Picture credit: Surrey Police.

Fire & Rescue Q2 PREVIEW: Floodfighters Conference

Published:  12 May, 2014

Floodfighters – SAR to Resuscitation took place 26 March in Poole, UK, bringing a rich feast of cutting-edge knowledge to an expert audience: here is one of the presentations from the day. ‘2013, 60 years on from 1953 – lethal storms and sea surge, how are we doing in flood rescue response?’ Deputy Chief Fire Officer Roy Harold, Norfolk FRS.

In 1953, a devastating storm surge flooded wide areas along the low lying coastlines surrounding the North Sea. Many hundreds were killed in the UK, Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, and there was substantial damage to infrastructure and industry. There was no prior notice, and national governments did not become aware of the disaster until the rescue operation was well underway.

In 2007, a similar storm surge was forecast 48 hours in advance, and warnings were circulated along the East coast of England. CFOA’s national flood support team coordinated mutual aid from across the UK, and 40 flood rescue teams were deployed into the risk area before the tidal peak hit the coast.

Following the 2007 floods, Sir Michael Pitt’s review set out a list of recommended actions at national and local levels. Some, but not all, of these recommendations have been put in place. The Flood Forecasting Centre, jointly established by the Met Office and the Environment Agency, now provides world-leading predictive information on severe weather impacts, giving reliable flood assessments 2-4 days ahead of time to an accuracy of 1km2. DEFRA, as lead government department for flooding, has sponsored joint work by CFOA and the RNLI to produce a Flood Rescue Concept of Operations, and provided grant funding which has seen the number of flood rescue teams available for national deployment more than trebled, and provided over fifty flood rescue tactical advisors on call to assist local responders. So, we now have some of the best early warning systems in the world, and far more tools in our flood response toolbox.

However, one key recommendation from Sir Michael Pitt has still not been implemented – Number 39:

The Government should urgently put in place a fully funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role, underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty.

No progress has been made on implementing this recommendation in England. No single agency has responsibility for flood rescue. This contrasts with the positions in the devolved administrations, were the role is now clearly placed with the Fire & Rescue Service. In the absence of a clearly stated national position, local resilience forums across England have made their own determination of who will do what in their own local areas. Whilst this locally determined position for managing emergencies works adequately for a single incident which falls within the boundaries of an individual LRF (think Buncefield) it is a recipe for confusion for wide area, long duration incidents, which affect multiple LRFs and pay no heed to administrative boundaries. In such circumstances, a coordinating function needs to sit between COBR and local Strategic Coordinating Groups, to collate forecasting information, consider threat assessments, and balance requests for mutual aid against available resources.

This requirement is not unique to floods in England – indeed, DEFRA sponsored the author to visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington DC in 2011, to review lessons identified in the United States after Hurricane Irene. There, the pre-existing arrangements for national coordination, which involved a volunteer rota of civil servants standing up an emergency room, were found to have failed in the face of a long duration incident covering a wide area – the volunteers simply could not sustain the tempo of demands for technical information and support. As a result, the US established Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT’s), made of a permanent staff of professional emergency managers, who are trained and equipped to provide specific gap-filling support to assist and augment local emergency managers, who retain responsibility for resolving emergencies through the same principles of devolved command (aka ‘subsidiarity’) found in England.

Government guidance on flooding, published in 2013, followed up on the IMAT principle by setting out procedures to establish an operations and logistics cell to support central government contingency planning in the event of a wide area flood. However, during the 2013/14 winter floods, this cell was not established. As a result, there was no single place nationally where forecasting information could be brought together with information on population and infrastructure threats, and technical expertise on available flood rescue resources. Mutual aid resource requirements were raised at LRF level, escalated to DCLG’s Emergency Room, and authorised for deployment via the Fire & Rescue Service National Coordination Centre. But in the absence of a single “information hub”, those local requirements were met on a first come first served basis, with no matching to national strategic requirements, or oversight to compare and align local and national perceptions of risks and resources.

What this meant in practice was that in December, East Coast LRFs that have long practiced together under the auspices of the DEFRA East Coast Flood Group enacted their contingency plans on receipt of the flood forecast. Predeployment of mutual aid was requested and actioned, with teams in place ahead of time from Humberside to Suffolk. However, available resources had been used up by the time Essex and Kent requested mutual aid, which meant that Essex got some of what it asked for, and Kent got nothing. This reflects the assessments of likely resource requirements that have been undertaken on behalf of DEFRA, which indicate that a full blown East Coast tidal surge would need more than 500 specialist flood rescue teams – the national flood rescue asset register currently has around 130 teams listed. There are not enough resources to deal with an East Coast tidal surge. Therefore, those resources that are available have to be rationed carefully against national rather than local priorities.

In the Thames Valley in February, there was no predeployment of mutual aid in response to flood warnings. National flood rescue resources were only requested after the flooding was already extensive, and then only in small numbers. Whilst support was brought in through local bilateral arrangements, and in large numbers from the military, at no time were more than a minority of available specialist flood rescue teams called upon. This contrasts strongly with the situation for high volume pumps (HVPs), which are unequivocally a fire and rescue service national resilience responsibility. Every single HVP in the country was deployed, at the same time as the great majority of flood rescue teams were standing idle. That those teams were needed was indicated by a request to supply drysuits to the military for the use of troops wading through cold, heavily contaminated flood water – it is hard to understand the reasoning behind wanting to take equipment from trained flood responders to give to untrained military personnel, so that they can do tasks which the flood responders have declared they are available to do on a national basis. Although the majority of flood rescue teams declared to the national asset register are from Fire & Rescue Services, a significant number come from the voluntary sector, in what is very much a multi-agency collaborative model. It was particularly disheartening for those volunteers, who have given up much of their own time and energy to provide a resource, to then not be called upon, whilst being bombarded by media images of ill-equipped and apparently adhoc efforts to reduce the impact of flooding.

So, how to resolve these concerns? Fortunately, the principles are already well established, and the resources exist, albeit in limited numbers. Wide area floods are long duration events that transcend local resilience forum boundaries. They are not no-notice events, and nobody in the UK should ever be surprised by a flood. We do not currently have enough response resources to cover every request, so will have to ration what is available to the highest priorities. Those requests will not just be for rescue, but will extend to protection of infrastructure and resupply of stranded communities. To deal with those requests, we have a toolbox made up of a multi-agency group of trained flood responders, and a cadre of specialist tactical advisors. We also have a ready made national coordination function to provide command and control facilities, in the shape of the CFOA National Resilience Team (NRAT) and the FRS National Coordination Centre. All that we lack is the clear strategic intent in Whitehall as to what to do with these resources.  We have a box of tools, but no clear idea of what we want to do with them.

Three simple steps would transform our national ability to manage wide area floods:

  1. DCLG’s Emergency Room should be run by professional emergency managers, led by the Chief Fire & Rescue Advisor. The NRAT team are a standing resource that could and should provide a UK equivalent to the FEMA IMAT.
  2. Trained flood advisors provide a critical support function, and should be automatically embedded into national and strategic coordinating groups, not restricted solely to tactical level command support. Without their expertise, well meaning but ill-advised proposals, such as that exemplified by the drysuit request, will continue to appear and circulate.
  3. The government’s guidance on flooding should be followed by the government – the operations and logistics cell is a vital information hub that needs to be established as a functioning reality, not just a concept.
Fire & Rescue Q2 will be published at the end of May and will carry more presentations from the conference.

  • Operation Florian

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