I need a hero…

Jun 21, 2019

Following the inquest into the 2017 London Bridge attack, Charlie discusses the heroic actions we see during incidents and why we should champion those that do something extraordinary.

The news coverage of the inquest into the London Bridge attack caught my eye this week. Earlier in the week, the newspapers were reporting on the role played by the ambulance service. I am not quite sure what my emotion was as I was reading the coverage, whether I was shocked, surprised or angry at the ambulance service’s response. The article said ‘The ambulance chief admitted failures that led to a delay of up to three hours before specialist staff were sent into the area to treat some casualties’. The article also commented that ‘at one stage a senior ambulance officer asked for volunteers to go in with armed police to help the wounded because procedures said that they should not go into a designated ‘hot zone’ – even though the attackers had been killed within 10 minutes’. These actions seem similar to the actions of the fire service during the Manchester Arena bombing, where senior managers ordered fire crews to hold off going to help those injured in the arena, due to procedures for entering an area where there may still be marauding terrorists.

Their actions strongly contrast with the actions of British Transport Police officer, Wayne Marques, who rushed to the aid of those being attacked on London Bridge. Armed only with a standard police baton, he battled with all three attackers and was stabbed eight times. His intervention delayed the terrorists attacking other members of the public until armed police response units arrived. Wayne Marques was awarded the George Medal, one of the highest accolades for a civilian.

My first thought on the ambulance service’s response at London Bridge was, where does bravery end and stupidity start? I don’t believe the ambulance first responders were not brave, they just stuck to the orders they were given and the procedures they had been taught. Presumably, the procedures they were following had been developed to ensure that ambulance first responders didn’t get deployed in an area where they could get caught up in the incident, become casualties themselves, and add to the magnitude of the incident. Should they have ignored their orders and ‘done the right thing’, by deploying at the scene of the incident? Were they thinking if they did that, they may not have been seen as heroes, but would be disciplined and possibly lose their jobs for disobeying orders and placing themselves at risk? I think this dilemma has to be down to individuals and how they read the situation – perhaps instinct just kicks in. I am sure if PC Wayne Marques did a dynamic risk assessment, the most likely outcome would be to remove himself from the situation as there was a high likelihood of him being killed, but he didn’t, instead he disregarded his own safety and tackled the three men.

There is definitely a stupidity end of ‘heroics’. A little while ago, I heard a story from a client which is a case in point. They had a large campus site where a number of long-term laboratory experiments were taking place. On a Saturday, a gas leak was discovered in the main building. The gas valve to the building was 10 foot down a shaft under a manhole cover, very close to where the strong smell of gas was located. The only other way to cut off the gas supply was to turn off the gas supply to the whole campus, which would have turned off all the heating to the whole site and, as it was winter, could have affected the long term experiments. The FM Manager, thinking he was doing the heroic thing, held his breath, opened the manhole cover, climbed down the shaft to the building’s gas valve and turned off the main building’s gas supply. He was somewhat surprised when he was disciplined for a health and safety breach.

So, if we agree that heroes can come out of disasters, why do we need them and who can be a hero? At the moment I am reading ‘Narratives of Crisis: Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal’ by Matthew Seeger and Timothy Sellnow, and they give us some of the answers to these two questions.

Firstly, why do we need heroes during disasters? In disasters, those who are involved, witness them or even hear about them in the media have a feeling of loss of control, helplessness in the face of forces we can’t control and, if the incident is a deliberate act, such as terrorism or an active shooter, the wickedness of man. If the act is unexpected, this compounds the feelings. By exhibiting ‘self-sacrifice, resoluteness, altruistic behaviour, rising to the requirements of the situation’, a hero challenges the feelings brought on by the disaster and restores our faith in the world around us and humanity. We need heroes to emerge during a crisis to restore this equilibrium. Often the media is on the lookout for a story which they can use to turn an act by a person or a group of people into a hero.

Who can be a hero? In ‘Narratives of Crisis’, three different groups of people are likely to become heroes:

1. The Citizen

This is someone in a disaster who rises to the occasion and shows bravery, often in the face of grave danger, or gives their life for others. In the London Bridge incident, another recipient of the George Medal, posthumously, was Ignacio Echeverria. Ignacio was a Spanish lawyer and banker, who fought off the terrorists with a skateboard, saving the life of a French woman and letting others run to safety. He is a very good example of someone who rushed to the aid of others and tackled the terrorists, without a thought of his own safety, and paid the ultimate price for his heroic actions.

2. First Responders

Although they are trained and expected to go into dangerous situations, they are often described as heroes for going above and beyond what is expected of them. Images of firepersons dashing into buildings and emerging with people they have just saved often leads to hero status. A good example of this is the reverence given to the New York fire-fighters, who responded to 9/11 with 343 of them being killed during the response. PC Wayne Marques is another good example as well.

3. Crisis Leaders

Out of some disasters emerges a crisis leader, who injects ‘resolve, strength and resilience in managing the event’. They take command of the incident and bring certainty and order from chaos. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s response to 9/11 was a very good example of this. He had low satisfaction ratings among New Yorkers before 9/11, but he rose to the occasion and became a symbol of New York’s resilience and resolve in the face of the attack.

So, as business continuity people, what does this mean to us? When we are faced with an incident, we should be keeping an eye out for someone in our organisation that has done something extraordinary and champion that person’s actions in our narrative of the incident. This could be by making their story available to the media, mentioned by spokespersons and referred to on press releases. We must note that some people are reluctant heroes and may not want to tell their story for various reasons, but by identifying heroes we can start the restoration process following an incident.

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