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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Contributions of volunteered geographic information (VGI) to community disaster resilience: The good, the bad, and the uncertain. (#GISRUK2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The work is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed at the 26th GIScience Research UK Conference, University of Leicester, April 2018.
Download the PDF version here: Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

Views on challenges for disaster management research, policy and practice: a call for new perspectives

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer and Programme Director MSc International Disaster Management, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.
E: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk, Twitter: @BillyTusker
This post originally appeared on the HCRI blog.

Disaster management, in theory and in practice, is complex to say the least. While there are many things that are done well and are well-understood, many challenges remain for researchers, policy makers, and emergency practitioners. Even as a Lecturer in Disaster Management and Programme Director for a Masters programme specifically focused on International Disaster Management, I do not purport to be an expert on most aspects of the field. Drawing from my own research and wider reading, teaching, observations made at academic and industry conferences, and experiences with emergency organisations, my aim for this post is to reflect on four aspects of disaster management that I think are problematic, challenging for the field, or in need of improvement for more effective disaster management. These words are merely one academic’s musings on where further research and/or policy attention may be warranted, and I welcome any comments or discussions from others.

  1. Can we bounce past resilience yet?
    The concept of resilience has come into vogue in disaster research and practice over the past decade and now dominates policy agendas throughout the world (e.g. Sendai framework). Resilience has great merit in application to disaster management in theory.  It is not difficult to see how either of the most popular conceptualisations of resilience can be useful in aiding understanding of disasters; resilience as the ability of a system (or community, or individual) to either absorb stress and resist significant disruption (social-ecological perspective), or to ‘bounce back’ to normal functioning following a shock (engineering perspective). However, the application of these concepts to disaster management, both in policy interpretations and in practical measures to ‘build’ resilience, remains a challenge.There are numerous extant critiques of resilience in the disaster literature, many of which I agree with. These include, among others, a lack of consensus over what resilience actually is, that resilience definitions routinely combine elements of both ecological and engineering resilience (such as the definition adopted by UNISDR) but these are actually somewhat contradictory ideas, that measuring resilience is too difficult, and the question of whether it is appropriate for people to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-disaster conditions, which for many may be a highly vulnerable and undesirable state. The counter to this last critique has been proposals of revised interpretations of resilience as ‘building back better’ or ‘bouncing forward’.

    For me the central problem with resilience lies in a series of disconnects. I perceive a disconnect between what resilience refers to in academic conceptualisations and how these are interpreted and applied in disaster policies, and I see a further disconnect between resilience in policy and what it looks like, or how it is implemented and/or achieved in practice. I have heard numerous emergency practitioners in Australia and the UK say in public forums that they do not know what resilience is, or that the field is struggling to comprehend resilience approaches, yet these are the people responsible for implementing (and often devising) policies centred around resilience. I myself often find it difficult to see concrete connections between the theoretical understandings of resilience in academic literature and ‘resilience building activities’ in practice, which often appear to be increasingly about shifting the responsibility of emergency agencies over to the public. It is often unclear in resilience policies how one should go about actually implementing ‘resilience building’ at all. This, I argue, causes confusion, and without clear means for achieving the goals of resilience policies, they remain ineffective and draw attention away from developing more meaningful approaches.

    Whether resilience is just a buzzword, or whether or not policy interpretations and implementations align with academic theory may or may not be important, if whatever the strategies are in practice achieve their aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities. But in terms of the amount of attention given to the concept in research and in practice versus the measurable benefits for reducing disaster impacts, perhaps it is time we moved the debate on and bounced right on past resilience (in theory, at least).

  1. Can we more meaningfully include the public in disaster risk reduction?
    Coupled with the growing resilience agenda has been a push to increase community engagement in disaster risk reduction, with research demonstrating that information dissemination alone is insufficient for meaningful risk reduction and disaster preparedness action. Approaches centred on community engagement are becoming increasingly present in emergency organisations, likely with varying success (the Tasmania Fire Service’s Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods programme appears to me to be one of the better ones).

mapping Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods community engagement activities: participatory mapping (image credit: Billy Haworth).

