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The importance of record keeping and the pocket notebook in emergency incidents 

The police are used to keeping records and use notebooks at incidents as a matter of routine, but not so other emergency responding services, according to Jon Chapman, who takes a short look at record keeping at and around incidents, and why this is so vital.

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The sight of the police constable in the witness box referring to their pocket notebook as they answer questions from prosecuting or defence lawyers is very much part of our popular culture, enshrined in films and TV drama over decades.

It is almost inevitable during a police officer’s career that, at some point, they will be required to give evidence in a criminal trial, and the culture of use of the pocket notebook (which has official status, is police property and is subject to rules, procedures and training within the police force) and taking accurate notes at incident scenes is ingrained in the police force.

This culture of use of pocket notebooks goes beyond simply matters that might be required in evidence and includes all and anything that may have some bearing on the incident in question and subsequent investigation and inquiry. The key word here is ‘may’ because, until what has happened comes under investigation or review at a later stage, it is not really possible for those on scene to be able to sift out what may or may not be relevant later. So, the rule should be the more, the better, the principle being that someone else decides if a piece of information is not relevant. To borrow from Information Science, we could consider this the difference between ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘intelligence’.

The other emergency services (whether professional or voluntary) have not, in the past, been exposed to the same extent as the police to the possibility of their actions and decisions being scrutinised and questioned forensically at a later stage (which may be years after the event in question) and in a formal, judicial environment. But that is changing rapidly. The modern practice of public inquiries (such as that for Grenfell Tower), more frequent prosecutions for manslaughter by gross negligence, increasingly forceful investigations by the Health and Safety Executive and coroner’s inquests – which can be much more adversarial, with significant legal representation among interested parties –are all creating a climate where ability to be able to recollect what was said and done in operational conditions is vital.

Many parts of the emergency services do this reasonably well. Officers in the fire service receive an official notebook and some training in its legal use. However, it is at least arguable that others need to do more. Organisations within the emergency services, as a bare minimum, should have in place clear, auditable and properly communicated policies both on record keeping and pre and post-incident briefing, which are the subject of training plans, and that are reviewed frequently to reflect lessons learned from the experiences of emergency services personnel in the sometimes hostile environments of the court-room or public inquiry.

Areas that must be addressed include the following.

The pre-incident briefing: Once the call has come in from the relevant co-ordinating authority, there has to be a briefing somewhere (even en route) to those who are going to attend, with a skeleton record kept of what was said and done. The emphasis here is on brief! A number of organisations, including my own, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), have adopted the SMEAC system. This stands for:

Administration and Logistics
Command and communications

The system is a useful way of covering off what is necessary, can be done swiftly and allows (through, for example, dedicated whiteboards as crew muster) for a concise record of what was known and planned at the outset to be retained.

Contemporaneous record keeping: This is not just an on-scene command or senior officer responsibility. Everyone attending the incident from the emergency services should have a personal notebook (as the police do) and the means of making short memory jogging notes (even immediately after, on return to base) to cover: “All and anything that may have some bearing on the incident in question and subsequent investigation and inquiry.” The very best records are those produced as close to the event as possible, when memory and senses are sharp and focussed, and when discussions with others have not coloured recollection.

The notes should not just include facts but observations and impressions of the area, people around and so on. Trained emergency services personnel have very good instincts and these may be as useful an addition to the record as straight facts such as chronology.

There may be lulls in activity for short periods during a major incident – this is the time for notes! The point is that everyone has a potentially very different perspective on what happens and is seen and done at an incident, and all perspectives are of potentially equal value – so records produced from such perspectives may shed a unique and invaluable light on what actually took place and contribute to a really good overall account. There should be a culture of contribution to proper record keeping at all levels.

The post-incident hot debrief: Hold it as soon as possible, don’t delay. Everyone involved should be there, everyone should feed in, using contemporaneous notes as required, and someone must keep a full record, which is then kept safely and securely. Many organisations use a framework format to lend structure to the debrief discussions (for example, SPEP – Safety, People, Equipment, Performance).

Those emergency services organisations and their personnel who do not keep full records on and around incidents may very well find themselves having to give evidence at a later stage under significant pressure from highly skilled lawyers, and without an effective means of addressing points put to them which are wrong. The potential effects on morale and reputation are obvious.

Use of notebooks should be second nature to everyone in the emergency services, not just the police, as should recorded briefings and debriefs. When reliable and clear written records are available in the event of public scrutiny, the reputation of the service in question will be significantly enhanced. 

Jon Chapman, 21/08/2018
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