Brian Dillon says that the contemporary response to terrorist incidents requires an integrated service from media and communication departments with the traditional operational elements
General views of emergency services on Westminster Bridge, London on March 22, 2017 (Alex Huckle/SilverHub/REX/Shutterstock)
The United Kingdom’s 2003 Civil Contingencies Act places an obligation on the emergency services and other key authorities to: “Maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred.”
This is an entirely rational objective; but since this legislation was framed, the scope of communication channels available and the speed with which information is transmitted have combined to create something of a conundrum. In a terrorist situation, how do the authorities, with an onus on reporting factually, warn and inform the public in a timely manner?
In London, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, the emergency services and public authorities work in partnership to develop protocols to co-ordinate their services at a time of crisis. In cases of terrorism, the onus is on the police to take the lead in warning and informing. Once again, this seems to be a logical step and perhaps for the uninitiated it may seem that providing this information should not be difficult to achieve. The reality, of course, is that delivering this effectively is anything but simple.
Mark Rowley, the national lead for Counter Terrorism Policing and the Acting Deputy Commissioner, gives a press statement on the incident (photo: Metropolitan Police)
In London, the Metropolitan Police Service receive approximately seven emergency calls per minute, per hour, per day. Each call is answered, on average, within 11 seconds and the operator then has to make sense of the information and if necessary dispatch officers to the scene. Once officers arrive they must gain situational awareness and report their findings back to the operations room.
The next stage is for decisions to be made as to the wider implications of the incident and which organisational levers need to pulled to draw in additional assets; this includes public messaging and co-ordination with partners.
Thus it can be seen that a walk-through of even the most routine of incidents takes time and involves numerous actors in the process. For these reasons, the public messaging issued by the Metropolitan Police Service and their partners in the wake of the attack on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 provides a useful benchmark of good practice.
According to information publicly available the attack started at 14:40:08 and ended 82 seconds later when police shot the assailant. Within that brief period the first emergency call was made at 14:40:59.
At 14:48 the Metropolitan Police published its first tweet in which it advised that it was aware of a situation on Westminster Bridge and at 14:52 it issued an update warning that it was being treated as a firearms incident with police on the scene.
Tweets by the London Metropolitan police helped to keep the public informed
As events continued, other services and relevant organisations rapidly joined in. For example, at 14:52 the London Ambulance Service tweeted it was attending the incident and at 14:54 Transport for London (TFL) issued its first warning of road closures and travel disruption. This continued so that the public was advised, in broad terms, about what was happening, linked to the areas to avoid and transport options.
The important point in this is that the authorities made sure their messaging was linked to their core business and complemented other agencies’ activities. Inevitably in a major incident, the volume of messaging and information increases. Therefore this requires discipline by the authorities to scythe through superfluous material and stay focused on their task, linking utterances on Twitter with the objectives of the operational commanders.
Agencies co-ordinated their public information and retweeted important updates from other agencies as part of the response to the incident at Westminster
Each tweet has to assist, not confound the responders at the scene and the public caught up in the scenario. In the messaging that was released there is clear evidence of a co-ordinated response by all relevant organisations, which also saw requests for public assistance and retweets of important updates.
Another significant aspect is that responsible organisations acted on the information in order to warn their own Twitter followers. For example, the United States Embassy started issuing updates from 14:59 onwards and encouraged its followers to monitor updates from @metpoliceuk; similarly, the French Embassy was swift to engage in retweeting police updates. The local commercial partnership, Victoria Business Improvement District, recognised the need to warn its followers to stay away from the area and local hospitals tweeted for staff and visitors to remain on site until an all clear was given.
This is not presented here as an account based on an exhaustive data analysis; numerous other organisations acted on the police Twitter feed, not just those listed here. Nor is it argued that Twitter is the only method of communication. It is accepted that not everyone uses the application and that that there are commercial providers of communication platforms in use by many companies.
The essence of this blog is to highlight that the contemporary response to terrorist incidents requires an integrated service from media and communication departments with the traditional operational elements. Their engagement in adding value to the situation is essential; it ranges from providing reassurance and guidance to potentially life-saving information.
This requires media personnel to have an awareness of some tactical elements, but also proximity to the command function and devolved decision-making, so that information can be released expeditiously without requiring sanction from high command. Moreover, media departments must be fully interoperable with their peers in allied organisations. This takes time, effort and commitment to train and exercise together.
The evidence from the attack in Westminster is that London’s emergency services and partners have done just this, to develop an ability to operate swiftly, working in concert, to support the frontline and protect the public.