Incident commanders failing to respond to terrorist incidents

Insights emerging from the inquest into the London Bridge terrorist incident in June 2017 provide yet another point of validation of the problems facing the emergency services when terrorists strike. To date, the evidence emerging is that the track record of decision making is patchy to say the least.

During the Westminster Bridge attack armed police took over 40 minutes to arrive on scene at the House of Commons – by itself an extraordinary period of time. At the Manchester Arena attack a lack of understanding of what was actually happening at the scene caused the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to delay their response. On London Bridge it was the London Ambulance Service (LAS) that waited for three hours to respond. In each case there was a collective failure of command.

One of the positive outcomes of the London Bridge attack was the speed with which armed officers responded to the initial incident. Within eight minutes the three terrorists, wearing simulated suicide vests, had been killed. How this was not effectively communicated across the emergency services is unclear.

Sadly, eight people lay dying. Evidence presented to the inquest suggests that perhaps two of the eight might have been saved if the LAS had deployed to treat them quickly. Every member of the ambulance services will be aware of that vital clock, the ‘golden hour’ is ticking away in the background once a major incident, like a terrorist attack, occurs. And yet the senior commander involved presented evidence to the inquest that said he was unable to decide to deploy paramedics into the scene because of communications problems.

One question has to be asked: at what point are we all going to move away from the perennial response to any major disaster that communications caused the response to be delayed? Are we still so technologically in the dark ages to suggest that with modern social media capabilities that a more assertive risk assessment could not have figured out that the three terrorists were dead?

Once the terrorists had been killed at least two people had the chance of living if the LAS had decided to move its staff into the main area in Borough Market where people had been wounded. As their lives ebbed away pictures of members of the LAS standing around their vehicles at a holding point emerged on social media. Some had their hands in their pockets. They hardly looked like a team ready to respond. Sadly, for the LAS these images do not foster public confidence. Like the relatives who are searching for answers, the wider public have expectations of what a prompt response would be.

Without any doubt this is a serious example of command inertia and a failure to seize the initiative. Members of the public, who have expectations of the response of the emergency services, have a right to ask what went wrong.

It is all the more incredible that these three examples of inertia have occurred against a backdrop of training in the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Protocol (JESIP) to all members of the emergency services. The mnemonic METHANE is now written into the psyche of all first responders. And yet there are three examples from 2017 where 36 people died where evidence presented in inquests, public enquiries and their reports, such as Kerslake and its follow up reporting, have shown how woefully unprepared the emergency services are when terrorists strike.


“What is clear from all three incidences is that the JESIP training has singularly failed to produce a coherent response to major incidents”


Right Response to IRA Threat

Some context is appropriate. During the so-called troubles in Northern Ireland units of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) operated on the streets of the United Kingdom. Attacks in Guildford, Birmingham, Warrington, Brighton and London claimed many lives. But rarely did any coverage appear criticising the response of the emergency services. In the Grand Hotel bombing the images of people being evacuated from the rubble are still very vivid to those of us who witnessed the aftermath in the media.

The response of the emergency services to the Brighton Bombing and those in Warrington, Guildford and Birmingham were all rapid and effective. There is little doubt that the speed of response ensured people lived who might otherwise have died. It even saw the IRA change its tactics from no-notice attacks, such as the attack on the Conservatives Party Conference at Brighton, to issuing a warning. Their approach evolved from targeting civilians to causing economic damage.

While the IRA has not completely disappeared the nature of the threat environment in which the emergency services has to operate today is very different. Tactics that terrorist groups use suggest that their aim is to create significant numbers of casualties. There are even suggestions that those radicalised into terrorism now contemplate creating situations where they will create a two-phased approach to an attack. The first creating an incident as a lure for the emergency services; they can then be attacked, helping slow the evacuation of people to hospital, hence risking higher casualty figures which is their ultimate objective.

JESIP Failure

For the emergency services this complicates the situational assessment in which they have to deploy resources. The London Bridge incident is perhaps the most vivid example since the response of the North West Ambulance Service received so much criticism from even the then Prime Minister David Cameron to the shooting rampage in Cumbria carried out by Derek Bird. It was a historical legacy that the response of three paramedics from the service to the Manchester Arena attack did much to remove. Their decision to stay and treat patients was remarkable given the circumstances. As was the police response at the incident by members of the British Transport Police.

What is clear from all three incidences is that the JESIP training has singularly failed to produce a coherent response to major incidents. Whilst individual acts of heroism are clear in all three cases by both members of the emergency services and – very importantly – members of the public who are not trained, the coherence of the response is inadequate. Treating patients within an hour is not some benchmark that has to be attempted if it is possible. It has to be the standard.

So how does this problem of the response get addressed? The first and most important thing is that first responders must be given the clear goal of deploying into areas seen to be at risk on their own initiative. Where they cannot hear gunshots or hear over the radio that terrorists have been neutralised, they should, at the very least, be capable of mounting a snatch rescue, minimising their own vulnerabilities to potential actions by terrorists.

There is simply too much rigidity in the current operating protocols. To define a so-called ‘hot’, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ zone is far too simplistic and does not reflect the reality on the ground. Terrorists will always seek to operate in the grey areas in time and space that exist in what is often a fast-moving situation.

Goodness knows how the current doctrine and ideas would ever be capable of responding if one day the terrorists executed a plan effectively. In Paris in November 2015 they came close and set a new benchmark for a three-phased attack. Imagine what the death toll might be if that were to occur in the United Kingdom in the not too distant future?

Given this it is difficult not to conclude that the current JESIP training is inadequate and not fit for purpose. While it is helpful to have a standardised message format (METHANE), that does not of itself provide a solution. What is needed is for first responders to be trained to do their own situational assessment on scene and not wait for the police to (collectively) decide what is going on.

In a fast-moving situation asking the police to make decisions and then communicate that to other colleagues in the emergency services is not a sound approach. If, as history shows, communications issues are always cited as a problem, then remove it and delegate and support first responders that make decisions to act.

Detailed insights into all three events show that when first responders act at the scene lives are saved. What hampers the response is the protocols and command hierarchies that cause inertia. The way in which they operate requires a fundamental overhaul.

Military Model

In trying to solve this, lessons can be learnt from the military world. The idea of mission command is that higher levels of command set objectives, such as ‘save lives’, and that the means by which those objectives are achieved are worked out by those on the spot, who collectively can see the threat.

To make those dynamic risk assessments they – first responders – need to be realistically trained about the kind of variations in the threat that can occur and the options they have available to them. This involves a combination of desk-top training and live exercises where multiple threats emerge. Central to that training is the need for a comprehensive and independently audited forensic de-briefings on the decisions taken at the time. Those who are being examined need to be asked, what was in your mind at the time you decided to do that?

The approach that exercises are only conducted against simple exam questions also has to stop. Exercises are where decision making can fail. When terrorists strike the system must respond, dynamically, and not be seen to have failed. The time for communications issues to be cited as the reasons why the emergency services fail to respond in ways that meet public expectations have to be gone. As the threat from international terrorism continues to morph so must the response of the emergency services. Doing nothing is not an option.



PC Keith Palmer was killed during the Westminster Bridge attack not PC Keith Murphy as stated in the article ‘Lessons for incident commanders from Sri Lanka’ in the June issue. FIRE apologises for the mistake.

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