Bulletin / It was the...

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times... Observations on the Manchester Bombing

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

This week Charlie discusses the recently published Kerslake report into the emergency response to the Manchester Arena attack. 

As per my title, I would like to look at a couple of items from the Kerslake report, starting with ‘Major areas for learning’, before moving on to discuss ‘What went well’ and ending with my observations on the spirit of Manchester, demonstrated by the public doing extraordinary things to help those in very difficult circumstances. Perhaps in business continuity we concentrate too much on the negatives and what went wrong, rather than on what went right and why it went right!

As I often say in these bulletins, reports are an ideal method of learning for the business continuity manager, as they are usually very well researched. This means you have access to all the facts and the lessons learned are laid out clearly, so they are easy to find and understand. Even if the incident, location and industry affected is not necessarily relevant to your organisation, there are always general lessons which can be learned.

In the ‘Major areas for learning’ section there were two items which caught my attention and have been quite widely reported in the news. The first was the failure of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to arrive at the scene of the incident for nearly two hours, and therefore played no role in the initial response to the incident. This was due to a number of factors, but the main one is they had a plan in place which stated that they would not go to the scene of an incident if it was thought there was a marauding gunman. They would only go to the incident once the location had been secured by the police and the gunman/gunmen neutralised. This was depicted in a plan called Operation PLATO. For the first two hours of the incident, the fire service stuck with this plan, until it became obvious it was a lone bomber and they were needed at the scene. 

This shows the danger of having very rigid plans and sticking to them, rather than being more flexible in the approach and adapting the plan to the needs of the incident. Perhaps, and this is my thought rather than what has been reported, the lack of response was also cultural. We saw from the fire response at Grenfell that there was no lack of bravery by individual fire-fighters to tackle fires, however those deployed to holding locations 2 miles from the location of the bombing were held back by senior managers. It appears to me that in some parts of the fire service there is an over-reliance in sticking to rules rather than adapting a more pragmatic approach.

There was a case in 2008 in which Alison Hume fell down a mineshaft. For various health and safety reasons, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service took six hours to rescue her. She later died. The fire managers on the scene stuck ‘slavishly’ to health and safety rules, and in the end, she was rescued by Police Mountain Rescue. In this case, there was a lack of pragmatism and they stuck to the rules, rather than bending them in the interest of the victim of the incident. So, my first point is, are your plans too ridged and do your staff know that the plans are for guidance and may have to be adapted on the day? Do your incident teams feel that they have the authority to adapt the plans or will they await higher authority teams to tell them what to do? Perhaps it should be written prominently in your plans to say if in doubt “do the right thing”.

The second learning point is about the setup of the casualty bureau. Vodafone had a contract to provide a ‘National Mutual Aid Telephone system”. On the night of the incident the system failed, instead of a national number there was only a local number published and it was not up and running until several hours after the incident. The report said “the failure was a cause of significant stress and upset on the night for the families involved, who were seeking to find out more about the situation of their loved ones”. The failure led to families having to travel round the hospitals in Manchester trying to find out information. 

If we are paid as a third-party supplier to provide a service in an emergency, then it is all too easy to take the monthly payments and hope that the service will work on the day, secretly hoping it will never get used. In the same way that we get paid each month by our organisations to ensure that we are ready to respond. We must make sure that when called upon, our plans will work and not have a server failure, which is what happened to Vodafone. As we have seen from the report, failure of response gravely impacts on people and makes their already bad situation worse.

I don’t think anyone could not feel proud to be British or Mancunian after the whole area’s response to the incident. There were many individual acts of kindness, both immediately after the bomb and also long after the event. Incidents often bring out the best in people and this should be celebrated. I also like in this instance the determination of people to not be cowed by the bombing and get on with their daily lives.

I will leave you with this comment from the report. Have a good Easter!

“The Panel heard that Mancunians took this attack on their city personally. The determination of the citizens and organisations of Greater Manchester to carry on was linked to the strong civic and community leadership evident immediately and visible in the presence of leaders and members of diverse faith and community groups on the steps of the town hall and filling Albert Square for the first public vigil less than 24 hours after the attack. This vigil on 23rd May was supported by over 4,000 people despite the country’s threat level having been raised to Critical.”




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