Exercise Unified Response teaches valuable training lessons to fire and rescue services

Published:  10 June, 2016

Devon & Somerset Fire and Rescue Service took part in Exercise Unified Response, the biggest emergency exercise ever staged in London, and which was hosted by London Fire Brigade. The exercise was created to test London's emergency services capability in working effectively together, as well as with other key agencies.

The scenario involved a building collapsing on Waterloo station. The training environment was was built using eight tube carriages, 1,000 tonnes of rubble and props including real tube ticket barriers, station platform and a coffee shop. Over 1000 people volunteered to play casualties.

As the amount of tunneling and large foundations for buildings continues in London and across the EU, the exercise was valuable as the lessons learned were transferable to other EU states, particularly large cities.

Peter Cowup, Assistant Commissioner at London Fire Brigade and the exercise director for Unified Response said: ‘We took the opportunity to combine a live exercise with a command post exercise; these are normally separate training events. This meant all levels of command and coordination were allied at the same time.

‘We employed every aspect of ‘Our Response’ to a major incident. By ‘Our Response’ I mean the emergency service community in the wider sense. We have significant involvement with London Police, London Ambulance Service, NHS and local authority colleagues; as well as specialised teams like USAR, Hazardous Area Response Teams (ambulance service) and Disaster Victim Identification.’

Over the four days 4000 responders were put through a significant learning event and for most this was the first time they had attended an incident of this scale.

Peter continued: ‘As you might expect from an exercise this complicated a number of organisational issues emerged, at the start. On the first day we learned lessons in quick time about how to facilitate the exercise particularly the scene at Dartford power station where there were 1,500 people. That was a massive challenge. Some things did not go as planned, for example the compliance of some of the volunteers as casualties was not what we hoped for. Overnight we took stock and learned lessons, and quickly got ourselves back on track.’

Working on site

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) from Devon Fire and Rescue Services were involved with the complex build and removal of the scenario.

 Nick East, Team Leader for USAR said: ‘In January a crew of seven attended for a week as part of the construction team and then returned in March to remove the exercise. When we arrived for the buildup we weren’t sure what to expect. We met with London Fire Brigade and only after a briefing realised how vast the size and scale of the exercise was. We then had to spend quite a period of time going through Health & Safety briefings, as the site was so dangerous to work on.’

The USAR team did a lot of heavy lifting which involved stropping and lashing some of the trains to the crane system that weighed up to 30 tons. They were also working in the dark in the buried trains that involved dusty, cramped spaces.

East explained: ‘We worked on the site mostly building access tunnels which in the scenario were walkways in the underground station, leading to the station platforms. From a team building point of view the exercise was a huge benefit. We stayed in very basic porter cabins, dormitory style with a simple shared washroom. This accommodation replicated an emergency deployment, as this is how we would be living. Over the week I saw some of the newer members of the team really develop their skills and confidence. The team throughout worked hard and well.’

Micky and Kes the two live scent rescue dogs from Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service spend a day on site. Paul West their handler spoke about their reaction. ‘This unique scenario gave Micky and Kes, an incredible training opportunity. The noise and commotion during exercise the put the dogs out of their comfort zone and they were worked on the dangerous rubble that was constantly moving as well as carrying out searches in dark, buried trains. If we had to do the job for real, I’m confident the dogs would be able to deal with it.’

Matthew Hogan, the work stream lead for the command post exercise based at London Fire Brigade, HQ said:  ‘It was really exciting to see so many groups working together so positively.  In the command post alone, there were 85 different organisations participating at various levels.

‘We worked with colleagues from both the public and private sector. This meant we were able to see how responders reacted to the incident, as well as how communities reacted. There were challenges along the way, but that is precisely why we do these exercises to improve in the long run.’

The exercise was also an opportunity to validate arrangements for integrating assistance from specialist teams like urban search and rescue that are based elsewhere in the UK as well as other countries in the European Union including international teams from Italy, Hungry and Cyprus.


To help create the hyper-realistic scenario, a pseudo-Twitter platform, called ‘Chirpy’, was live throughout, providing social media injects and giving responding crews and organisations more issues to deal with.

Suzie Izzard, PR officer from DSFRS assisted for two days working on ‘Chirpy’, sending out messages from different ‘personalities’ on social media, that had back stories and opinions. Responding agencies then choose whether to respond or react to the growing social media response.

In addition to the social media element, a pseudo-media company fed back news reports from the scene, including interviews with senior officers.  

Vicky Hardman, London Fire Brigade's news manager said: ‘It took a huge amount of organisation and co-ordination to bring everything together and the social media backdrop was a really important element to create the surge of public interest that would unfold in an incident like this.’

Unified Response wasn’t just about the rescue, it simulated the knock on effects such a catastrophic collapse would have on the infrastructure of London. Most of the transport network was ‘down’ for day one so Transport for London used the pseudo-media to redirect stranded commuters trying to get home. London Ambulance Service and Public Health England used the platform to encourage non-emergencies to avoid over stretched casualty departments.

In conclusion

Peter Cowup concluded: ‘What we achieved over this exercise, makes me really proud to be a London firefighter, but not just proud of London fire brigade, but of everyone that took part. It’s truly been a multi-agency event right from planning to the completed exercise.

‘The scene itself is incredibility realistic and this was created by firefighters and USAR from across the country and they need to extremely proud of what they achieved. 

‘On many levels we are already closely knit with the police and ambulance and this exercise has served to bring us closer. As we rarely do an exercise on this scale it takes our collaboration to a whole new level.’

Exercise Unified Response was part of the European Commission Exercise Program and is co-funded under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. 

  • Operation Florian

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