In Australia and elsewhere, the push for increased community engagement presents in concert with broader policy agendas of shared responsibility. As a policy shared responsibility emphasises that the burden of emergency management and risk reduction should be shouldered by all parties involved, including national, state, and local government, as well as other stakeholders, businesses, communities, households and individuals, while recognising that the weight of responsibility and expected tasks looks different for these different groups. Similar to my thoughts on resilience, I argue there are differences between shared responsibility and community engagement in theory and policy and how they appear in practice. Scholars have critiqued shared responsibility as being more akin to the public ‘doing what agencies want them to’ (like creating their own emergency plans in order to better-help themselves), rather than sharing of much at all, and state that in order to share responsibility for disaster resilience, control over risk management decisions, actions and processes also needs to be shared. In disaster management at present, this largely doesn’t occur.

When citizens are engaged in disaster management and have been involved by their own volition, they are often seen as problematic or disruptive by authorities, as has been the case with some instances of spontaneous volunteering or the public’s use of social media during crises. While a policy shift has occurred from response to disaster risk reduction and resilience building (community engagement) over the last decade or so, I believe considerable cultural change in emergency organisations is still required to more meaningfully value and incorporate citizens and their knowledge into disaster risk reduction.

The field of citizen science offers important lessons learnt of relevance to disaster management. Citizen science refers to the practice of engaging members of the public in scientific research. Thanks to citizens observing, collecting, sharing and analysing data, a vast range of high-quality scientific research has been completed, much of which would not have been possible otherwise. If disaster management valued community knowledge like citizen science does, protocols and systems could be established to promote and encourage the most useful citizen practices and allow for improved harnessing of citizen action and community-supplied information.

  1. Can we better-incorporate and appreciate gender and sexual diversity in disaster management (policies, organisations, and research)?
    Here, there are three areas I believe need further attention: 1) considerations of gender and sexual minorities in responding to and managing disasters, 2) diversity of personnel in emergency organisations, and 3) diversity in research and teaching. Sexual and gender minorities are commonly recognised as a vulnerable group in disaster policies. Yet, research into LGBTIQ experiences in disasters highlights significant policy and practice failings (such as the lack of planning and provision for the safety of transgender people when using bathrooms in evacuation or refuge centres). These failings are often due to hetero-normative assumptions around things like what a ‘family’ looks like (e.g. a family with two mums may not be recognised in the same way as a family with male and female parents in policies in some jurisdictions). Heterogeneity within groups such as ‘gender and sexual minorities’, and that disaster risk is also experienced unequally within vulnerable populations, also needs further recognition in disaster policy (and in research!). Lesbians, bisexual women and queers of colour, for instance, were more vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina than white middle-class gay men due to lower incomes and the neighbourhoods where they lived being subject to increased flooding. Lastly here, and quite simply, failure to recognise people as anything other than male or female in disaster policy terminology highlights the shortfall between operational disaster management and the actual needs and makeup of contemporary societies.

blue diamond.jpg The LGBT+ rights group Blue Diamond Society in Nepal established a camp for LGBT+ people following earthquakes in 2015, as neither the UN nor the government delivered non-binary aid, despite Nepal legally recognising transgender people (image credit: Blue Diamond Society).

Emergency organisations have made concerted efforts in recent years to increase diversity in their ranks, particularly related to gender. But these efforts have largely been flawed (or at least limited) from the beginning in that they frequently consider gender diversity as an issue concerned only with increasing the proportions of women in organisations. While this is certainly needed, there is no question (in many societies at least, and especially in the West), that there are people who do not align with or identify as either of these binary terms. So, why is the discussion around gender diversity so often limited to male or female? I have witnessed a number of disaster management conference sessions and panels on “Diversity” that have not only focused almost solely on gender in the absence of other diversity challenges, such as increasing representation of sexual minorities, racial and ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, religious affiliations, or people living with disabilities, but have based diversity discussions on quotas for number of women in organisations. Such a narrow framing of diversity has a range of negative implications.

