaster situations and the need to be able to rapidly adapt to that. Disaster Governance introduced me to a lot of politics and socio-economics which is really useful for working in local government. Both Disaster Management: Theory and Application and Cultures and Disasters were incredibly useful, as they introduced me to a few new ideas about alternative ways of operating. Thanks to those I’m definitely able to think more critically about current practices and policies than I otherwise would be. I’m more aware of the humanitarian side of emergency planning thanks to those modules. I think I’m probably more aware of the challenges and issues certain demographics could face in disaster scenarios.

For your dissertation you examined the impacts of austerity on disaster resilience in London. Can you explain a bit more about the project: the context and importance of the topic, what you did, and what you found?

The aim was to see how cuts to local government budgets had impacted resilience in London. Since the start of the austerity period in 2010 there have been numerous claims that resilience has been severely degraded by cuts. The Grenfell Tower fire was a pivotal moment in all of that, as the scale of the disaster as well as the poor response to it, seems to be quite closely related to the way austerity was implemented. I used the Pressure and Release model to understand the context in which austerity sits. I used Grenfell as an example of a disaster created by root causes (austerity), dynamic pressures (reduced budgets for the fire brigade and local authority, building control and general health and safety) and unsafe conditions (flammable building materials, inadequate fire prevention measures and inadequate disaster response).

The results showed that London remained a resilient city in spite of austerity, even though the level of resilience had decreased. There was also a lot of uncertainty around how much longer the city would remain resilient in the face of further funding reductions. I also uncovered a few issues with disaster management in general. The biggest is to do with ‘resilience’. Nobody seems to have a shared understanding of what the word means, or what resilience actually is. It forms a massive part of disaster risk reduction policy all over the world, but there is no consensus surrounding resilience as a concept. Is it a state, a process or an outcome? How can we quantify and measure it? Is there any real way of knowing that a particular action will increase resilience by a specific amount?

Lastly, can you briefly describe how you acquired your job and what the job search process involved? Do you have any tips for other students wanting a career in the emergency management sector?

I was sent links to the job advertisement by a few of the people I interviewed for my dissertation. I hadn’t really started properly job searching because I wanted a break after my dissertation. It was the first job I applied for and luckily I got an interview. I certainly wasn’t close to being the most qualified person interviewed, so don’t rule yourself out just because your degree/experiences aren’t exactly the same as the role you’re applying for. You will have gained a lot of transferable skills.

Make your dissertation as relevant as possible to the area you want to work in. Lots of organisations are really keen to conduct research but they usually don’t have the time or resources to actually do it. Approach them and ask them if there is anything you could research for them – at the very least they might have a chat with you and give you some ideas. They might even provide funding for you to research a topic on their behalf. It’s also a great way to network and form relationships with professionals already in the industry.

I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about applying for jobs or anything else I’ve mentioned. Ask Billy for my contact details.

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