Lessons for incident commanders from Sri Lanka

Anyone in the emergency services who tried to explain the command structure for addressing a major incident to members of the public would quickly realise that the complexity of Strategic (Gold), Tactical (Silver) and Operational (Bronze) is relatively easy to understand. Most members of the public would understand the concept quite quickly. But below the surface it is far less straightforward.

What members of the public may fail to grasp is the order in which these command structures become activated. It is natural for people to think top-down. To believe that nothing happens until Strategic (Gold) has set the strategy. The response from the Tactical and Operational levels then follow.

In practice nothing could be further from the truth. As the example of the deployment of two tenders from the London Fire Brigade to what they thought was a road traffic collision on Westminster Bridge highlighted. The lack of an ability to rapidly, within slightly less than two minutes of the start of a terror attack, to what in intelligence circles is referred to as join the dots, was completely understandable.

Fast Moving Terrorist Attacks

Fast moving terrorist attacks are designed, by the perpetrators, to be complex situations. Events in Sri Lanka, Christchurch New Zealand and in Paris and Brussels aptly demonstrate this to be true. The aim of the terrorist is to gain the initiative. To make commanders in the Fire and Rescue Service hesitate.

During the very early stages of the Westminster Bridge attack two London Fire Brigade tenders, plus their crews, ended up being deployed near to where the attacker was stabbing PC Keith Murphy to death. They were in fact what had yet to be designated the hot zone; something that was to be quickly remedied.

As an example, it highlights the problems of sharing situational awareness in the early moments of an attack. Similar uncertainty prevailed in Manchester and during the Borough Market attack in London. It is axiomatic that in the first few moments confusion will reign. Despite all the efforts and discussions that have occurred after the attacks in 2017, a simple truism exists.

Anyone thinking that asking colleagues in other emergency services for ‘intelligence’ at this point before making a decision, has to accept a simple fact. If an attack has occurred the process of analysing and using intelligence has failed. Therefore, asking Special Branch or the Security Services for any form of real-time intelligence update is likely to be a waste of time.

The confusion in the early seconds of the attack at the Manchester Arena was acknowledged in the Kerslake Report. An untrained police officer thinking they had seen a bullet wound, when in fact they had seen the aftermath of the impacts of pieces of up to 2,000 pieces of fragmentation from the bomb on a body, provides a clue as to how in that confusion beliefs can spread as to the nature of the unfolding event.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that there was no active shooter marauding through the Arena due to a number of confusing signals and a lack of vital communications at a critical point, the initial prognosis was that a shooter was present. Given the evidence available Operation Plato was called despite police and ambulance officers being present on the ground inside the arena. They continued their work unaware that Operation Plato had been called.

Reading the report entitled Progress update on the Kerslake Report shows that, in part, some of the issues raised that night are being considered. But one of the worries emerging from the language in the report is the multiplicity of times references to METHANE are made.

It seems a lot is riding on METHANE to help underpin any emerging situational assessment and associated decision to deploy first responders; something that the operational level of command may be required to do well before any strategic considerations have been debated. With an obvious priority to save lives already minutes have passed of the ‘golden hour’.

While the structures imposed by having a standard messaging format are useful, indeed necessary, it does not mean their absence should create situations where operational commanders cannot make decisions. In those vital early moments, the lives of the victims of the terrorist attacks are literally bleeding away. Any hesitancy at this moment at the operational command level will have serious repercussions. If nothing else ‘snatch rescues’ should be contemplated, taking a risk to move patients quickly into safety.

Any system that relies on communications systems’ ability to work under stress is placing an awful lot of eggs in a single (potentially unreliable) basket. It is well known in the emergency services community that the first line of the next public inquiry can always be written now. Even before any event occurs.

Communications systems always provide challenges to their user communities. Even today, after years of being in service, the capability of the Airwave system is still being understood. And events in Manchester during the arena incident confirmed that this remains the case.

Instead of placing so much emphasis on METHANE, an alternative solution, which may be more resilient, is to give the first responders the authority to make decisions without having to communicate with a higher command authority.

Mission Command

In the military world this is known as mission command. It enables those at the coal-face of the terrorist attack to know, without having to consult, what the main focus of the strategic and tactical commanders will be. In a large number of possible situations one of the main priorities will be to save lives in imminent danger. That hardly needs to be said.

So how is it possible to make responses to fast moving situations more robust? For years psychologists have studied how firefighters make decisions in the early moments of arriving at an incident. En route they will have collected information from a number of sources and started to form a mental picture of what they will face. On arrival on scene that assessment is quickly confirmed. Prompt action to try and save lives at risk can then follow.

This research work led to the development and introduction into general use of Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPDM). The clue is in the title. ‘Recognition primed’ means that it is based on stereotyping the nature of the fire and quickly putting fire ground tactics to work. But a terrorist attack is different. In RPDM the box that asks the question is the situation which typically gets answered with a no. What the operational commander faces is a situation that is distinctly atypical. They question of how to deal with that is important.

At this point RPDM makes an allowance. It suggests that the commander ‘builds a story’ of what might explain what they are seeing. They attempt, by looking around them, to try and grasp what might be going on. This can be likened to writing a novel in real time.

What can aid that process, and lead to be a more resilient response, is if the operational commander has been given the background and knowledge of what terrorists are typically trying to achieve and examples of their modus operandi. Set in the context of real-world examples that many will have heard of but not understood.

Resilient Operational Commanders

Developing that insight through a combination of lectures and personal continuous professional development will undoubtedly improve the resilience of operational commanders. They will be able to make sense of what is going on around them. They might even, through social media, be able to piece their part of a jigsaw puzzle into a wider geographic content of other events they have heard are in motion. A rapid analysis of that, plus discussions from operational commanders at the scene, will enable rapid risk assessment and deployment.

Complex attacks will have the possibility of involving multi-point attacks. These may happen quickly, or be spread out in time. The terrorist can choose the time and place of where they strike. But if they are working to a timetable and are aiming to draw fire-arms teams away from the central point of their attack, then the crowded places which may be that focus of the attack would quickly become obvious.

In New Zealand the authorities quickly worked out the attacker was focusing on mosques and were able to ram his car off the road as he tried to reach his third target. This is a classic example of what is known as getting inside the enemy’s decision-cycle. If operational commanders can do this by prompt action, it is they who gain the initiative, not the terrorist. This is very likely to see lives saved before the strategic commander even writes down one word of their guidance.

Given the scale of attacks like those in Sri Lanka, Paris and elsewhere and their direct ability to sow confusion in the response, it is vital that dependence of communications systems is limited. Just because one can communicate it does not mean that people should communicate. Any time spent talking to people, other than fellow operational commanders on site, should be kept to a minimum.

Those in the faccent events prove that extremists are planning ever-more deadly attacks, it is vital that membe of the threat should be empowered to address it and do what the public expects of them – to save lives. By giving the right training and by defining what is meant by command discretion, the emergency services can take an important step forward to making their operational response resilient. Given reers of the emergency services are correctly prepared to deal with their immediate aftermath.

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