For issues of trust, risk communication, and the heeding of warnings, it is important that the people serving a community ‘look like’ the community, and thus in increasingly diverse societies, there needs to be greater representation of diversity in all forms in emergency organisations. In Australia at least, it is no secret that disaster management in practice is dominated by older straight white males, which may be difficult for many in communities to relate to. A lack of diversity also impacts the amount of and types of people who volunteer in disaster organisations. Volunteers are vital to many organisations, but again, if organisations don’t represent them, community members may not be inclined to join. Significantly, if the people designing and implementing disaster policies do not represent or at least appreciate the diversity of populations they are working for, disaster management in policy and practice will remain limited in its ability to adequately deliver its aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities (as per my first point in this section).

In academia, I believe we can do better here too. Emergency organisations are not unique in their often narrow binary framings of gender. In terms of further work, we need more research into experiences of gender and sexual minorities in disaster management in general, and into more nuanced and specific questions in a variety of contexts, such as exploration of differences between groups under the LGBTIQ umbrella, and further, between individuals within each of those sub-categories. In teaching on disaster management we could look to include perspectives from a more diverse range of scholars from various backgrounds. While I haven’t surveyed the suggested readings for my courses, my feeling is the author list is likely dominated by cisgender males, probably Caucasian and heterosexual too.

  1. Can we encourage more comprehensive and better-informed media reporting of disasters beyond crisis response?
    Mainstream media reporting on disaster management largely focuses on immediate response to emergencies. I appreciate this may make for a more exciting news story, but this presents a limited view of disaster management, which is complex and involves so much more than emergency response. Promotion of activities like disaster preparedness in news stories may be helpful for achieving some of the policy objectives mentioned above, such as disaster risk reduction and community resilience. Further, disaster impacts do not stop when the journalists move on, and the effects of disasters extend into the future, often for years. Yet, disaster recovery stories are rarely told (there are exceptions of course, e.g. Al Jazeera produced a number of follow-up stories in the years after the Haiti earthquake in 2010).Media tend to over-report the experiences of ‘home citizens’ in disaster areas, for example the stories of British citizens impacted by Hurricane Irma in the United States, or Australian and British tourists in areas impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. My colleague, Gemma Sou, has written on these and related topics, and calls for greater recognition of the impacts to local people in disaster regions. Further to this, I argue that increased emphasis on home citizens in the media discourages people at ‘home’ from relating risk to themselves (by ‘home’, I mean the country the media outlet is largely reporting to, e.g. BBC to Britain). Reporting on tourists in disasters contributes to a mentality that disasters happen ‘over there’ and people who go ‘over there’ are at risk, but they are safe at home, which is not an accurate narrative.

    Finally, western media could present a more global picture of disasters (particularly those claiming to deliver ‘world news’). During Hurricane Irma in the US, for instance, there were several ongoing disasters with impacts on populations comparable to Irma that received substantially less coverage (e.g. cholera outbreak in Yemen, floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a mudslide in Sierra Leone). Alluding to my points in section 3, media could also present stories on and from more diverse perspectives in delivering more global pictures of disasters (Research has shown LGBTIQ narratives are rarely told in mainstream disaster reporting, for instance, and news media influences both public understandings and disaster policies). Of course, I recognise the commercial impetus that influences what and how journalists and media outlets report on disasters, and the reality of providing content that will satisfy readers (paying customers). I would question, however, the role of national, largely government (or tax payer) funded news broadcasters. Are national broadcasters like the BBC or ABC (Australia) presenting the kind of balanced coverage of disasters we (I, at least) might hope for from a non-commercial service?

These are just some of the current research, policy, and practice challenges I perceive for disaster management, and of course there are many more. While we continue to conduct our work and engage in this field, whether it be through policy and practice, academic research, or studies at HCRI and elsewhere, I encourage us to be aware: aware of our relative positions and perspectives, and to increasingly consider the perspectives of others. I started this post by saying that disaster management is complex, and I will finish in recognition of that by calling for greater integration between individuals and sectors involved in disaster management, including academia, government and disaster organisations, the private sector, and, significantly, citizens from all walks of life, because complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions.