How emergency responders should tackle terrorist attacks

Aside from a small number of hate incidents perpetrated by people associated with the extreme tight wing and the occasional flare up in Londonderry, the UK counter-terrorism scene has been quiet from an attack perspective. With all the political focus on leaving the European Union it would be easy for the counter-terrorism scene to fall off people’s radar screens. That is quite understandable.

A detailed reading of the EUROPOL Annual Report, published in June 2019, and careful analysis of activities in the Sahel – the area from which the next major threat to Europe will almost inevitably arise – shows a more nuanced picture; one that points to the continuing threat from terrorism. The fact that the UK has decided to deepen its involvement in the counter-terrorism activities being led by the French in the heart of the Sahel speaks volumes for what the underlying intelligence picture shows.

It seems highly likely that despite things on the surface looking calm, underneath that exterior a great deal is still going on; something that no doubt the pace of activities in the security services as announced in the public domain would confirm. Attacks are still being prevented by highly coordinated efforts.

But as the pattern of attacks in 2017 showed, despite all their efforts terrorists will get lucky and be able to stay off the radar horizon of the security services and a public whose attention is focused elsewhere. Many may also miss signs that should be reported to the confidential hot line.

For members of the emergency services the lessons that emerged from the attacks in 2017 may soon fade into the background. The immediacy of dealing with terror attacks replaced by the normality of call-outs to road traffic collisions, house fires, summer heathland fires and soon, as autumn and winter approaches, the threat from flooding. Given the variability of weather even in August this year many who might have been sceptics would accept that climate change is occurring. The debate is really about its rate of change and the scale of impact it will have.

While climate change is of growing concern for the emergency services in the coming years, dealing with the aftermath of events linked to the phenomena is different from dealing with a terror attack. While the threat to life of both the emergency services and the public is a common factor, commentators are likely to be more forgiving in their criticism if that threat led to deaths when it was caused by a sudden tidal surge or an unexpected deluge of rain, rather than by people carrying knives or guns intent on mass murder.


“Defining so-called ‘hot’, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ zones in a rigid doctrine does not help; it provides an excuse for inaction”


It is an established fact that the so-called ‘golden hour’ exists. If people are the subject of a knife wound or injured by bullets fired from an automatic weapon their chances of survival diminish rapidly after an hour. This creates a time horizon in which an effective response by the emergency services can either be delivered or not.

Public expectation is clear that such a response will be forthcoming. The evidence from 2017 is that the emergency services have yet to fully mobilise the appropriate methods to do this given managers’ responsibilities towards their own staff. Committing people into harm’s way is not an easy topic for anyone to contemplate. It is unbelievably hard to ask colleagues to go into an area where terrorists might still be active and ready to turn on the emergency services as well as members of the public.

This is a problem that is very difficult to address. Discussions on it can quickly become emotional. What one person thinks they will do and how they will act under pressure is very difficult to predict – even for the individuals involved. Some, horrified by what they see, will be bound by a sense of duty to go to the aid of those who are injured.

This was clear in the London Bridge attack. Sadly one (off-duty) nurse who went into harm’s way paid for that decision with her life. If there was any need to understand the dangers, her death provides the example. Dealing with terrorism attacks is very dangerous.

But it is possible to deliver some guidelines that may help. For those involved in the immediate area of the attack, the single most important consideration is the geography of the location. In London Bridge it was clear, fairly quickly, that the terrorists where advancing along an approximately linear route.

But as they started attacking people their rate of progress became delayed. That meant people ahead of the terrorists gained time to disperse and the layout of the area gave them obvious escape routes. A flood of people moving in a single direction away from a threat will always have an opportunity to escape, unless they are being herded into a secondary threat. One thing for the first responders to bear in mind is, are they hearing or seeing on social media any examples of reporting that suggests that there are essentially two-phases or more to an attack? In Paris in November 2015, the attacks were carefully planned to shape the environment and the response of the emergency services.

Given this it is possible to offer an immediate piece of advice. If no reporting on social media or over the emergency services’ own communications networks suggests that other groups or teams are involved then they should not be assumed to be present. A time delay of ten minutes would provide an appropriate time in which to make an initial appraisal of the nature of the attack. By then it should be able to be characterised as a single or multi-phase attack.

If it is a single phase attack the concern, as seen in the attacks by David Bird in Cumbria, is can the attackers turn? Can they come back? This is a pertinent question. If members of the public have fled in front of the attackers and many have got away then for the terrorists a return to the locked-down restaurants and public houses that they by-passed in the initial wave of the attacks has attractions. If they can break into those locked-down locations they have a potential large group of people to attack. By staying put those in the locked down buildings have made themselves vulnerable.

This is where geography and the layout on the ground of crowded places becomes critical. If the terrorists have conducted a careful reconnaissance of the area beforehand, they will know how crowds may disperse. They will be able to guess the location of choke-points which might exist where a queue of people trying to escape may build up.

In the London Bridge attack, it was clear fairly quickly that, aside from those that chose to stay inside the restaurants and public houses, everybody else had escaped from the area. The terrorists, moving ahead and not turning back, simply went into a mode of attacking the armed police officers that confronted them, revealing what appeared to be suicide vests they were wearing. This gave the armed police officers little choice but to kill the terrorists, quickly. That occurred eight minutes after the start of the attack.

At this point the threat had been neutralised. But it seems that what was termed in the Inquest as “communications difficulties” got in the way. Well, every major incident suffers from communications difficulties. So, this has to be removed as a reason for inaction. What must happen, to save lives, is that members of the emergency services must be equipped with the skills and expertise to model – in their head – what is happening and develop their own (on the spot) situational assessment.

This idea is not so revolutionary. It is after all what the Fire Service use of recognition primed decision making is based upon. Regular practice on the fireground inculcates the ability of firefighters to quickly diagnose the source of a fire and to decide (from a menu of options) which is the appropriate course of action to deal with it. A first question concerning threat to life is a natural part of the response.

The question is, how to do this? All members of the emergency services should look at the idea of looking at a situation and being able to make their own minds up on the nature of the threat they face at a specific moment. Defining so-called ‘hot’, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ zones in a rigid doctrine does not help; it provides an excuse for inaction. When terrorists strike that is not what the public expect.

In that critical ‘golden hour’ the first responders at the scene should not be incumbered awaiting advice from their senior managers. They need, quite simply, to make their own assessment – based on building models as has been suggested, and decide what they can do; even if that means a snatch rescue. At least it gives those injured a chance. One thing would be for firefighters, for example, to not only continue to practice dealing with their routine activities but also conduct their own crowded place desk-top exercises, appointing one of their colleagues to act as the terrorist.

A quick visit to a local shopping centre or sports stadium would provide the basic level of understanding of how a threat would present itself. The development of a quick scenario for an internal desk-top analysis would then allow teams to play out how they would deal with a real event.

Practice, it is said, makes perfect. That some might argue is debatable. But practice certainly helps. If necessary, a standard (national) library of attacks could be developed that crews could practise on and have their response self-assessed. This would also be part of a wider CPD programme aimed at honing skills.

Through such an approach a greater degree of resilience would be achieved on the day that terrorists emerge from the shadows and attempt to conduct mass murder. Come the day when they get their planning right, the lives of many people will be at risk. On that day, how do we make sure that the age-old excuse that communications difficulties delayed the response does not happen again?

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